Never A DoubtPosted: October 21, 2011
Bob Dylan was a man of change. And while I am most certainly not, I am making one small change for today’s post. I was inspired after hearing this quote by the great musician: “This is a true story. It comes from the newspapers. Nothing in this story has been changed but the words.”
The following is exactly that. After so many posts about what other people are all about, I figured I was due to shed some light on the one person about which I’m most familiar: me. So here it goes:
“Ha!” my father screamed over his office telephone. “Congratulations! We’ll have to celebrate sometime.”
I was fourteen, and had just told him that I received a C+ in ninth grade speech class. He was often too busy to hear the words that left my mouth, and often forgot how and when I came about, as if me and the fading orange corduroy La-Z-Boy might have been brought home from the same flea market the year he and my mom first moved in together.
It wasn’t that he didn’t care. Quite the contrary. He cared so much that he spent the majority of his time working to keep my sister, mother and me afloat in a near-tony suburb of Chicago. It was the town where Michael Jordan lived during his string of championships with the Bulls, but we couldn’t seem to afford the basic fanfare of Air Jordan shoes when it was social suicide to wear Tretorns and K-Swiss.
I had always been a terrible student. If I got a D for effort, it was usually out of kindness or pity or the sheer unwillingness on the teacher’s behalf to put up with me for another semester. I wanted to do well. The other kids, with their Celica convertibles and glow-in-the-dark wristwatches, all seemed to do just fine. Hell, many of them got paid for it. Fifty bucks for a B. One hundred for an A. That kind of graft wasn’t built into our family budget. I sometimes now wonder if cash had been on the table, would I have suddenly found myself wearing bowties to school and saying, hey, see you tomorrow to the librarians—who, of course, I would have known by first name—as I left at the end of a long Friday grind in the resource center. Would Harvard and Yale have been tugging at me from either side like two obese twins pulling at a Laffy Taffy? Would the Princeton Review have been pasting my face on public transit benches nationwide? As I hover over my thesaurus to identify the distinction between fantasy and possibility, I succumb to the notion that the only thing money would have accomplished in the motivation category is to allow me to buy one of those fancy hunter green JanSport backpacks from Marshall Field’s instead of the crappy yellow one from Marshalls. Either way, it would have sat empty in my locker as homework was the hangover I avoided to the alcoholism of my education.
By some sort of cosmic chain of events, I graduated from high school and was looking forward to college. At my high school graduation, I remember my father putting his arm around my gown-covered shoulder.
“Well, it wasn’t easy. But you did it,” he said. “I always knew you would.” He furrowed his brow and tucked his lips inside his mouth. I couldn’t tell if he was restraining himself from laughing or from crying. Looking back, I should have known it was both.
After a year-long boarding school stint at which I enjoyed my fifth year of high school and earned my second high school diploma, I enrolled at Ohio University. I was convinced that the admissions board must have skipped over my GPA and test scores, immediately seeking out the section of the application where I had checked off the Holy Trinity of College Application Boxes: (1) Will pay out of state tuition; (2) Does not require financial assistance; (3) White, neither Latino nor Alaskan Native.
At the time, the school boasted a top-ten (or so) undergraduate journalism school program. Breaking local news, however, wasn’t really my thing. Maybe I listened to the Doors too much back then or wore too many turtlenecks, but whatever the reason, poetry was the sort of writing that I was passionate about at the time. The problem was that I couldn’t find a curriculum with classes called Spending Time In Coffee Shops, Rhyming Is For Children, or Drinking Is Best Done Alone. So, breaking the news became the only other option. Surprisingly, the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism failed to see my potential as a newsy scoop-getter or as a chiseled-chin anchorman, a day-drinking ad man, a hip magazine editorialist or even a gossip-mongering public relationist. But, I took the Journalism School tour nevertheless. There had to be a way to get in.
“This is journalism,” said the professor/tour guide, who was so robust that it would have been indecent of him to eat his meals anywhere but in the privacy of his own home. “Poetry doesn’t belong here. You need to go to the English department. It’s over there,” he pointed to his left through a concrete wall off to an invisible destination.
Was he telling me to go? I was astonished. It was rude, and it made him an incompetent tour guide. I wanted to launch an insult his way because, well, I was nineteen and ridiculous. But I wasn’t in any position for that sort of nonsense. I needed him.
“So,” I said with despair, looking as though I might cry, “I can’t be a journalist?”
Somehow, he took pity on me. Perhaps he had been bullied as a kid and saw a similar devastation in my face. Whatever it was, it worked.
“Tell you what,” he said, testing the will of his suspenders with his free thumbs. “Why don’t you talk to Dr. P about this. He’s a poet and a professor here at the J school. He’d be a good person to talk to.”
The man showed me and my mother—who was along for a mix of support and her love of travel to any destination where wine might be served—to the office of Dr. P. I pictured this, um, doctor, in a black beret, a creepy thin mustache, a tweed blazer with elbow patches and—because we were in Ohio—white sneakers. As we waited outside his office, seemingly for many minutes, my mother realized that we were late for another appointment.
“We’ll come back,” she promised. “This is important.”
The appointment was with the dean of the Journalism School. To avoid unpleasantries, let’s call him Pinhead. Pinhead had been around for at least ten years, maybe more. He was tall and thin, wore glasses and had thinning, white hair parted on the left side of his head. It was eerie how much he looked like James Cromwell, the actor who had played everything from a guest on Little House on the Prairie to Jack Bauer’s father. But this man was no Jack Bauer; he was a nerd. And he read over my transcripts and application, leaning back in his brown leather and pushpin chair, swiveling a bit from side to side.
After clearing his throat as a signal to let us know he was prepared to communicate with us non-journalist lesser life forms, he said, “Well, it seems like we have made the right decision here. Your grades are lackluster, your extra-curricular resume is desperately in want, your test scores are average, and your essay essentially summarizes what those facts have already told me.”
“So,” my mother said, narrowing her eyes and straightening her back, “What are the odds that he can transfer into the Journalism School after his freshman year?”
I didn’t think Pinhead’s response was intended to be rude, but it certainly came out that way. “Zero,” he said, folding his arms and tucking away his hands.
“Really?” my mother said angrily. She had always been my biggest defender. “He has zero chance?”
“I suppose there is always a chance,” Pinhead said. “If he gets straight A’s, becomes very active with, say, the school newspaper, then he can certainly apply for a transfer at the end of his freshman year.”
“How many people transfer in as sophomores?” I asked.
“Typically no more than four,” Pinhead said. “Three or four from outside universities and then perhaps one from within Ohio University.”
Essentially, the transfers were people who wanted to study journalism and had gotten into much better schools. And once at those schools, they realized they felt more comfortable being the big nerd in the proverbial small science class and transferred to Athens, Ohio, to take up space in the program in which I so desperately wanted to be.
“So,” I tried again with pouting lips, “I can’t be a journalist?”
We were down, but by no means out. There was still one more hope: Dr. P. Like one more glass of Seagram’s whiskey in Charles Bukowski’s hand as he’s dragged out of the bar at closing time, I grabbed tightly onto the doorknob to Dr. P’s office and barged in unannounced. Thankfully, it was his open office hours for students and he mistook me as one—until he shook my sweaty palm, looked into my wide, anxious eyes and saw my mother walk into the room. I always blamed her for being the dead give away, but I did enough damage on my own.
He was extremely kind and thoughtful. We spoke about his poetry and his forays into journalism, both as a magazine writer and as an author on the subject of journalism ethics. I was endlessly excited and uplifted, figuring if we could both write a poem, then, surely, we could both be journalists and published authors. The future bylines were already streaming before me, awaiting with anticipation my frugal word usage and instructional punctuation.
As luck would have it, Dr. P happened to be on the board of appeals for admission to the Journalism School. He encouraged me to appeal immediately, to provide writing samples and a reworked essay. My mom and I thanked him an inappropriate amount of times and left hurriedly, before he had a chance to realize that my attention span was limited to seventeen minutes and that my mother was starting to itch for a glass of Pinot.
Upon returning home, I tasked myself with finding poems I had written, rewriting my essay and filling out any necessary paperwork. This exercise chiefly consisted of nagging my mother to do it all for me as I sat back in the desk chair looking helpless as she bent around my side to access the computer. When it came to picking out the proper poems to send, she picked the ones that rhymed, as she felt poems that didn’t rhyme weren’t worth the cheap, single-bound paper they were printed on.
“Shakespeare’s works all rhymed,” she said. “And he was no slouch.”
She was the best when it came to homework-related activities, paperwork, and deadlines. I think she wrote half of my high school English papers, which says very little considering the grades I had earned—or rather that she had earned. Having her do that stuff became second nature to me. In fact, sometimes, even now that I’m much older, when I’m writing at the computer, I look around the room to make sure it’s actually me sitting here writing these words. Check.
As the weeks passed, I nervously awaited the decision of the review board.
“Do you think the essay was good enough?” I asked one day.
“The essay was fine,” she said. She was always very confident in her work. Yet, here we were.
“And the poems?” I asked, biting at my fingernails. “Did we send the right ones?”
“The poems were wonderful,” she said. “C’mon, they rhymed.” See what I mean?
Then one day the letter came. When I got home from school, my mom was sitting at the kitchen table holding a white business envelope in her hand.
“I wanted to wait until you got home,” she said, and handed me the envelope. It had clearly already been opened and taped back shut. I looked at her and she raised her eyebrows as if to say: What? It came that way!
I didn’t mind, since any success belonged to both of us. However, if I got rejected, the failure was all mine. I slowly pealed back the Scotch tape and pulled the letter out of the envelope. My heart was beating so hard it actually hurt. The moment felt like a vision. It was as if I weren’t actually standing there, but instead watching myself from half an inch away. Unfolding the letter, I read the first line. It read: Mr. A.C. Repine. I was relieved. The letter was indeed mine. You never know, right? Next, I read the first paragraph. They had let me in. Dr. P ended up being my saving grace. It was a real cause for celebration in our house that night. My father came home from work early, gave me a hug and turned on the Cubs game—his longest and truest passion. My mom drank a glass of wine, and I got stoned in the back yard by myself. We all ended up on the couch together, watching the game in our own private heaven.
When I got up to go to bed, my father turned around and said, “You did it, kiddo. I always knew you would.”
That September, I packed up and headed off to college. I graduated four years later—on time and with honors (which is an entirely different story). I was no great academic mind. The Journalism School, as it turned out, was so desperate to ensure that their graduates got the best jobs that they handed out A’s like joints at a Phish show.
Shortly before our graduation, it was announced that Pinhead would be retiring at the end of the year. On one of the final days of classes, just before exams began, I saw him walking in the hall just a bit in front of me. I decided that I wanted to say something to him. I wasn’t sure exactly what, and I had never spoken to him since that day years earlier when my mother and I were visiting. When I caught up to him, I reached out and grabbed at his elbow, which now seems a bit maniacal, but at the time seemed to be the only way other than calling out, “hey, Pinhead, turn around!” He turned around and lowered his head in anticipation of my words.
I paused for a moment, still forming my thoughts, and finally said, “Four years ago, you told me I’d never get in to your school. Well, I did get in. And I aced it. So, thanks!”
A warm smile overtook his face. He reached out, grabbed my hand, and shook it gently.
“Congratulations,” he said. “I always knew you would.”