Education is Cool
My friend and I were hanging out at her house after school and had just gone into the kitchen for a snack when her older sister walked in. “Well,” she said. “I did it.” We both looked at her curiously. “I quit school,” she announced. She was sixteen and I was eleven. In that moment, I thought she was the coolest girl in the world.
I knew she was pretty with her peaches-and-cream complexion, honey golden hair, and big brown eyes. Now I was finding out she was courageous, too. What guts it took to do that.
We wanted to know how she did it. As she spread peanut butter over soft, fresh bread and stirred Hershey’s chocolate syrup into her milk, she told us. “I just marched right into the principal’s office, slammed my books on the counter, and told them ‘I quit.’ They were all standing there with big eyes looking at me. Then I turned on my heel and marched out the door.”
That was all there was to it. Wow. I was impressed by her bravery.
Her rebel-without-a-cause boyfriend was pretty neat, too. He wore blue jeans rolled up at the cuff, white socks, and penny loafers. His cigarettes were always tucked into the sleeve of his white tee-shirt, and his sandy blond hair was slicked back at the sides to reveal generous sideburns. I thought he was quite a catch with his soft-spoken, slow walking manner. He was a little older and had been out of school for a couple of years.
It wasn’t long before they got married and began to raise a family. Through the years, they had numerous children and moved several times so they could rent larger houses to make room for everyone. She stayed home while her husband worked at local factory jobs. By all accounts, they had a good marriage.
Through my adolescent years, I thought about my friend’s sister and her seemingly brave decision to drop out of high school. I never really considered quitting school, but I certainly did not take full advantage of learning.
Academic pursuits were not on my radar as I bounced through ninth and tenth grades on a cloud of airheaded nonsense. I was focused more on boys than books. After observing my doodling in the study hall he was monitoring, our high school’s football coach told me to marry a sugar daddy because he believed I wouldn’t amount to anything.
All that changed when my best friend got killed in a car accident. Her tragic death was a wake-up call, and I began to take life and my studies seriously. I buckled down and made good grades my junior and senior years of high school.
On graduation night, I watched as many of my classmates received awards for academic excellence. As I sat there, huge pangs of regret swept through me for having waited so long to get serious about my grades. The kids receiving awards were on their way to college, and many of them had earned scholarships. I saw a brighter future for them than I saw for myself, and I felt alone and left out as I finally realized how much an education matters. No one was to blame but me. I had made my decision to goof off and not study in those early years, while they had made their decisions to do the hard work necessary to move up in life.
Unexpectedly and just a few moments later that same night, something happened that forever changed my world. My name was called for an academic award. It seemed so unlikely.
I hadn’t taken the college prep courses of algebra, chemistry, trigonometry, or a foreign language. Instead, I completed the business curriculum in preparation for a decent job. But one teacher, Mrs. Jacobs, saw my potential and pushed to have it recognized. That night, her belief in me inspired me to reach for more in life. Although I had never given college much thought, it was all I could think of from then on as I began to envision a different future. I was about to find out, though, that between desire and reality was a long row to hoe.
You don’t wake up one day and automatically get accepted into the university of your choice. It takes work, planning, money, and expectations. I hadn’t done the work or the planning, and there certainly wasn’t money for an education. Equally important if not most important, there was no expectation that I would go to college.
Guidance counselors pointed me toward the business curriculum and the world of work upon graduation. Even my beloved aunt and uncle who raised me did not encourage me to get a college education. Along with no budget, there was no precedent for higher education in our family. All too soon, I realized the deep hole I was in and had to push hard to overcome the barriers.
For a year following high school, I worked as a secretary at the local radio station and saved almost every bit of my small salary. Twelve months later, I had met my goal of saving enough money for the first year of college tuition. During that year, I studied for and took entrance exams despite my own low confidence in passing them. The steep requirements in math and science made the exams seem like a losing proposition. But I had to try. My fears were realized with scores too low for acceptance into a four-year school. Pushing onward, I went to a junior college that next year, got good grades, and transferred to our local university the final three years.
While I was in college, my work as a student secretary every day of the week, on Saturdays, and all through spring, summer, and Christmas breaks provided needed funds. Thankfully and lovingly, my aunt and uncle supported me by providing food and shelter so I could save every dollar possible. Student loans supplied the remainder of the funding.
Since I was not prepared academically, I literally feared some of my classes. Basic Physical Science was the course most dreaded and postponed until the very last semester. With pre-requisites in higher-level math, physics, and science, my fears were justified. Since this was a required course for a degree, I knew the only way to go was through.
There were many long nights spent in the university library completing rigorous course assignments and preparing for exams. Dr. Morningstar, my kind and empathetic professor, spent countless hours with me in his office going over my test results. He built bridges from the gaps in my background with his selfless tutoring on arcane concepts. We worked tirelessly, and I passed the course with a grade of C. I don’t know who was more proud—Dr. Morningstar or me.
Finally, despite the odds, I made it through college.
My mom, aunt, uncle, and little sister were there on graduation night with pride in their eyes and joy in their hearts. I was the first college graduate in a very large extended family. Whoever would have thought it possible?
Securing an education did not make me better than anyone else. We are all sacred souls created by the unlimited genius of God. But a college degree does open more doors and allow an individual’s potential to be maximized.
Looking back, my friend’s sister likely made an unwise decision to quit school and limit her opportunities in life. But who’s to say she wasn’t happy right where she was, in a good marriage and raising a large family. If push comes to shove, however, I will always advise that more education is better. First, finish high school. Next, graduate from college if there is any way possible.
Gaining an education starts with expectations. When parents expect their children to finish high school, they continually reinforce values of fortitude, determination, grit, and steadfastness. They make it clear quitting is not an option.
When parents expect their children to go on to college, the planning, budgeting, communication of values, and academic preparation go hand in hand. It often takes sacrifices and resetting of priorities to afford steep tuition costs.
Even more fundamental, parents have an awesome responsibility early on to pay attention to the God-given gifts of their progeny. By closely observing what their children are naturally good at, parents can celebrate, not redirect, those gifts. Just because a long line of physicians exists in the family does not mean their child should follow suit—especially if the child is undeniably gifted in music, art, or other areas.
As the old saying goes, if a child flows to their gifts and marries those gifts to an occupation, they will never work a day in their life. Parents are hugely instrumental in mapping a child’s gifts to a course of study and, ultimately, to their life’s pathway.
As for me, I had to crawl out of a very deep hole to be accepted into college, to finance the tuition, and to handle the academic challenges posed by a lack of preparation. If only I had made better decisions earlier in life. But I learned, albeit the hard way, where there is a will, there is a way. I didn’t know much about my gifts back then, but I deeply appreciate my education. For me, it changed everything.
I know now that quitting school isn’t cool. Education is cool.