The college admissions scandal has highlighted what some have referred to as “affirmative action for the wealthy.” As I mention on my “about” page, I grew up in subsidized housing but went to an Upper East Side prep school with the aid of a scholarship. My freshman year of college was spent at Bennington College, also via scholarship. It was too painful for me to continue to be the kid from the wrong side of the tracks in places where the vast majority of students came from very wealthy homes. It was then I decided to transfer to the University of Maine in Orono where I earned my B.A. in English.
I attended grad school at the University of Vermont where I lived in a tiny house in the woods complete with big spiders* (steel-toed Doc Martens are a form of organic pest control) and was fortunate to have been awarded an assistantship for two years which paid my tuition in full and gave me a small stipend. However, that also meant my days began at 5:00 a.m. and I didn’t get home sometimes until 10 at night. Even so, my most valuable life lesson learned wasn’t a part of my curriculum, but in a playground.
For two years, in addition to a twenty-hour a week graduate assistantship I had a twenty-hour a week internship along with a full graduate course load (including the summer). It was a stressful and busy load which left no money for fun after I paid my rent or time for things like a vacation. In contrast, some of the grad students in my program were fortunate to be the recipients of large trust funds and/or had full parental funding for their courses, housing and lifestyle. I’ll never forget that first day after winter break when one woman in particular returned from her Club Med vacation (that was a big thing in the 90s), tan and relaxed and shared with me how excited she was about her new BMW SUV that her parents gave her for Christmas. Then she looked at me for a second and said: “Dude, you look really pale and tired. You should totally take a vacation and try to relax more.”
Although I’m pretty sure there may be an obscure Vermont law that would have made me eligible for claiming legal self-defense when questioned by authorities on why a less than diplomatic approach was taken, I’m pleased to report that I simply smiled and walked away. I’m sad to say that I thought she was right.
A few months later in the spring I walked along the outskirts of a school playground with a friend. About five years my junior, Ryan was tall and handsome in an outdoorsy rugged way with a pleasantly disarming neurotic charm. We were both on our way to an alcohol recovery meeting. He coughed a few times, then looked very worried. We walked in silence for a few minutes before he asked: “What are the signs of emphysema?” while trying to sound disinterested in the doom and gloom he expected to be forthcoming.
I laughed so deeply that I had to stop and was hunched over before I blurted out: “A hypochondriac! That’s so awesome! You don’t have emphysema!” He grinned and his whole face lit up as if the embers of his fears blew away.
We started walking again and approached the grade school playground. Some kids were out running in circles and screaming as they played before going back inside.
“Let’s go on the slide!” he yelled as he grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the chain fence.
“What? Are you crazy!” I thought it was a terrific idea, but a bad one just the same. I had an out. “I have my clogs on. I can’t climb that fence.”
“Come on,” he said as he put his hands together for me to step on and then over the fence. I could feel my face turning red from laughing at the thought of two adults crashing school recess. I stepped on his hands with my right clogged foot and pushed up at which point he pushed me up as I grabbed the top of the fence. I climbed over it and held on from the top as I made a soft and safe landing on the other side. Effortlessly he swung over the fence after me.
The early spring late morning sky was cloud-filled and sunny with hues of yellow, white and blue. An open window highlighted the sound of kids inside saying the pledge of allegiance. The air had the scent of drying mud.
“Come on!” He held his hand out again and we walked over to the red slide out in the open. A large matronly woman standing on the top of the school stairway wearing a whistle around her neck took notice of us.
Possessed with a sense of not caring but full of feeling, I climbed up the small stairs making loud clunking sounds as I did and slid the very short way down. Ryan tried to slide but his tall body exceeded its length so it was more like he just stood up and then yelled: “It’s the lunch lady! She’s coming after us!”
Laughing, we both ran along the fence until it came to an end which I hadn’t seen earlier, until we were safe from being permanently banned from recess.
While I never did get to take a vacation, that day I learned to live my life in a way that lessened the need for a formal and expensive escape. Something that I would have dismissed as juvenile or beneath me was actually just what I needed to prevent a slide into despair and instead raised my spirits. I learned to work hard without becoming hardened and to not smart at the thought of being juvenile.
The current admissions scandal has only helped me feel even more appreciative of all that I’ve earned and learned, even though it’s not something that has earned me millions of dollars or “followers” online. I feel fortunate to know that pure joy doesn’t require a trust fund, popularity or an impressive pedigree!
*I’ve grown super soft in my advancing years, or is it tougher? Instead of killing spiders in my house I try to relocate them outside.