I was recently asked to write about my college years. That can’t be done without explaining the ass-backwards circumstances that got me into college in the first place. Regardless, I thought Ron‘s request, in conjunction with a suggestion from Shimon, was both flattering and interesting. So, after turning 50 about nine minutes ago – I give you part 1
The Rise and Fall of Me – Part 1:
How President Jimmy Carter Crushed My Dreams
I grew up wanting to do one thing: fix cars. My uncle owned an automotive garage right in the middle of the main street in town, right across from the biggest church and the best bakery (Mazur’s Bakery) and a decent fast food place. That garage was where I spent many childhood Saturdays because my father often picked up some extra money helping out on weekends, and me, being the oldest boy, naturally followed Dad when possible. My father and his brother were fun to watch. Two Italians arguing over what’s wrong with the car as if two brothers were debating over provolone and mozzarella while a kid with red hair and freckles tried to stay out of the way. And I did. I was good at staying out of the way, and it paid off well because staying out of the way meant two things: 1. I didn’t get yelled at, and 2. I found the mother lode of Playboy magazines, but that’s a story and an addiction for another day.
Staying out of the way meant I would usually wander around the two main parts of the auto shop. The front was a supply store, where gruff men with greasy hands would ask for fan belts and gaskets and things which I knew nothing about other than I wished that I could one day know the name and function of every shiny metal whatever or black rubber something that sat on the hundreds of shelves or hung on nails around the dusty shop. My cousin, only a year older than me, was trusted with selling parts and minding the store while his father and mine butted heads and wrenches out in the garage.
Above the shop were several apartments, one of which was where my cousin and uncle lived kind of a bachelor life. They rented out the other apartments, and that, combined with being one of two main places to get your car fixed in town and having an excellent location by the church and bakery, and also being connected to most every cop in town, helped them make a pretty good living up there. Of course I didn’t know about that stuff. I just wanted to know enough to help fix cars, and I thought about my cousin and I taking over and replacing his father and mine when they would sit in lawn chairs out front, watch traffic go by, and argue about whether that blue Ford was a ’98 or ’99. Out back, in the garage, Cousin and I would argue over suspension and brake calipers. That was my dream, but it was all ruined by President Jimmy Carter.
Back in the 70’s, there wasn’t as much attention paid the career-planning in school as there is now, or maybe there was and I just didn’t pay attention. I mean, maybe they tried to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and maybe they even tried to steer me towards things, but I must have been out that year. The only thing I remember about high school and career was that I liked to draw stuff, mainly the different spacecraft from Star Wars and Evel Knievel on a motorcycle jumping over stuff. Oh, and I could reproduce NFL football helmets perfectly. As senior year of high school approached, there was a nuclear arms race that was stirring up a second Cold War with Russia. In a move to send a “peaceful” message, Pres. Carter let it be known he was going to sign a Proclamation 4771, a Selective Service Bill that would require all males born on or after January 1, 1960, to register at their local post office for a possible military draft.
First and foremost, I’m a pussy. It did not take long for me to research how to avoid the military. I had no plans to flee to Canada, but I had been playing hockey since I was about 8, so I quickly washed my Toronto Maple Leafs jersey. I learned that males in college were taken after those not in college, and I made sure I applied right away for higher (and non-violent) education. My sister was in college, so I was sure she would put in a good word for me. I immediately apologized for hooking up a secret telephone extension and listening in on her boring phone calls that weren’t really worth listening to as well as the time I hit her in the head with a rock in 8th grade. I also promised not to tell about the time she was smoking pot in her bedroom, although I tried it too. I think. Not sure.
Regardless, I had a choice. Automotive repair dreams with the risk of being drafted into a nuclear war with Russia or bullied into college to stave off the army for at least round one of the draft. I had to suck it up and go to college. I had no clue what classes to take at William Paterson College, now touting itself as a university. All I knew about myself besides cars was that I like to draw stuff, so I started with an art class with Professor Wollock. I didn’t do well in art class because, although I liked to draw stuff, I never had an art class before.
In high school I signed up for art freshman year, and they said only upper classmen get into art. Instead, they gave me drafting. It involved pencils and paper, so it was close. We spent a year drawing 3D boxes, making up plays for the high school football team, and not making fun of Mr. Burns’ toupee. The only cool thing about that class was that both my older cousin, from the auto garage, and my older sister were also in the class. Taking attendance was fun, and it was the only class in which we were allowed to play the radio and sing along.
Sophomore year I tried for art again but I ended up in metal shop with some of the largest guys I’ve ever seen. One was Timmy Marrone, the heavyweight on the high school wrestling team. Look up the song “Telephone Line” by ELO. You’ll never hear anyone sing it as well as Timmy, then he’d kick ass on the wrestling mat as if the pain from that song were driving him to revenge. Tried again for art class junior year and ended up back in drafting. Senior year I didn’t even bother.
So, college art class, first day, people are unloading all kinds of supplies and things, and I’m sitting there with a sketchbook full of Star Wars scenes and motorcycles. The teacher said to take out our “pastels.” I saw other students with things that looked like crayons without the paper around them and thought something was strange, and it was. Me. I didn’t belong in an art class, and I did not do well, but I was up front on nude model days. Well, most of them.
I had a literature class called Methods of Critical Analysis. There were some really smart geeks in that class, and the geekiest of teachers who looked like the Stay Puff Marshmallow man, that is until the third class when I realized it was the Stay Puff Marshmallow woman. I had no clue what was happening, so I sat in the back, against the wall, and kept a paperback of the Lord of the Rings trilogy inside the text book. Of the very few things I learned in that class was that I was actually capable of getting an F. That was new to me because I was voted Most Likely to Succeed only a few years earlier. Go figure.
I had a math class, statistics, and I failed that too, but it wasn’t fair because I was a victim of technology. What I mean is that it was 1980, and I had one of the first calculators that could also play Blackjack. I didn’t get much work done, but I ate through lots of batteries on that calculator. Another F, by the way.
At the end of my first year of college, my grades were two F’s, two D’s, and a handful of C’s for a grade point average of 1.25, which is barely a D in regular grade terms. Go me. My second year didn’t begin any better, and after three semesters I still had a 1.25. Not only that, I received a special letter letting me know that my grades were so low that if I didn’t increase significantly, they were kicking me out. I had visions of marching through Europe behind trucks carrying ICBM’s. Sure enough, my grades were not much better in the fourth semester, and I finished up my first two years of college with a 1.44 grade point average, or a D+.
Believe it or not, there was a bright spot because I had my first ever creative writing class. It was called “creative writing.” No shit. It was with Dr. Cioffari, nice Italian guy who looked a lot like Hugh Hefner but back before Hef became a vampire. It was what I have come to learn was a typical writing workshop. Each week a few people would have enough copies of their writing for everyone. We would take home their work to read and critique, and the following week the writer would read it aloud to the class, the rest of the class would give their two cents, and then the teacher would give his comments. I specifically remember a guy writing a story that seemed like a Springsteen song, a guy pursuing a girl that he can’t seem to win over. I remember a woman writing about going through divorce counseling. I’d listen to what others had written and think about how good it was while thinking that my writing was nowhere near what they’d done.
Until recently, and certainly back then, I never thought much of what I wrote. I had the beginnings of a medieval story in which there was one knight who had the title of something like “Lord of Knights.” Can’t really remember what he was called. The concept was that the “Lord of Knights” possessed a powerful sword, lighter and sharper than anything anyone had ever seen. The only way for anyone to become the Lord of Knights was to kill the current Lord and take his sword. But whoever was the current Lord was always being challenged to a fight because everyone wanted to kill him and become the new Lord, not realizing that each time a new Lord is named, he is immediately a marked man. I was greatly surprised at the praise I received for the story, which I never really finished, but I think I will in the very near future.
It was the greatest class I could have imagined, and it was the highest grade I had ever gotten – a proud B. Lot of good it did me though, because I was no longer welcome at WPC, and they kicked my ass out immediately after that semester.
(pictures by Roy Wright, except those that aren’t)
coming soon – part 2:
“How an Idiot Accidentally Became a Teacher”
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