There are many places one might begin the story of my time in college, but I suppose the best would be the beginning.
It began with debt. Hmmm. Or perhaps not. That was a beginning, but not the beginning.
No, it began at University. I went to learn of ancient civilizations and untold truths. And then I found out I was just supposed to get a piece of paper that told employers I’d learned something. If I wanted to I could learn, but it wasn’t necessary. If I wanted, I could also pay an extra thirty-five dollars and have the piece of paper placed in a wooden frame.
Paying extra, I would quickly learn, would become an integral part of this story.
But I digress. No, the true beginning was, as with most things, sometime before the beginning as most people saw it. And as with everything else, it was made better with a sweet Patrick Rothfuss reference.
My college adventures had their roots in my always being pretty smart.
I could go on and on about why this is true, beginning with being told I was slow in school and teaching myself to read out of pure spite. I could tell you about good grades and free food from local restaurants after report cards. I could not, however, tell you all this without bragging. So maybe just take my word for it.
Yes, I was pretty smart. And that would inevitably be my downfall.
I’d pretty much decided that I would go to college by the time I was ten, because that’s just what smart people did back then. My resolve was only hardened at the end of high school when I realized how rapidly I was approaching either a military stint or homelessness otherwise. To say nothing of the lifetime of being told by older relatives and almost hourly commercials, it would dramatically increase my earning potential by a million dollars. Or more! Why, passing up college would have been akin to putting a million dollars in a pile and setting it ablaze.
To prevent that, I put $140,000 in a pile and set it ablaze instead, then didn’t get the million dollars either.
People look back on decisions like that and scoff. “You should have known it was smarter to get right into the job market. That’s what I did.” They’ll then mockingly buy me a small newsboy cap just to toss some spare change into it and laugh drolly.
At which point I usually just wonder why they didn’t use their amazing prophetic abilities to tell the rest of us about the impending decade-long recession due to terror attacks and subprime mortgages.
That’s the thing, though. There’s no arguing it. In 2001, going to college was the only way to succeed in life according to literally everyone who was giving advice on the subject at the time. A solid four-fifths of my graduating class was going to one flavor of college or another, even though not all of them were what you’d call “college material.” Back then, you were forced to go to college at expectation-point. Which, in all fairness, isn’t quite as daunting as gunpoint, but still.
The very suggestion of doing something else was ridiculous. If you told someone that you wanted to drop out of college and marry your dog, they’d give you a worried look and say, “That’s insane! Do you realize what that would do to your earnings potential?”
Then, they’d circle back to dog marriage. If there was time.
Why mention this point at all? Well, I’m going to be poor pretty much the rest of the story. Being poor was the very essence of my college experience. If they turned the whole thing into some sort of sitcom (and given what I’ve seen on television lately, it’s not entirely unlikely), they’d probably work it into the title somehow.
It also saves me the trouble of touching on each and every avenue for making or saving money. Yes, I worked during college. Yes, I applied (and received) scholarships that stopped after my first semester for no reason despite earning a 4.0. Yes, I filled out the FAFSA but was dismayed to not see a checkbox for “Parents have good earnings but will not help me pay tuition in any way.” The end result? Please see my previous paragraph.
For the next five years (we’ll get to that little Van Wilder-esque wrinkle later), I would be poor and starving and desperate in a way you wouldn’t think possible in a first world country. And it was an amazing experience almost from start to finish.
I point out this second detail – it being amazing – because so much of comedic writing is based on complaining about life’s little trials rather than celebrating its joyous occasions. It’s why comedians rarely talk about their significant other giving them an unexpected back rub after a hard day of work. And why they’re always talking about traffic. Or taxes. Or the lines at the DMV. (Amirite?)
Or the unexpected back rub I once got in line at the DMV.
College was expensive and scary and embarrassing and on two separate occasions I found myself stranded in another state with no shoes. And it’s easy to focus on the poverty and fear and shoelessness. Even though I loved every moment of it.
Except for Statistics, which I contend is the mathematical version of diarrhea, and the single worst waste of my time all four times I had to take it to pass. (That isn’t the reason for the wrinkle I mentioned earlier, for the record. Though, it certainly didn’t help.)
And thirdly, I want it to be clear that for me there really was no alternative to college. So when I hit some inevitable low points in the story and people wonder why I didn’t just do something else, I hope this explains it. Trying to understand my actions in 2001 with a 2017 mindset would be like me trying to come up with an analogy on short notice – pointless and, I don’t know…handsome?
So, just keep all that in mind going forward. I may not always mention my poverty, but I was poor. I may not mention how worthwhile the experience was – for my growth as a person if not the promised earning potential – but it changed my life. And from beginning to end, I never had a choice in the matter. Looking back, though, I can only say that if I had the chance to do it again, I would…definitely consider it. Possibly.
And that, I think, is a good place to stop for now. Just before the beginning of the start of the story. Finally.
(Oh, and if it wasn’t clear, this is still a “Story Time” column – the same one from a week ago – just with that part of the title dropped. It saves me some space to use bigger and far worse puns that way.)