Life, Sans Degree

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Here’s how my high school guidance counselor helped me get into college some 15 years ago:

Me, sticking my head in the door to her office: “Hey, I got an eleven-hundred on the SAT. Do you think that’s good enough to get into Georgia State?”

Her: “Yeah, that should be fine.”

End scene.

That was it. That was all the help I got. Neither of my parents had gone to college, and both had desk jobs in air conditioned workspaces, which was better than their parents (who also had not gone to college — or necessarily finished high school for that matter) had it.

I carefully considered my options. I would be paying my own way, and could live at home as long as I helped pay a bill here or there. My high school GPA wasn’t good enough for a scholarship, but I could get loans and, maybe, a Pell grant. There were two public colleges within driving distance to my house (three, counting Georgia Tech, but there was no way I had the math and science skills to apply for that school): Georgia State University, in Atlanta, and the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.

Expensive college

This is Wellesley College, which Forbes ranked among the best private schools in the Northeast. You’ll pay more than $50,000 to go here. I got kicked out of my in-state public school for $300 I didn’t have.

I fumbled through applications for both, finishing them in the small hours of the morning on a school night and mailed each the next day from a blue mail dropbox in front of what was then a Winn-Dixie. West Georgia accepted me right away; Georgia State wanted me to finish a math class I was taking first and then send my transcripts again (Algebra II, which I was taking for the third time), which I did, and was then accepted there as well.

Since Georgia State was a little more stringent in their application requirements (and since their tuition was actually a little lower at the time), I decided to go there.

I was excited. I was in college. For the first time in my life, I’d actually have an advantage: a college education. I was excluded from advanced history classes in high school and had to fight tooth and nail to take an AP Literature class. My teachers had little faith in my academic ability, but I came out with As in both the AP Literature class and the prerequisite Pacesetters English class. I had been booted from the staff of my middle school newspaper by a teacher who pulled me into the hall one day and told me I’d “never make it as a writer.”

There were students who were favored for great things. Maybe they had older siblings who showed promise, or received praise from their former instructors that called attention to their abilities. But ever since the second week of the first grade, when another kid tried to take my jacket and I took him to the ground and bashed his head against a rock (to be clear, I never picked up the rock; it was merely there while I held the boy’s hair and struck his head against it repeatedly), my reputation was one of a brawler who didn’t like it if you messed with his stuff. Other students were being tended, nurtured; I was well aware that they were shuffling me through before I could hurt someone.

It’s not that I thought myself stupid or ignorant. I read a lot and I exhibited some skill with words. I won my share of writing contests and made it through several rounds of an oratory competition that the Optimist Club sponsored.

At last, though, I would be in college, where every class was a “college-level” course. I would be challenged, but that just meant I could prove myself. They didn’t know about that time I beat a kid’s head against a rock, or the time I beat another kid’s head against some metal lockers in middle school, or the time I beat still another kid’s head against a bench in the locker room (I’m seeing a theme here), or if they did, they didn’t care. I was a college man now!

Then I came home after work one day and all our shit was gone.

It was the summer after I graduated high school, a few weeks before the start classes. I was working for the Douglas County Sentinel, which was then a daily newspaper, with my own by-line and everything. I had a desk in an air conditioned workspace. I was living the dream.

The kitchen table and hutch were gone. A lot of the silverware and all the good cookware was gone. The TV was gone. The living room furniture was gone. The pictures were gone off the walls. A bedroom suite was gone. My computer was gone.

I called my dad first to tell him he needed to come home, as we obviously had been robbed. That’s when I found out that, no, we hadn’t been robbed; my mother moved out. She took whatever she wanted, and moved into a duplex one town over.

So, I sat in a house with two mortgages and no central air, and panicked. I didn’t expect my parents to pay for my college, but I’d hoped they pay for some stuff that would help, like Internet and electricity and water and such. But now the second income for the house would have to be mine (if we were going to keep the place, and again, I didn’t really have anywhere else to live, so my hands were tied).

For the next four years, I did anything I could to turn a buck. I wrote papers for other students, worked as a copy editor for an online upstart news site, made $6 an hour at the Sentinel, sold books and CDs at a big-box retail store called Media Play, worked as news editor and managing editor of the college newspaper, anything. One day, I met up with a blues musician friend at a Home Depot and stood around to get hired on as a day laborer. I didn’t get picked up; I guess I looked like I might know something about labor laws, and probably didn’t look like I could do the plumbing. (Slim got picked up though, but he’s Puerto Rican, so…)

A low point came when I gave another student my research and background work I had done for my own paper in one of my own classes. I took a hit academically, but he paid me enough to get the water cut back on. Another low point came when, flat broke, I went three days with no food at all. Finally, getting a little shaky and desperate, I used my key to get into my grandparents’ old smoke house and found a stack of boxes in the back. They contained Mason jars, and the jars contained home-canned green beans, creamed corn and stewed tomatoes. In my grandfather’s distinctive handwriting, in magic marker on the outside of the box, was “1978.” If that was right, these vegetables were older than me. I carried an armful of them outside and studied them in the sunlight. They looked OK. No mold, no discoloration. I remembered my grandfather talking about being hungry during the Depression, how he learned to never be too proud to eat anything. He had passed away before now, but I understood in a very real way what he meant. I had started driving past the trash bins at restaurants, remembering all the food we threw out when I worked in food service because of spoilage, and knowing that there were probably biscuits and burgers and all sorts of things in there I could eat. With that, a jar of 25-year-old green beans sealed in my grandmother’s sterile kitchen seemed a safer source of nutrition. It might make me sick, but at least I’d be sick with a full belly.

I ate on those three jars for four days until I got paid again. I then went out and bought a trunk full of ramen noodles and a pillowcase-sized bag of white rice.

In the end, a professor called me to the front of the class. It was Dr. Rieber. He was a very good professor. I’d taken his classes before. He was very discreet; he just handed me the note the university had given him. I owed about $300 in student fees. If I didn’t pay today, I would not be able to continue taking classes. He invited me to take my seat again. He said I could keep coming to his class as far as he was concerned; he just wouldn’t be able to assign me a grade because I would no longer be in his computer. I told him he was kind, but I didn’t want to waste his time. The $300 might as well have been $3 million — I didn’t have it, I couldn’t get it, it wasn’t going to happen. I put my binder back in my bookbag, zipped it up, walked to my Oldsmobile in the parking deck without air conditioning and left. Maybe I could save up the money and come back.

A few weeks later, I was sitting at a conference room table inside the Marietta Daily Journal, with a full-time job offer on the table. Paid vacation, health and dental, the works. I could work one job, 40 hours a week, and make more than I did working four jobs in college. So, I took the job and put college behind me. I’d gone for four years — long enough to have earned a degree — but honestly, I’d only been enrolled in classes so I could stay on my dad’s health insurance plan. I hadn’t been going to class very often, and I didn’t have books for any of them. I couldn’t afford the gas and the parking to drive to campus most days, or the MARTA fare. And if I was in class, I was paying; if I was out of class and working, I was getting paid. I needed the getting paid part. Not eating for days because you’re penniless sucks. Not knowing if the lights will be on when you come home from work sucks. Washing yourself off in a spigot on the side of someone else’s house before work sucks. College rendered me very poor for a long time then kicked me out for being poor. Work, as the Nazis famously said, would set me free.

I met a girl, got an apartment, got married, built a house, got a better job, then a better job, then a raise at the better job. I had a child, then had another (with said wife, to be clear). I made my way forward with life. I’ve done OK. I’m not rich, sometimes things are tight. I wish I could go to the beach this year. But we do OK. We get by.

And more, I’ve helped said wife fulfill her ambitions. She earned a bachelor’s degree, with honors, and a master’s, also with honors. I did everything I could to help her achieve these ends, from putting forth my expertise with words to help her with her papers to keeping the house up and taking care of our daughter so she could take classes and complete assignments. We lived very hand-to-mouth, but we made it work, and now she gets to be home at night and on weekends and holidays, which is a big damn deal for a nurse.

But it eats me that I never got a degree. For all the hell I went through, for all the things that should’ve been easy and weren’t, for all the fear and anxiety and shame, for all the times I swallowed what I could be so I could see another day as what I was, I have nothing to show for it but a $300 blight on my otherwise sterling credit history.

Fort Valley State University

Fort Valley State University, an HBCU in Fort Valley, Ga., that might give me an opportunity to finish my degree, if we all clap our hands and REALLY BELIEVE.

I’m trying to remedy that. I want a degree. I want it desperately. I’ve already shown that I’ll bleed for it as long as I have blood to give. I’ve put that dream behind me for a decade so I could be a good employee, a good father and a good husband. And I expect to remain all these things, but I want to be a good student, too. I want to prove myself.

I know I can’t take classes in person — the only schools that cater to nontraditional students like me with evening programs are either not close by or private and radically expensive. I need an online option. I’ve found one at a small, historically black university in Peach County, Ga. — Fort Valley State University. It’s a bachelor’s in professional and technical writing. I’ve looked at it a few times before, but wrote it off because I either didn’t have time or (initially) because the class description had a few typos in it.

At this point, however, I don’t care. I just want a degree. I deserve the opportunity to earn that. I deserved that much when I came home that summer afternoon and found the house empty. Because people are selfish and don’t cotton to the responsibility that having a child carries with it isn’t my fault. I’m here, after all of this. I’ve pushed on, with my head down and the sun on my back.

I wasn’t supposed to get as far as I’ve come without a degree. People are stunned to hear I never finished college. It’s a shame that I talk around all the time with awkward phrasing. “Where did you graduate?” “I went to Georgia State.” I’ve had to prove myself more than anyone with a degree. I can’t just walk in and be considered for a position for which I’m qualified; I have to qualify myself as uneducated but experienced.

So, I’ve waded through hell and bureaucracy and fought for three solid weeks to get my debt paid and transcripts released by Georgia State, and now I’m waiting on FVSU. I’m waiting to hear if they’ll overlook by abysmal Georgia State transcript. I’m waiting to see if I’ll have the opportunity that I gave up a decade ago. Whatever academic sins I committed then, surely I’ve paid the penance now.

There are inmates taking correspondence classes to earn degrees right now; why not me?

I completed my application earlier this month. I sent the admissions folks everything they wanted. I asked people I hope think well of me to write letters vouching for my experience and ability. I can’t change the past, but I’ve paid for it.

And Tom Petty is right: Waiting is the hardest part.

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One response »

  1. Pingback: Living in Academic Absentia | The Squad Blog

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