The Rise and Fall of Me – ch. 2/18

Deliver Drugs or Go Back to College?

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One of the disadvantages I had while going to college was that I didn’t have a lot of time to study because I had to work a part-time job when I wasn’t in class.  That doesn’t mean that I devoted all other time to school, not a chance, but juggling college and working wasn’t easy.  I was not born in a wealthy family that covered my tuition like a certain female who I will not name but will refer to later.  In fact, my college tuition was paid by breaking the law.  Seriously.  College students could earn government grants for tuition based on two criteria:  1. You had very good grades in high school and 2. You had a great financial need.  I had good grades, but even THAT took deception, but not cheating.  Guess I’ll have to tell that story.  At this rate, all these side stories are really going to turn readers off.  Ok, here goes.

I was “Most Likely to Succeed” in 8th grade.  Yeah, that’s worth about as much as winning an award for urinating.  In high school, I was too distracted by sports and not (but trying) having sex.  Well, there was this one time when something sort of happened, but it was just wrong.  Halfway through high school, my guidance counselor noticed something – I sucked at school.  She called my mother and said, “We thought your son was smart.  WTF?”  Maybe my mother said that second part, not sure.  My guidance counselor came up with her one good idea in her 88 years of counseling.  I had a decently high IQ.  Well, high for me.  135.  My guidance counselor told my mother that I should be doing much better, to which my mother probably said, “No shit.”  They had a problem to solve, and part of the problem was that I was too busy playing with my pencil, but not the one that you sharpen.  Please don’t try.

You’re not supposed to know your IQ until you’re either 18 or have already graduated high school because they fear that knowing your score will affect you.  A kid with a high score might say, “Ha, I’m smart.  I don’t need to study.  And the rest of you are stupid.”  Or, if a kid has a low score, he might say, “I’m stupid.  Why should I even try?”  So they took a chance on telling me my score with the hope that it would inspire me to do better.  It worked.  I felt like an idiot for wasting my potential ability.  Of course, this opens up two possibilities.  First, that everyone else reading this is laughing because their scores are so much higher.  Second, that my guidance counselor is laughing because she inflated my score just to make me think I was smart.  Regardless, it worked, and my grades excelled from that point on.

So, the first criteria for college grant money was solved – good grades.  The second one was having financial need.  This is the law-breaking story.  Remember that cousin with whom I wanted to run the automotive garage?  Meet my new brother.  In order for my father to show greater financial need, he started including my cousin as my brother on the application so as to create a bigger family with greater financial need.  Also, this cousin who was now my brother, was also now going to college too, thus creating more financial need.  No, he wasn’t in college, but this was pre-internet days when it would have taken too much work to check these things out.  With better grades and poorer finances, I was not only given grant money for college but I qualified for so much extra that I actually earned about $500 a semester in extra money beyond tuition.  The leftover money arrived in a personal check at the end of each semester, which was perfect timing to pay for Christmas shopping and car insurance.  Your tax dollars at work.

In case you haven’t determined it already, I was one of those teachers who was great at getting off the subject and talking for a half hour.  Where was I?  Oh yeah, explaining that I got kicked out of college even though I really didn’t belong there in the first place because my father lied in order to get more tuition, and then explaining that I had to work many hours outside of school so I didn’t have time to study, even if I were going to study in the first place.  Then, I got kicked out so it didn’t matter.  Okay, pick it up from where I had just gotten kicked out of school.  Three, two, one – action!

The bright spot about having worked so much during college was that I had a lot of money saved up, and my sister had a house at the beach for the summer.  She and her friends would come down on weekends, and they allowed me to stay there all week to keep an eye on the place.  I was at the beach about five days a week from early June to late August.  By the way, the beach town I was in was the same town in which they taped that Jersey Shore show.  It was just as trashy back then, only the whole world didn’t know about it.   The automatic teller machine (ATM) had just been invented, so I didn’t even have to drive the 90 miles back home from the beach when I needed to replenish my wallet.  I just ate cheaply, I wasn’t a drinker, and I had learned to be frugal from a guy whose hobbies included switching price stickers in the grocery store.  If you’re counting at home, that’s only two times that I’ve incriminated my father for theft and deception.

Here’s to the summer of ’81.

On one of those summer days I was strolling the boardwalk with a few friends when I passed a wheel (those big spinny things where you place money and win something if the wheel points at your number) at which they sold towels.  More important than the towels was the hot blonde working there.  She looked like Suzanne Somers from before she was selling videos about bed wetting.   I was 19 and she was 16.  You do the math.  We had dinner, which was really greasy boardwalk cheeseburgers and pizza, and we went back to her apartment.  I was still a virgin going in – and I still was on the way out.  Don’t want there to be any false suspense.  I thought it was odd that a 16-year old girl had her own apartment in a beach town and a job on the boardwalk.  Turns out she was supposed to be sharing that apartment with her 19-year old sister, but she was never around.  The 16-year old was very mature for her age.  We started hanging out together all summer and stayed friends into the fall.  She’d invite me to her parents house on occasional weekends because, if you remember, I had to get out of my sister’s beach house to make room for her friends.  Also, I didn’t have a car, only a motorcycle.  If I had a car, I could’ve easily slept inside it for a weekend.  Hard to balance on a bike while asleep.  Long story short – we were dating by October of ’81.  We were married by July of ’88.  Divorced by January of 2000 with two kids to show for it.  I’m good with that.

Of all the complaints you might have read about my ex-wife, I must give her credit for one thing.  I told her that I had been kicked out of college.  She said she wasn’t going to date someone who wasn’t working towards a college degree, so she told me that either I went back to school or we went separate ways.  Pretty ballsy for a 16-year old who smoked a lot of pot and occasionally tried cocaine, but it worked.

I spent the next year delivering drugs.  No, not for a drug dealer but for a legitimate pharmacy.  My day included taking boxes off a truck, opening boxes, taking stuff out of boxes, putting stuff on shelves, putting extra stuff that won’t fit on the shelves behind little doors beneath the shelves, driving to people’s houses with their prescriptions, waiting 20 minutes for them to make it down the stairs because they were mostly senior citizens, returning with money, and figuring out excuses to call out sick.  Between that and the future ex-wife who told me that no college = no her, I was determined to return to school.  I kept sharp by helping her with research papers and other writing assignments because she was in her senior year of high school.  I got an A on a paper about slavery.  I was proud, but she thought I could have done better.

The year away from college and working full time had ended, and the application to return to college was simple:  write an essay explaining why they should let me back in.  Piece of cake for me because, just before I was shown the door, I learned that I could write stuff better than I could draw stuff.  My essay explained all that I’ve told you, except the part about the future ex-wife.  Or the beach.  I explained how I didn’t really know what I wanted to study, so I took various classes without really applying myself.  I explained about the writing class just before higher education and I parted ways, and I explained how the B earned in that class was notably better than all the other classes and that I was just finding my place in the sun when they turned on the rain.  I explained how I didn’t have a course of study at first, but I was well on my way to improving because I know knew that I could write stuff.  They bought it, so I guess I was right – I could write stuff.

Upon my return, I focused on two areas of study:  theater and writing.  Other than my kids and a few women from out of state who know me by a different name, nobody would know that I’m a brilliant actor.  I excelled at improvisation as well as screenwriting and poetry.  I also did very well in science classes, even the ones I cheated in.  C’mon, really, like you’ve never cheated in a class before?  Oh, okay.  Sorry.  I only cheated in two classes – Anthropology and Physics, but the cheating in Physics doesn’t really count.  If you’re smart enough to know how to apply the proper math so that you could figure out what was going to happen when the weight dropped and the pendulum swung to its furthest point, you didn’t have to actually do the dropping and swinging.  It wasn’t cheating, it was “preparatory information gathering,” and it allowed me more time to write stuff.  Anthropology – that was actual cheating.  I used a thin pencil to lightly write notes on the desk, keep them covered with the exam paper, and then wipe them away with a sweaty palm when I was finished.  I knew that Professor Choi would never notice because he never got out of his desk, and the surgical mask he constantly wore was probably making it hard for him to see anyway.

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(stock photo of Asians doing math)

One class I never cheated in was Logic.  It is the only class in which I never made one mistake the entire semester.  I got every problem we ever did correct.  Every homework assignment, everything.  Logic is a lot like algebra, and I was always very good at math.  Ask Becca.  I’m her official mathematician.  The class was Tuesdays and Thursdays, and one particular Thursday the professor put a problem on the board that he’d been trying to solve for three years and asked us to give it a shot over the weekend.  If you recall, I had a motorcycle, and it was winter, so I had to take a bus to school when the weather was bad, and usually that meant I was late.  The following Tuesday I finished the problem on the bus en route the college.  I was late, running across campus to class to find the professor at the board working on the problem.  He could tell I had something going on because I pushed him aside and erased his feeble work, then I produced the solution.  I was starting to feel like a real student, like I actually knew things and could prove it.  Also, I pushed a teacher, and I liked it.

In my first year back I had two A’s, five B’s, one C, and one F.  That was in a film class in which I kept falling asleep from working until about 9 at night.  In my second year back, I had three A’s, three B’s, and three C’s.  I could have done better, but I thought it was more symmetrical to get three groups of three.  One of those A’s was rather interesting though.

To complete my Literature degree, there were required classes that I had to retake because I had failed them the first time.  On the first day of one particular literature class, I walked in and saw a teacher who seemed familiar.  I was back in the classroom of the Stay Puff Marshmallow woman for a second try at the course called Methods of Critical Analysis.  It was one of the most important classes I ever had because it taught me how to examine literature and poetry and really find what the writer was doing, why he or she was doing it, and also how to teach writing and poetry to others.  If not for that class, I wouldn’t enjoy short stories as much as I do now.  On the last day of class, after we had a final conference and I learned I was getting an A, I told the professor that this was my second attempt at her class and that I had failed it previously.  She said, “Impossible.  There’s no way that the same brain can both fail and also get an A in, this class.”  I sheepishly told her that the F was not so much from failing but from failing to try.  I was pleased that she neither hated me nor remembered me.  It is the only textbook that I still have from college, and I have used it quite often during my own teaching career.

You might have noticed a lot of C’s in my list of grades when I should have had the motivation and intelligence to do much better.  The problem is that I had discovered writing and it was all I wanted to do, so I spent a lot of time working on my own writing while in other classes like the afore-mentioned anthropology and physics.  And remember Dr. Cioffari, the writing teacher?  I was lucky enough that there was an Advanced Creative Writing class coming up, and that was where things really clicked.  His writing class the second time was like hitting fourth gear while going downhill.  I had never gotten praise for anything before the way it came in that class.  It was much like what I hear today on the Friday Fictioneers thing.  Please keep in mind that in my head, I was still a stupid redheaded, freckle-face kid just trying to stay out of the way.  Instead, I had people asking me when the next chapter or short story was going to be finished.  I was also writing for the school newspaper, covering the hockey team as well as occasional editorial contributions.  I wrote a well-praised piece about professors who barely spoke English and how the language barrier affected students’ grades.  I also wrote for and eventually edited the college literary magazine as well as won an election for student government to represent the humanities department.  Add to that, I won a poetry award that was presented at a fabulous gala that honored students from all departments.  It was the most interesting thing that had ever happened, I was about to graduate, and I was flying pretty high.

That year was my best with six A’s and four B’s.  The grades were about the best I could possibly ask for, but karma was about to kick me in the balls.

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