Growing up in a working class family in rural Pennsylvania, I excelled in school far surpassing my peers in my small town. My father, a clerk with the post office, worked tirelessly everyday for thirty some years, getting up at 2:00 AM everyday to report to the job he secured only because of his veteran status so that he could provide my brother, my mother, and me health insurance and, of course, food and shelter. Likewise, my mother still works with special needs children in a preschool teaching environment; and, as I learned myself working in the non-profit industry, such noble career paths attract two types of people. That is, anyone working in the non-profit industry either does it because she loves it, like my mother, and wants to make a difference; or, a person works in the non-profit industry because he is an idiot and cannot secure employment anywhere else. Both of my parents had a hard life, both of them came from solidly working class backgrounds, and none of my family members ever went to college. So, when I demonstrated academic promise as a child and later as a young man, I enthusiastically, and successfully, applied to be a student at the University of Pennsylvania.
Coming from a town of a few thousand people where church was much more common than witty banter over coffee, I embraced the intellectualism of college. My peers at Penn, however, would, annoyingly, say “Good for you!” when they heard I wasn’t, like a good number of them, there at an ivy league institution because of a family connection. Rather, I was there despite the fact that my father only went to high school. Even worse, navigating a social system that was designed for rich white people was, at best, tedious and, at worst, completely insulting and demeaning. For instance, in 2003, I had to routinely explain to my hall mates that I was too poor to go with some of them to Mexico for spring break. So, naturally, when I became bored and too annoyed with the four year college model, I left. In other words, I spent an entire year not going to class, drinking in Irish-style pubs, meeting very interesting people, and learning more about humanity than I ever did studying anthropology and political science at Penn only to be, rightfully, kicked out for not going to class for an entire year.
Like 44% of all those enrolled in college today, I never earned my degree. Instead, I stopped going to class, drank away my sophomore year, and, disingenuously, excused away my own lack of focus with declarations regarding the moral bankruptcy of the American higher education system. Of course, like anyone who fails at something, I was unable for years to come to terms with this fact, and even to this day, it stings me when someone brings up the fact, accurately, that I simply was not suited for college. Indeed, regardless of how intelligent or self-aware or intellectually curious I am, the idea of sitting in class reading works from the Western canon for four years and operating in a self-congratulatory “discussion” on race, class, and politics in this country within the walls of an institution that figuratively exists as an island, far away from the reality facing millions of Americans and billions of human beings worldwide, terrifies me. Sincerely, I can think of no better way to completely isolate myself from other actual human beings than college. So, inevitably, I failed at my efforts to attain a four year degree.
“Well, that sounds a lot better and makes more sense than saying that you’re the great American entrepreneur. You couldn’t hack it. So, you have to find another way. That makes sense,” said my roommate over dinner last night. Last night, we went to a local piano bar to show support for a talented mutual friend of ours, and our discussion veered into territory that I’m habitually anxious about. After all, because of the nature of my work and tastes, I’m surrounded by people who typically have doctorates or law degrees and where a BA is as common as a high school diploma. And, I’ve learned how to deftly fit in among these people, talking about my college days, using Socratic logic developed on my own, and talking about the metaphysics of personal ethics and responsibility with knowledge gleaned from reading Immanuel Kant in my personal time, not from the diktat of an entrenched tenured professor. My roommate was right; for years, I’ve danced and tiptoed around the fact that I, like millions of others, was not suited for the traditional four year model. Yet, because of social pressure, I found and continue to find it much easier to just let people assume I have a college degree rather than explain or qualify why I, unlike them, only have a high school diploma.
“It doesn’t matter to me; you’ve proven yourself, you were promoted four times from an entry-level position, and I care about what you do on the job not what your pedigree was,” said my boss during the interview for my first “real” job. Prior to becoming the development “coordinator” for a large non-profit organization, I was at a suburban YMCA working as the community outreach “administrator,” writing grants, networking with corporate sponsors, overseeing volunteers, and submitting timely grant reports.
In order to feed myself, obtain health insurance, and, like everyone else worthwhile in this country, try my hardest to be working instead of inanely depending on others for my livelihood, I started my career signing up children for t-ball, earning $8.25 an hour. And, even though I was promoted four times from that position eventually overseeing all aspects of that organization’s fundraising and development, the title of “director” escaped me because I did not earn my BA. The fact that I attended an ivy league institution, the fact that I got a perfect on the SAT verbal, the fact that I could produce more work more efficiently and more accurately than any of my peers was irrelevant. Instead, I worked under a mediocre middle-manager who played by the rules, made the safe decisions, and earned her degree, unlike me. Later, when I was in charge of fundraising for an organization preserving the history and celebrating the diversity of the gay community here in Philadelphia, I still had to address, awkwardly, why I did not earn my degree, how it did not impact my abilities, and, outright deceptively, assure my board of directors and executive director that I had every intention of completing my degree. After all, candidly saying that I found college to be boring, tedious, and unnecessary was not the proper response; rather, it is my obligation as a working class slob to kowtow to the palatable notion that we, the little darlings of poverty, should pine away for acronyms after our surnames. Saying anything to the contrary is “concerning,” “setting a bad precedent,” and “counterproductive.”
“I don’t want to seem judgmental, but I just view people who don’t [like me] work at completing their college degrees as unable to finish anything,” said a young man I was, until that point, flirting with at the Bike Stop during, of course, jock strap night. “Do you think it says something about their personality,” I responded, gauging as to whether or not he would, implicitly, say that I was less than admirable in my character. “Yeah, it sort of does,” he answered. And, while I would like to express moral indignation and stop flirting with him, I was both taken with his attractiveness and truth. After all, if he were not correct in his assessment, then I would not have a life full of unfinished projects, of great ideas that never came to fruition, of attempts at businesses that failed. Instead, I would be, by this point, vice president of development for something like the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Yet, I live comfortably. I do what I love in order to feed myself: write. I have an embarrassment of riches in relation to my free time because I’ve cobbled together a living securing various writing-related contracts alongside menial part-time jobs that give me the financial security to participate in mainstream middle class American culture, including having an iPhone, going on vacation, and complaining about student loans (yes, those loans are still due regardless of whether or not they resulted in anything whatsoever, and, no, bankruptcy does not dismiss their obligation.) And, while I might never be a vice president or a school administrator, I am a writer and a business owner. While life would have been much easier if I just played by the rules, graduated Penn in 2006 as planned, and went about my existence in the most boringly safe way possible, life also would not have led me to meet some of the most interesting people and endure the most tragic and character-building circumstances imaginable.
My father jokingly said to me when I left for college in 2002, “Don’t forget us little people.” In retrospect, I realize he was not entirely joking. He meant that he hoped I would not become one of “them:” the entitled petulant children of privilege who throw the working classes a bone every now by way of Democratic votes and donations but cannot seriously hold their own in a conversation with maids or valets or servers. And, while I do feel sorry for these poor darlings, the out of touch elitists in American society who I amusingly infiltrate on the same days I watch Judge Judy instead of listening to Schubert, I also envy them. They made the right choices, they assessed life much smarter than I ever did. But, they’re also a bit more boring than I am.
Aye, there’s the rub. (That’s one of those phrases in learning books, so I’ve heard.)
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