When I decided to get my act together at the beginning of the 1970’s I faced some challenges—education beyond high school costs money and friends’ attitudes. The GI Bill solved the first. There was a program to assist vets in getting their high school diplomas. The nice part was that using the program would not count towards my available college benefits.
I found a school by walking around Boston’s Back Bay and wandering into places with signs saying that they were schools, not a very bright or scientific methodology.
Eventually, I wandered into Shaw Preparatory School. It turned out that Shaw Prep was what I was looking for: dedicated to learning, capable of teaching students with “issues,” and an enjoyable atmosphere that encouraged comradely behavior among the student body and faculty.
My English teacher was a former habitue of San Francisco’s Beat Scene of the late fifties, and I was a former habitue of New York’s Greenwich Village. The two of us bonded like brothers. We were both exiles from our cultural origins. So at Shaw, I found an educational environment that allowed me to grow.
But to get back to the second problem. Few of my friends, and certainly not my then-girlfriend, saw any potential for me to be anything other than what I was then; hard-working and talented but limited by educational handicaps. Mostly they saw my interest in education as another passing fancy that would fade away as my learning to play the banjo did.
I happen to be stubborn. So the more my friends expressed a belief that it was a passing fancy, the more I dug in to prove them wrong.
George, my English teacher, suggested that I take this as a challenge. So he started me on an accelerated reading program of James Joyce, John Steinbeck, Ginsburg, Montaigne, Thoreau, and Hemingway. With great humor, he termed this his crash course in being erudite. After exposing me to much outstanding literature, George began teaching me other ways to drive my points home and dominate conversations. I was encouraged to learn appropriate quotes and gestural body mechanics to make my point.
There were consequences. Several friends found the new me threatening. If I described a colorful sunset as having variegated skies, I was peered at – “where did this stranger come from.” My English teacher was now encouraging me to start college as soon as possible. He saw the changes as blossoming and urged me to take the opportunity to follow it as far as I could. My girlfriend saw her position as the educated college graduate in our relationship as threatened.
Ultimately I took a bite of the apple. It was sweet. Once in a while, I look back at what was lost. But it could not compare with what was gained.