My College Essay: 50 yrs. Later
When I think about it, as I often do, the decision about my college education was clinched in about the time it took Dad to mow our front lawn. Parched and perspiring, I ran alongside him while the mosly crabgrass surrendered to a summer crew-cut, the lawn spongy and soft under my sandaled feet. That particular day, the day I’d mustered the courage to broach the subject of my future education was a balmy Saturday in spring. I don’t remember the exact words I used, but they must've been clipped and to the point. Like most of the men in my family, Dad focused best when I tossed him one thing at a time to ponder. Not to mention that spread before him was his prized one-third acre lot, his property, and having grown up in a cramped walk-up apartment, land became important to him.
“Dad,” I summoned the courage to say, “Listen, about college, I was thinking that Syracuse might be where I'd like to go." Not exactly a question, and so instead of looking up, Dad looked behind him to check if he’d cut the grass evenly; I hoped that he had, because I really needed his attention. A few long seconds passed before he stopped to stare at me, as if he'd been struck by a revelation. Oh yes, he had a daughter who would be graduating from high school in about a year. Was it possible he'd forgotten it was the time we needed to make these plans and that next year I’d be a senior? Sometimes he forgot the date of my birthday, and he never, ever remembered to write my name with the letter i instead of a y, which I had done since I changed the spelling in junior high. But how could he have forgotten this, the future of my education?
Dad halted all action. “Okay, kid, how about this? Mom and I will buy you your very own car and you can live right here, and go to Nassau Community just fifteen minutes away.”
At first I thought perhaps he was teasing, but then my legs became unsteady and my heart sped up its reliable beat. Until that moment, I could never have imagined my father was not planning on sending me away to college. Wasn’t he what the U.S. Navy had coined a 90 Day Wonder? Appointed by the OTS, my father was one of a very select group of men enrolled at Cornell, where he crammed college courses and intensive naval training in just three short months. And yet, now he attempted to bribe me with a brand new car. I was only sixteen, the youngest person in my entire class, just learning to drive. I didn’t even have an old car. I remember my feelings of shock followed by waves of real panic. Most of my friends were already actively planning where they were going after graduation. Like me, they wanted to get away from the claustrophobic atmosphere of our small cul-de- sac town. Some hoped to attend schools in New England, Pennsylvania, a few, with mediocre grades, dreamed of partying in Maryland or Florida. But I had always loved to write, writing had been an escape from loneliness, my one comfortable place, and Syracuse was known for its superior writing program.
My feet felt as though they were sinking into the sod, part of me willing it to happen. I was stunned, hurt beyond measure. What kind of charade had my father been playing with me all these years while he drilled me relentlessly in math and science – his best subjects, my worst? And how many sharp slaps had he delivered to my unsuspecting cheeks whenever my attention wandered from the ridiculous isosceles triangle, or the easily forgotten formula for pi? It was if my honor roll grades had been just for him – were always for him. Would anything be different if I hadn’t worked so hard, hadn't achieved far above my capabilities to make him proud? Most likely, I’d be right here having the exact conversation, and next year, enrolled in a community college, just miles away.
“No Dad," I said. “I'm going inside." For once I didn't jump on my soap box to plead my case, the veins on my neck pulsing with frustration. I turned and marched myself to the front door. What he didn’t hear over the stalled lawn mower or I’d be caged in my room for the next fifty years was: “You must have heat stroke, if you think I’m about to stick around this place after everything that’s happened.” My grandmother, my best friend ever, had died a few months before, sending my mother into a trance, disconnected from the world she once seemed to enjoy. My heart was set on getting away from here, and the promise of a new car was not about to change my mind.
“Your brothers have to go to college too, you know,” Dad shouted while he pulled the cord of the mower to restart it. I moved quickly to get inside. I could've turned and hurt myself then, giving him just cause to shut me down completely, but instead I kept on walking. I was determined to get this one thing I wanted so badly. Right, I thought, let's worry about Ricky who was not yet 8 and could hardly read, and Marky, who was costing Dad more in tutors than what would be the tuition for my entire first year of college.
Then, after I laid low for a few weeks, surprisingly Dad and I had another discussion. He seemed more prepared for this talk and suggested I investigate teaching. He reminded me that it was a vocation I could always fall back on, but having never had a vocation, it was hard to visualize a much older me trying to get a job years later. Yet, I was relieved he was at least coming around. It would take me a while to realize I had compromised my wishes and dreams, and failed to be the cheerleader for the constant chanting inside my heart. I was a lot like him, ambitious and pretty smart, but those were characteristics he had secretly coveted for his sons. I’m sure he believed one day a man, just like him, would come along and take care of me. All I had to do was, brush my hair, and know how to set a good table.
He mentioned something about several state schools, which he heard were tuition free, and suggested I speak to make my guidance counselor to discuss all my options. But I already knew my options. They were teaching or nursing, and yet I was grateful he had conceded to let me go away to college: allowing me an opportunity to finally be on my own.
I had always been good at rationalizing, and so I pushed away any pangs of doubt, disappointment, and regret, mostly because it took a lot out of me to ask for what I wanted. Every time either of my parents said yes, or yes you can, there was always a suspended moment, an airless pause. While they were considering my latest request, I had, simultaneously, been preparing for their negative response. Somewhere between the layers of wishes and dreams and secret desires, I had already conjured up an alternate plan, something to ease the disappointment of hearing the anticipated answer…the NO. I became a well-prepared understudy of my true self, happy for the slightest recognition – any small shot of proving myself worthy.
The truth is, until I was older, I don't think I stated to either of my parents that I had wanted to be a writer. Had I said that, consistently, perhaps they might have supported me more than I have given them credit for, maybe not. When I think back, I hear the biting and sarcastic tone: “So who’s stopping you Sandy, Sandi, Sande? Go, go, write.”