This is an attempt at The New Normal.
This is a personal post. The personal post, in fact. It almost feels as if all posts have been leading up to this, in a way, since most of my thoughts tend to circle around the premise. Warning: this may be a long one.
I didn’t go to college. There. I said it. This has long been, literally, my only regret in life. To understand why this simple fact has played such a major role in my existence for the past ten years, I have to go back a bit.
In high school, I lost my love to a car accident. Until that point, it was simply assumed that I would go to a good school after graduation. I had good grades, was very knowledge-hungry. When she died, though, I stopped trying. I barely managed to pick up a pencil for the next year. Honestly, I’m not quite sure how I graduated.
So I never applied to college- never even tried. And here’s the thing: nobody said a word about it. Not one word. Nobody ever said “What the fuck are you doing? Here’s an application. Get to it.” Everyone was afraid to speak up.
“He’s having a hard time letting go. Just leave him be.”
Before I knew it, I was nineteen, living in a shitty apartment and making seven dollars an hour moving furniture for a living. I came home from work one day, to what would become my wife, and as I sat down on the couch, exhausted, looking around the room at the cheap faux leather furniture, I realized that I hated my life.
I decided to do something about it. I joined the Navy, following in my grandfather’s footsteps, and opted for the college fund they offered in lieu of the enlistment bonus. Fifty thousand dollars (plus the GI Bill) would be plenty. I’d serve my four years, go to school, and get myself back on track.
It didn’t work out that way.
I made another mistake- one that has haunted me ever since.
I committed a crime. I engaged in a sexual act with a person who was, at the time, not old enough to consent to such an act. I was not aware of that fact until it was too late. Three months later, I was called into NCIS. who informed me that I was to be court-martialed for violation of Article 114 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
I was court-martialed, and my sentence included six months in the brig and a Bad Conduct Discharge.
I lost my college money- all $89,000 of it.
Around the same time, I found out that I was going to be a father. I couldn’t apply to college and take on the required student loan debt. I had to find a job.
A lot has gone on in the years since, but fast-forward to today, and I’m thirty-one years old, and still have no higher education.
I’ve come up with many excuses along the way as to why I haven’t taken the plunge. None are justified, or rationally sound. Most have something to do with that fatal mistake I made ten years ago: I’ve carried it around like a fifty-pound ankle bracelet, hiding my past from everyone I encounter while using it as a crutch, an excuse to fail. I hid it even from most of my family. (If you’re family, and learning of this for the first time, please accept my apologies. It’s much easier to tell these things to the blank page).
I used what I want to do as an excuse: the job that I want does not exist. I want to write, but I don’t want to be a conventional writer. I want to write novels, true, and freelance magazine pieces, but I also want to deliver stories in a way that’s never been done. After reading Craig Mod’s Hack the Cover I became fascinated with the idea of merging a book’s cover design with the text itself. I came across Days with My Father, a brilliant and immersive story told through pictures and text on a simple webpage.
I began to think of my dream job: telling stories in a completely new way, through a completely new medium. The evolution of the story began to take a firm hold on my mind.
How the hell would college help me land this job? What the hell is the job I want, anyway? It resides somewhere at the intersection of my interests- philosophy, literature, writing, design. A formal education in these disciplines would almost certainly not yield a job in any of these fields, let alone all of them, so how could I justify spending, say, 50k on an investment that was likely to produce almost no return?
I was missing the point. The point, as David Foster Wallace so brilliantly points out, is to develop the ability to think in a way that is required to move an industry, a person, forward.
My thirst for knowledge has led me to educate myself, in a way, over the years: I devour articles, books, videos- anything that furthers my grasp of the world. This is a helpful, but flawed, approach. It feels like erecting a structure on a bed of sand. My body of knowledge may contain all the pieces necessary to complete the structure, but the foundation on which it sits is porous and unsteady. I may be able to grasp a piece on Kant’s Categorical Framework, but I’ve no idea what prerequisite knowledge may be missing (Rumsfeld was onto something with his ‘unknown unknowns). I have the talent, but lack the skill.
Even my writing is haunted by these unknown unknowns. Is there a technique I'm not privy to missing from this essay, this short story? Is there a fundamental character development principle that dooms my writing to fail before it begins?
Besides, no progress will be made unless I take a step- any step.
Advance, and never halt, for advancing is perfection.
~ Khalil Gibran
I’m finished hiding from my past. I’m finished hanging my head when friends gather to share college stories, implying, by omission, that I have college stories, too (I’ve even made some up a time or two). I’m finished setting a bad example for my daughter. How could I possibly look her in the eye when the time comes for her to go to college when I haven’t done so myself?
The world owes me nothing. What I will gain, I must take from it. So, while I work on a play this winter, I will study my options. Come January, when the play is over, I will continue my education. I will take the next step, which is, in fact, the only step.