In August of 2000, Bill Clinton was president. Baggy jeans and rap-rock were wildly popular. 9/11 hadn’t happened yet. I grew up in a tiny coastal town hours from the nearest interstate, and, after years of maddening isolation, I wanted a big change. College was expected of me, so I obediently enrolled at University of North Carolina-Asheville.
On a sunny day, 11 years ago, I sat with the other incoming freshmen in UNCA’s Lipinski Auditorium. “Look to your left and look to your right,” the speaker was saying. “One of these people won’t be here in four years.” The people on either side of me had nothing to worry about: I was the one who didn’t finish.
I was idealistic and cocky, and I had no business there. So after three uninspired years, I found work and then dropped out. I would spend the next six years working what jobs would hire me. Some were fun, while others were traumatically stressful, but all paid poorly and led nowhere. About the time my wife and I decided to start a family, I went back to school. Now, after four straight-A semesters at Wake Tech, I’m halfway to the bachelor’s I should have gotten in my early 20s.
In late June, I sat with maybe 400 other incoming transfer students in an N.C. State auditorium. Really, it was probably no different from my orientation at UNCA. Sure, none of the speakers resorted to clichéd scare tactics, but it had the same summer camp trappings of any undergrad orientation. I ate bland institutional food. I got lost. I made a few friends and finally felt less nervous. Most important, I had fun.
I spent my early 20s broke and frustrated, feeling like a bystander to someone else’s paradise. When I was 18, just like anyone of that age, I had everything figured out. And when my expected future never materialized, I railed against everything. It was ugly.
I grew out of the anger, though, and eventually just worked these jobs because it was necessary. But when my wife and I started talking about a baby, I started thinking about school. I didn’t know my daughter Sarah yet. I didn’t know she would have blue eyes and strawberry blond hair. But I did know one thing: One day, some teacher or someone would ask her, “What does your dad do for a living?” And I wanted her to answer, proudly, “He’s a writer.” Something had to change.
It took humility, optimism and the frightening admission that the future is unwritten, but I’m halfway to my degree. I don’t recall a happier time in my life. As some new friends and I were leaving D.H. Hill Library during orientation, the bottom dropped out of a severe thunderstorm. Trees bent sideways. Branches broke off. Water blew under doors. I stood in the frightening weather as long as I could stand it, eyes wide with wonder. I felt like a kid again.