George Mason University fans cheer on their team during the Patriots' 86-84 overtime victory over Connecticut in their NCAA regional semifinal, March 26, 2006.
What a difference a weekend makes. This time last Friday, you'd never heard of my school. Today, the only way you would have missed mention of the George Mason Patriots is if you hadn't been paying attention.
And if that is the case, you'd better start.
Liam Callanan wrote his first novel, The Cloud Atlas, at George Mason. He now teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
We're the Patriots, but we're better known by a much less attractive name: commuters. As in commuter school, the favorite put-down for colleges everywhere whose students sleep elsewhere at night.
Commuter school: Surely you know one, probably near where you live. Commuter makes it sound like it's an issue of cars and buses, but everyone knows it's really code for the issue of haves and have-nots.
And commuter students are clearly have-nots, thanks to all they usually do have: like jobs to pay for school, and kids, and debts and deep-seated desires they know they'll need a degree to fulfill. Never mind that Mason has thousands of students living on campus, in dorms. The name sticks, the acres of parking lots belie the point: commuter school.
There's been talk now of trends, of how so-called small schools like Mason are a rising force in basketball. But that misses the bigger trend, which is that big schools like Mason are a rising force in college life. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities reports that today, the majority of college students are "non-traditional." They're older. They go part-time. They commute.
I went to Mason for graduate school, and later taught there. And sure, I remember athletes in my classes. But I also remember the young women in headscarves and running shoes. I remember the guy with the pager and cell phone, overstuffed briefcase and tie, trying to study his way out of a dead-end career. I remember the student with the great, take-charge attitude, well-honed from working what seemed like a dozen jobs. She was so busy, she Googled and called up the author of a short story I'd assigned and asked him to summarize it, since she didn't have time to read it.
I remember the day a young mom started crying before class; she loved the class, but her child care had fallen through. Two months left in the term, and this would be her last day. Another mom came over and gave her a hug. She didn't say, "we'll figure it out," because it wasn't that simple.
For millions of students today, life isn't that simple. Family or work or perhaps even tragedy gets in the way, and suddenly, sleepover school isn't an option. It wasn't for me; as an undergrad elsewhere, I had lived on campus; but at Mason, I was busy not just with school but changing my life. I slept at home.
George Mason plays the University of Florida Saturday night in the semifinal. But just making it to the Final Four is already a win for this entire class of colleges — commuter schools — that do an extraordinary job of accommodating, and improving, the complicated lives of some extraordinary students.
But what does basketball have to do with those complicated lives? Maybe nothing. I didn't play basketball at Mason. Or maybe everything: I studied metaphor at Mason and learned to recognize a good one, like a game that celebrates hard work and endurance, where the players are always coming off or returning to the sidelines.
I can't predict the next game's outcome, but I can say this: that a great, non-traditional school like George Mason attracting this much attention proves you don't need dormitories or squeaky bunk beds to dream.