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David Romtvedt ’72 is associate professor of creative writing at the University of Wyoming and author of Powder River Breaks: A Cowboy’s Introduction to American Poetry and A Flower Whose Name I Do Not Know, among other works. Romtvedt was named poet laureate of Wyoming in 2004. His poetry awards include the Pushcart Prize.

David Romtvedt ’72

I’ve heard it said that it is impossible for us to accurately see ourselves, that even when we look in the mirror we are posing. I attended a grade school Christmas concert this year and at one point a first grader’s mother raised her camera and aimed it at her son. The boy turned to the camera, quit singing, and smiled, staring directly into the lens, the opening that is so like an eye but not. The mother was getting the camera arranged and so didn’t immediately snap the picture. The boy kept standing there, grinning, not singing, the pageant going on around him.

In the fall, I was at a public event and a friend came up to tell me that someone had approached him to ask, “Who is that distinguished looking gray-haired gentleman?” It was me. I should have been gratified that I had against all odds become distinguished but, instead, I was shocked—I don’t have gray hair. I’m supposed to be writing a note to the me that I was as a Reed student but I see that I’m at the mirror. Only thing is I’m the guy in the mirror—the image—and the Reed me is the one looking in wondering who that could be.

Here’s something more straightforward—be happy, a little happy anyway, life’s not so bad. And you could listen to other people more closely; look at life from their point of view. Man, the things
that happen to people, it makes the skin crawl. When I finally open myself to the events that have shaped another person, that person comes to life before my eyes. Not an image I’ve invented but
a real person.

I wrote a poem about this and I see it should be dedicated to you.

Arrested

I was a working class kid from southern Arizona
who wanted to go to college. Not just any college
but one I thought was good and important
so I would be, too. It had to be unusual, radical.
Not Harvard or Yale, those holding tanks
for America’s business elite, for those anointed by money
and historical privilege. I picked this place in Oregon
called Reed, applied, was admitted but didn’t tell
my father because he would say I couldn’t.
He thought college was a waste of time.
He thought I should get a job as a musician.
That would keep me from busting my butt laboring like he did.
He said that playing music would be a good easy way
to make a living. On the day before I left home
I told him about college. He said, “No. You can’t go.”
I said, “Yes, I can.” And drove three days to Portland.
My father called the Arizona state police
and reported me as a runaway so the Oregon state police
had to pay a visit to Reed. No one wanted to arrest
a boy for going to college and between them all—
the dean and the policemen from two states—
they convinced my father to let me stay.
When I tell people that college was the most powerful thing
that happened to me, that it changed my life,
I feel good and I hope that other young people
can have such an experience. But now my father is dead
and it occurs to me, after so long, and you’d think a smart boy
like me could have figured this out way quicker, that my father
knew this and feared that my change meant I would be lost forever
to the world that gave me birth, his world. And so, with no other tools
that would do the job, he gave up and tried to have me arrested.