I was studying in my freshman dorm, Gilbert-Addoms on East Campus. 

A table away, a guy sat, also glancing occasionally at the TV, so we struck up a tentative conversation. He had on a worn T-shirt of pastel greens, blues, and pinks with an unfamiliar name in script. I couldn’t figure out how to pronounce it, and since we were having a pleasant talk, I asked, “What’s that mean?”

He looked down at his chest, then up, and said, “It’s ‘Maui.’ ” Tossing his hair, he added, “It’s where we have our second home.”

I digested what he had said. His second home? People have second homes. That was something I knew but had never thought about. Where I’m from, most people owned one home and they scrimped and saved for years to get it. Then they worked harder to keep it. I answered reflectively: “Well, we only have one home.” 

Not quite the snappy comeback I’d have wished for, but they never materialize at the critical moment. 

This guy looked like most of the other guys in the dorm. Medium-tall, medium build, fluffy side-swept bangs, and clothes that looked ordinary, like he had bought them from Citadel Mall back home. He wouldn’t have stood out in a crowd. 

And yet, I thought: These people are not like me

The conversation petered out, because, I think, we were both feeling a little sheepish and not sure how to go on. It stayed with me and colored my perceptions on campus for years to come.

At Duke, I figured I had found a cohort of liked-minded kids driven on academics, ambition, and professional aspiration. After that conversation, I wondered about the ways I was unlike the kids I interacted with every day. Were there many other things I didn’t have that were just ordinary to them? Was there a secret syllabus of experiences I wasn’t even aware of? Was I clueless about a rubric that I wasn’t following? How many other things separated our worldviews?

I had gone to public school, and I knew many or most of my college classmates had graduated from a private school. Some, like my sophomore roommate, had gone to boarding school, living away from their families for most of the year. My study had been mostly self-directed, without paid tutors. I never took an Advanced Placement course. High-school classmates had come to me for help with their homework. 

I grew up in a home that my father—a high-school football standout, Vietnam War veteran, self-taught carpenter, and ultimately, building contractor—financed with a G.I. loan. Our two-bedroom ranch, built on a former agricultural field, was next door to my mom’s parents’ home. 

We lived in a neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina, that had once been a self-contained town, with its own police force, mayor, and town hall. It thrived for decades until the city annexed it; now it’s a suburb. A state highway split the sprawling former town into fractured pieces. 

Most of my neighborhood playmates had grown up there, just like generations of relatives before them. Families were close-knit and everyone knew everyone else’s business. Parents drilled into their children the importance of owning your home. 

When I was in middle school, my parents decided the ranch was too small for them and three growing children. It was time to build up. 

For months afterward, I woke to the sounds of hammers and saws every weekend as my dad, his friends, and our cousins and uncles built a second story. The house grew from single-story with two bedrooms and one bathroom, to a two-level with four bedrooms and three bathrooms. It gave us a sense of pride, along with elbow room. It represented the progress we were making as a family.

Now a conversation with an unknown guy in an aging dormitory commons room presented a complication. It discouraged me, on some level, as if people were covertly shaking their heads about how little I fit in. I took that feeling into my classes; for instance, that the long-winded fellow in the elbow-patches jacket in philosophy class had a big advantage over me. He looked like the T-shirt guy but with an ostentatious pipe tucked into his pocket. A turning point was noticing that Elbow Patches had gotten a worse grade than I had on a philosophy paper. A letter-grade worse. 

Another was returning for sophomore year and noticing how many people from freshman year weren’t there. Some of them flunked out, friends told me. Others just couldn’t handle college. That wasn’t me. I was pumped and aimed at the finish line. 

There was no distinct “aha” moment that righted my thinking and helped me regain my confidence.  It was a slow realization, based on mini-affirmations.

One important one was an impromptu pep talk after a particularly tough economics class. My professor looked like a grown-up, more prosperous version of Maui Guy and Elbow Patches. I was frustrated. After class, I told him I didn’t understand the concepts as easily as some people probably did. I hadn’t grown up with my own investment portfolio. 

Look, the professor told me in a conspiratorial whisper, I didn’t grow up with money. It didn’t just come to me. I had to learn all this. Apply yourself. It takes effort but you can get it. You could have knocked me over with a feather. It was the last thing I expected to hear. 

Maybe more than one home wasn’t nirvana. Had Maui Guy emphasized “second” home because the people he was used to had more than two homes? Was that a signal that even with a second home, he wondered whether he measured up?

Ultimately, it didn’t matter. I accepted that we weren’t homogenous, straightened myself up, and kept applying myself to my education. 

It turned out okay. I went into a career, journalism, that thrived on inconvenient answers and people who didn’t fit neatly into a structured corporate environment.  

I bought my own home, and it suits me fine. 


Ladson Wilson '86 is an image and style expert who lives in Durham. She is a wife, a mom, and forever a journalist. 

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