Today is the beginning of the end.
I walked into the classroom this evening – the first day of my final college course – and was immediately deluged with memories of my first day of my first college course.
It was over 17 years ago. I was not warm to the idea of attending college. I hated high school, deeming it the third least-appealing long-term activity I’d ever been forced to participate in – a conferral made all the more easy due to my parents blasé and Janus-faced view of compulsory education. But Jennifer and I – mostly Jennifer, really – reasoned that one of us needed to get some sort of certificate or degree lest we be stuck in low-wage, unsatisfactory jobs from now until Armageddon.
Despite arriving twelve minutes before the start of class time, I breathlessly entered a classroom on the lower level of Century College’s West Campus to find almost every desk taken. I was reduced to sitting in a seat exactly in the middle: two from the front, two from the back, two from the left, and two from the right. I quickly scanned the room as I nervously unzipped my bag and removed a notebook, a pen, and the two textbooks: about 25 students, a fair mix of boys and girls. Some looked about my age – I hoped no one would know that I was the advanced age of 24. There was an obese woman with sweatpants and acne sitting in the front left seat. She looked to be about 41 years old, embarrassingly old to in college, by my estimate.
I sat up and stared at the curly black hair of the young woman in front of me. My heart was beating fast. It had taken my longer than I’d hoped to drive to the campus and then find a parking spot. Should I be doing this? Jehovah’s Witnesses are discouraged from involvement in higher education. And though they’d weakened on that stance over the past half-decade, they still treated it as a last resort, a humiliating endeavor to warily engage only if all else had failed…sort of like begging for change on the streets.
The instructor walked in late. A thirty-something large-boned pregnant woman with taupe pants and long, straight brown hair. “Welcome to the semester,” she said smiling, then passed out a syllabus – a word I’d never heard before – and told us this was Public Speaking 1030, and if we hadn’t signed up for that, we were in the wrong class. One girl meekly got up, clutched her books against her ribs, and ducked out.
The instructor was quick to point out that, as per the schedule, we would be giving our first speech in class starting next Tuesday. “That’s right, you’ll be up here in front of the class one week from now.” She added that, for this first speech, she would be asking for volunteers to present in the order we’d like, but that if no one raised their hand, she’d randomly pick students. In short, I had to be ready next Tuesday. Either I’d have to raise my hand and present, or I’d risk being called on.
After the second day of class, that Thursday, I still hadn’t come up with a suitable topic to go with the persuasive speech I was slated to deliver.
I sat in front of my desktop computer for a long time, constantly walking away to work on my homework from History and Chemistry, my other two courses that semester.
By Monday night, I had a skeleton of a speech, but I didn’t want to give it. “I just want to quit,” I whined to Jennifer, “This is too stressful. Nana’s right, I’m not smart enough to do a good job.” This was a reference to my paternal grandmother. She rolled her eyes and said “Of course” when I was in elementary school and I was getting such good grades there was talk of me skipping a grade. But then, mid-way through my first year of Junior High School, I gave up. Well, sort of. I committed myself to never failing any classes, and either doing all the work or ensuring my parents wouldn’t find out that I hadn’t done all the work. But that was it. I wasn’t going to expend any effort or time on any classwork I didn’t assuredly enjoy. And that, as it turns out, was hardly anything outside of wood shop or videography.
Nana often compared me to Amy, my straight-A cousin who was a mere 60 days my senior. “Amy called me from Florida yesterday,” Nana said, sitting in her rocking chair that was, as always, turned to face the television. “She got all A’s in school again.”
“I could do that,” I said.
“Well then why don’t you, Jimmy?”
“Because I don’t care.”
“Hm.” She looked at me over her glasses. “I think if you could do it, you would do it.”
“I would if I cared.”
But maybe, after all, she was right. Unlike junior high and senior high, I had deliberately chosen to attend Century College. More than that, I was paying for it.
“You’re not quitting!” Jennifer yelled. “We arranged too many things in our life to make it so you can go to college. And now you’re gonna do it.”
“What’s wrong with your speech? Let’s hear it.”
“Right now? You want me to give it to you?”
“Yeah right now. You’re supposed to practice it out loud, right?’
“Then do it.”
So, there in the living room of our tiny apartment, I got up from the floor and stood in front of the coffee table. Jennifer sat on the futon and listened to my speech about Why Humans Should Explore Mars. I cringed as I spoke each forced line. I kept looking up from my note card with it’s assigned limit of 30 words and staring at Jennifer, my eyes pleading with her to let this be done. During each protracted, unnatural pause, I gave a belabored sigh, sighing that seventh through eleventh grade had already proven sufficiently that formal schooling was bunk, so why this delayed, tertiary blip on my life? When it was done, deflated, I sat back on the floor with my elbows on the table.
“What was wrong with that?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s just not very good.”
Jennifer said it was, but she was wrong. If someone walked into my Toastmasters Club this week and gave the exact same presentation in the exact same way, I would think it’s a good thing they’re in Toastmasters because, damn, they suck.
The next morning, I didn’t raise my hand at first. As I told Jennifer the night before, I wanted to hear at least one other speech before I gave mine, to establish a baseline.
The old woman in her 40s went first. And she did…pretty well, actually. Then I raised my hand, but the instructor call on the redhead who appeared smartly dressed for the occasion. She did really well. Then it was my turn.
Then I relaxed, and it was only over the rest of that class period and the next two days of class that my confidence rose. One guy just didn’t prepare. The instructor called on him, and he said he wasn’t ready. “Well, you’re supposed to be ready,” she gently reminded him. She then asked if he wanted to stand up and say what he had so far, or if he wanted a zero. He got up an delivered a laughable quasi-speech on the importance of Tupac Shakur. It wasn’t persuasive. “Tupac was very important to the rap scene,” the student said, “he made good music that people still listen to today, even though he got killed.”
Then another student tried to persuade us that there should be stricter control over teachers due to the pervasiveness of child abuse between teachers and students, and cited one example of a high school gym teacher in California who molested 1.4 million students over his 30-year tenure. I spent the rest of his speech calculating the ridiculousness of that number so that, when it was time for Q&A, I was able to raise my hand and ask clarification. Actually, he called on the girl sitting to my left first, and she said, “Are you sure about that number?” His eyes grew wide and he nodded deliberately, saying, “I know, isn’t that terrible?” Then I was able to call out, “What? Did he have the kids line up so he could molest one a minute for three years?” He didn’t understand, but it got a good laugh out of most of the class. The teacher covered her mouth with the back of her hand, stifling a giggle.
On the way out of class that day, I received my grade for the presentation. Ninety percent; the lowest I received of the five speeches I gave in that class.
I didn’t quit. And now I’m here.