It was somewhat as she had recalled, but a number of things were different.  New buildings had sprung up that still couldn’t compete with the historic beauty of William and Mary’s traditional structures.  Meadow located a parking spot, paid for a ticket from an automatic dispenser, and then locked the truck.  Les had been more than understanding when she had returned with news of all that had transpired in the western part of the state.

“You’ll be needing some more time off,” he began, “and the truck is yours for as long as you need it.” In truth, he had agonized over the years about Meadow’s lack of opportunity.  He knew of her gift but had no idea how to prompt her in that direction. Now that a remarkable door had opened up to her, Les wasn’t about to get demanding of her time and commitment to the restaurant.

She had done her research on the college and understood, then, its significance to the American narrative.  Opened in 1693, it was the second oldest college in the entire U.S.  King William III and Queen Mary II of England had founded the school in that year and the name stuck, down through the centuries.  It survived both the American Revolution and the devastating Civil War.  It became a powerful source of bright minds and dispositions for successive American federal and state governments.

It was the first college in America to teach political economy and went on to become the first university in the entire country.  Thomas Jefferson had worked hard to assist the college in secularizing and modifying its curriculum.  Law became its focus in those early years, thanks to Jefferson’s influence.  The college’s Marshall-Wythe School of Law became the oldest law school in the United States.  It became the first college to admit women in the year 1918.

Eventually, art studies, especially regarding art history, took on importance in undergraduate programs. Meadow couldn’t find out if any well-known painters came from its halls, but she did discover that a large number of graduates were taken on as art historians, curators, painters, sculptors and history educators across the country.  Currently, William and Mary housed almost 7,000 students on a campus of 1200 acres.  The previous year, it had been ranked 38thon the national list of the best colleges and universities.

Attempting to locate the registrar’s office, Meadow was delighted to see trees hundreds of years old spread liberally across the entire campus, especially around its traditional buildings.  Eventually she found what she was looking for – a weathered old building with four storeys of offices, designed in a “U” shape.

The appealing structure had a title over its impressive front door – Sir Christopher Wren Building. She spotted an information plaque on the lawn in front of the steps and learned that it was the oldest college building still standing in all of the United States, even though it was built very late in the 1600s.  The wording proudly proclaimed that the site itself was the “soul” of the entire campus.

She moved up the steps, bracing herself to open its massive wooden door.  Surprised to find it easy to swing, she entered the front hall and looked at the administration listing of offices and names.  Unsure which way to head, she approached the front reception desk and asked directions.  She was told to take the stairs to the second floor and look for the Admissions Office.

When she arrived, a young woman working on a flat-screen computer smiled, asking how she could help. As Meadow attempted to explain her circumstances the woman’s face became a map of confusion.  “Why don’t I get you the Admission’s Clerk – Mr. Broadberry? I’m sure he’ll be able to at least get the process started.”

Five minutes later, she entered the office of a man almost 6’5” in height, with flowing grey hair and a dignified air.  Used to complex situations, Broadberry heard her out, growing more interested by the minute.

“Do you have any paperwork confirming your tuition to the college?” he asked in a kindly fashion.

“All I have are these two pieces of paper – one official looking and the other a personal note from my parents informing me of my opportunity to come here.”  She passed them over the desk.

He scrutinized the letter first, sympathy spreading across his features.  “You say that both of your parents are gone?” he asked.

“Yes, my father only a few days after that note was written.  My mother died 10 years later but she never regained proper brain function due to catastrophic injuries.

“Miss. Hartley, first let me say how sorry I am for what transpired in your family.  It’s tragic.”  Meadow only nodded, remaining silent.

He then looked at the official form, combing over every word and seemingly registering everything. Suddenly he looked up.

“Might I ask your age, Ms. Hartley? I presume you will be coming as a mature student, should you be accepted.”

“I am 36 years old.”

“I thought so,” he said. “I have some interesting news for you. The then-Dean of admissions, Margaret Gonder, is now the vice-president of the college.  To our delight, she refuses to retire.”  He then looked across the desk at her, as if thinking. “Would you mind waiting here, Ms. Hartley?  I’ll be right back.  Give me five minutes.  Would you like a coffee or tea, by the way?”  She agreed to coffee and settled back in her chair, alone in the impressive and expansive office.

It was more like 15 minutes before he reappeared, followed by a dignified older woman, dressed impeccably and sporting short while hair.  Meadow found herself liking the woman immediately.

“Ms. Hartley, please let me introduce you to Vice-President Gonder.”

Meadow knew this was a face she would not forget – not because of its features but because this woman seemed like a direct link to her mother and father.  The older woman caught the look, cocked her head in interest, and then held out her hand.

“Ms. Hartley, you represent one of the shadows of our past as a college that we were never able to reconcile.  It is remarkable that you are here at all, and even more remarkable that I am still here to see this day.”

Meadow wanted to hug her but her professional demeanor left her unsure.  She was left speechless.

“Harold, why don’t you grab us some coffees from the kitchen and meet us at my office?  Give us, say, 15 minutes.”

The tall man suddenly looked embarrassed.  “Actually, I was supposed to get that coffee for Ms. Hartley a while ago.  My apologies. I will see you shortly.”  He held the door open as the two women made their way up one floor.

The office was spartan, mostly lined with books.  The walls were filled with photos of Margaret Gonder and numerous high-profile figures. Instead of seating herself behind her mahogany desk, the vice-president motioned to a conference table and then positioned herself directly beside Meadow, instead of in the chair opposite.

“I met your parents, you know,” she said.

“I figured you might have,” Meadow responded.  “I was here with them once for a tour of the art facilities, but I knew they came occasionally to Williamsburg.”

“They brought me some copies of your work back then, and I was impressed.  But I wasn’t an artist, so I asked some of our faculty with expertise in that field to join us at the time and give their verdict of your work. It was immediately clear that you were a prodigy – which prompted me to ask your parents why you would come to William and Mary.  We are a great school, but our chief strength is law, not art.  Both of them were clear that they were rooted in the history of Virginia and that they desired for you to attend a college in-state.”

Meadow looked at her curiously.  “Can I ask what you thought of them?”

“Certainly,” the older woman answered compliantly.  “They were dedicated to you obviously, but what I recall best was just their basic goodness.  They were salt of the earth kind of people and they really believed in things like democracy and community.  It’s likely you take after them somewhat in that, true?”

“Actually, no,” her guest replied.  “I think I was there once, but life took a sudden and violent turn after the car crash and I’ve spent my years just trying to survive.”

Gonder eyed her appraisingly.  “Would you mind briefly filling me in on what transpired after the car crash?  I often wondered because I never heard from anyone again about your future.”

Just then, Broadberry arrived with a tray of hot drinks and placed it on the table.  “Why don’t you stick around for this, Harold?  I think you might find it interesting,” the vice-president said.

Meadow took the next 20 minutes to explain the developments of her life – her mom’s illness, the depletion of the will, the hard years of toil in the restaurant, and then the dream and the fortunate circumstance of running into Duyi Koay once she was in Clifton Forge.  When she was finished, she reached out for her cup of coffee and drained it.

Margaret Gonder leaned back in her chair and stared out the window.  It was a remarkable story – a story that ended abruptly.  Her visitor was staring back and forth between her and Broadberry, clearly wondering what to do next.

“And now you would like to enrol here and perhaps catch up on those 20 years?” she asked.

“I would, yes, but it depends on the circumstances … the finances, I mean.  All I have is the piece of paper I showed you, but I don’t really know what it means.”

Both faculty members looked at one another briefly, aware that they were in unique circumstances. “What it means is that you are welcome to enrol for our September session, specializing in the arts.  I realize that it’s pointless looking over your high school marks, after all you have been through.  You are a mature student and likely will show more dedication to the craft than many of your younger counterparts.”

“How much is the tuition?” she asked, embarrassed at having to speak about money.

“Well, while out-of-state tuition is $44,700 a year, those living in the state of Virginia need only pay $21,830 per year.  And then there will be residence fee on top of that.  All of our first-year students are required to stay in-residence for that year.”

Meadow held her breath. That was roughly equivalent to what she earned each year at the restaurant.  Tentatively she asked, “The paper that my parents left me said something about a pre-paid plan; can you tell me what that means?”

“Well, it’s interesting,” Gonder began.  “Other than the years of war, we haven’t been in a situation like this as a college where someone’s tuition is paid but not utilized for over two decades.  You will be happy with the result, however, Ms. Hartley. Because of our school policy that respects the limits of tuition not rising once paid, the cost to you will be what it was some 20 years ago – $7,400 per annum.”

“What?” their guest blurted. “I hadn’t expected anything like that.”

Harold Broadberry broke into the conversation, noting, “What is true for tuition is also true for residence. You will be charged roughly a quarter of what the costs are today.”

Meadow put her face in her hands, fighting back the tears.  She now realized that her parents had thought of everything – though they could never have known they wouldn’t be around to witness it.

“I’m sorry; I’m a bit overwhelmed,” she said.

“Your story in itself is overwhelming, Ms. Hartley.  Our college was established all those centuries ago to specifically help citizens better themselves through education, moral diligence and experience in a broader world.  You, just as much as anyone else, perhaps even more, fit that criteria.  And with your gift as profound as it is, the world is destined to be blessed by what you will create.”

When Meadow didn’t say anything, Broadberry added, “The teacher-student ratio at 10-1 is one of the lowest in the country, but in the arts department the number sinks even further to 7-1.”

“What do I need to do – to get started, I mean?”

“Well, you’ve already been pre-registered through your tuition program.  When you didn’t materialize two decades ago, all that we could think of doing was investing your tuition for interest purposes.  You will be delighted to learn that, though your tuition costs will be roughly 7,000 a year, the funds in your tuition account, with accrued interest, amount to almost $47,000 over that same period. And it is your money to spend as you wish.”

Thinking about it, Meadow realized that all of her costs of living and more would be at her disposal thanks to her parent’s foresight.  “Who would have thought?” she said out loud.

“Perhaps it would be correct to say that your dream came true – the one with your father in that old schoolhouse.” When she had finished her sentence, Margaret Gonder stepped towards her guest and held out her hand.  “After seeing your work once more, it is my feeling that you are going to bring great honour to this institution, Ms. Hartley, and we couldn’t be more pleased.”

Meadow turned to shake Broadberry’s hand before asking, “Would it be possible to see the art building?”

“Already taken care of,” came the response.  “Harold will take you through the art complexes himself.  Take your time; this is about to become your new home for the next four years.”

Waiting outside the wooden front door for Broadberry, Meadow permitted her eyes to roam over every part of the campus that she could see.  Her life was now before her – a new life and opportunity – thanks to her parents.  She recalled once more what her father had tenderly said to her on that day putting the paper in the secret nook: “Someday, when you come back for this, you will understand just how much Mom and I love you. I can’t wait.”

And now there was no more waiting – only a future of brushes and paints.  For the briefest of moments, she thought of that older woman she had painted only a few days previous – herself in later years.  “We are about to meet again,” she said quietly to the woman.


Next post – Epilogue (Final Chapter)