Here’s why we don’t stop stepping. Because the next step on the path can land you on your way to where you belong.
We’ve all been there. Like, where is this going? Seems to make no sense and we figure to just bail. But then, something like this happens.
I went to a little school in Kennedy, Alabama. There were fewer than three hundred students in all twelve grades. So, if I didn’t know the first and second graders, I knew their older brothers or sisters or cousins. Everybody knew everybody. I believed I was somebody. I played football on the starting team and my girlfriend was a cheerleader. I had a car, and I could wave out the window to friendly people. I had a job at the gas station that paid for hamburgers and milkshakes. All in, things were pretty good.
Then I graduated high school and went to the University of Alabama. I went from one of 247 kids, to one of twelve thousand. My car was a lame six-cylinder four-door with a busted radio. It was a good car in Kennedy. In Tuscaloosa it was crap. My grades in high school came easy. In Tuscaloosa I had to study and spend lots of time on homework. Which I didn’t want to do. I was that lost ball in tall weeds. Now there are near 40,000 students enrolled. I can’t even imagine.
By my second year there, it was all going down hill fast. My third semester grades were four Fs and an X for dodging the final exam. I had gained thirty pounds since leaving Kennedy, mostly from beer and pizza. I called my mama and told her I was gonna slog through one more semester, since I’d already started classes, but when I came home for summer, I’d not be returning to the university. I told her I would go to the trade school in Vernon and learn auto mechanics, or heating and air conditioning. Something. Just get a job so I could buy me a good car. She said okay.
But then I showed up in an English composition class, and that was the step that changed my life. Turned me in a whole new direction.
The teacher said it was such a pretty spring day, she didn’t want to be stuck in a classroom. She said she’d let us skip class if we’d write a five or six-page paper describing something on campus. “Not a girl or a guy or a dog,” she said. “Not a car passing by on University Boulevard.” But something solid so she could have some reference for our paper.
The Quad looked inviting, and I figured I’d go ahead and finish my assignment so I didn’t’ have it looming to interfere with my concentration in a pool game at the Chukker bar (open downtown from 1956 to 2003).
So I sat down on the grass, took out my spiral-bound notebook and described with a ballpoint pen Denny Chimes on the south side of The Quad. Actually an Italian campanile, a 115-foot tall free-standing bell tower named for George H. Denny, president of the univesity from 1912 to 1936, and again in 1941. I don’t remember what I wrote.
I remember, however, the grade I got. The teacher came around handing out the folded assignments to the students sitting at their desks. She stopped beside me. She looked at me, then at the paper in her hand, then back at me. She dropped the paper in front of me. Marked in red ink, at a diagonal across the top of the fold, she’d written: “A-plus. You are sweetness and light.”
Two things happened immediately. One, I fell in love with the professor. She wasn’t that much older than me, and I figured it might could work out. Two, I changed my mind about being a mechanic. When I talked to my new girlfriend after class, asking her to explain her comment, she said, “You don’t know what it’s like to wade through writing here in a college classroom that’s written at a middle school level. Semester after semester. And then you come along to brighten my day. You don’t know what it means to me.”
I asked her if she wanted to grab a draft beer at the Chukker. She said no. Her husband might not like for her to do that, she said.
Okay, so number one fell away pretty quickly. But my second thing has held for fifty years since changing my major to journalism. I did have to delay piling on some good grades in school until after a tour of duty in the navy, because I got a letter at the end of that bad fourth semester telling me I’d lost my student deferment and was 1-A and eligible for the draft.
This was during the war in Vietnam and I’d at least learned enough to follow the advice, “The worst rolling in deck in the South China Sea is better than the warmest foxhole in-country.” Of course, when I signed up, I couldn’t know for sure that I wouldn’t draw a gunboat in the Mekong Delta. But I was lucky, and went to an aircraft carrier, the USS Intrepid, as an electronics technician.
So that one teacher, her one assignment in that one classroom, that one grade…changed my life. Put me on the way to being a writer instead of doing body and fender repair. Which trade I dabbled in a time or two with good results, by the way, and with expert talent could’ve made six figures a year. But writing is more fun.
We cannot know which next step is going to come down on a whole other road. The right road for us.
Like Norman Mailer said, “A man in motion has got a chance.” You just gotta keep stepping, dude.