I turned onto Boone Avenue, my tires sliding over the November snow in Spokane. The Gonzaga campus shrunk in the distance as I approached I-90. When I reached the freeway, my first weekend on campus would end and my normal life begin. A rowdy two days of being the "visiting prospect": getting lost in College Hall, squirming through crowds in the Hemmingson Center and participating in a few extracurricular activities. Soon, reality would reset.
Now, I was on I-90, speeding home toward Wenatchee. Jackson interrupted my thoughts from the passenger seat:
"Let's stop and get food," he said.
"No, I don't have any more money," I retorted.
"Oh that's right, you blew it on your gear."
"I didn't 'blow it' on gear. I was making an investment into my future.”
“It was an excessive investment,” he laughed.
I ignored him.
The “Now approaching Whitworth” sign blew past our right side, and I thought back to my visit at that campus — a totally different experience. Before this morning, I could never explicitly state one particular reason I disliked the campus. Reflecting on my experience on Gonzaga’s, I figured it was because Whitworth’s reminded me of a retirement home.
A few hours later, zooming toward Wenatchee and passing through open fields near an awful little town called Schrag, a thought crept into my head: do I really want to stay in Washington? I had aspirations of attending school in Los Angeles and figuring out life on my own, unabridged by familial influence, master of my own destiny. Would it be cowardly of me to choose a school because of how close it was? I imagined myself making this dull drive every month. Seeing the same cows; smelling the same manure and passing by the same ugly towns.
My mouth went dry and nausea washed over me — my previous night of debauchery probably did not help — and I pulled the car over at a gas station.
Fast-forward to early April. The snow outside had been replaced with grass. Children outside rolled around on bikes, dressed in light jackets — Mother Nature was just beginning to rise out of bed. I was not concerned about the weather though. I was in my living room, watching the national championship.
“Mathews off the mark — and this year, the confetti will fall for North Carolina. They’re not gonna be denied this time.” Jim Nantz’s voice pierced my heart. Melancholy struck. I watched the Tar Heels dance and celebrate on the screen, hooting and hollering in the center of a 78,000-seat stadium. Players from both teams hugged one other — some in celebration, others in mourning. How close we were to victory! Even though I had only decided to attend Gonzaga the week before the game, the loss still felt personal, like North Carolina had slapped me in the face.
I turned off the television and drove to the gym. The radio had broken a few weeks ago, so the drive was quiet. I thought about the Gonzaga fans, the people who had driven across state lines in support of their Bulldogs; I wanted to be a part of that next year. A grin crept across my face as I pulled into the gym parking lot. I spent my workout thinking of clever ideas for signs I could take to basketball games.
My April visit at Gonzaga was less impetuous than that of November. GEL weekend came, and I consumed nothing but food and drink, on my absolute best behavior. By the end of the two days, lying on the floor in my GEL host’s crowded dorm room, listening to music, my arms folded behind my head, I felt at home. For the first time in six months, I felt confident in my future. Every graduating senior probably experiences the same thing: an uncomfortable gnawing feeling at the thought of choosing between colleges. But I was past that point now. The application process was over. I had a home. Soon, I would be a Zag, a Bulldog, a student at one of the most prestigious schools in the Northwest.
That was the trick though — “the most prestigious school in the Northwest.” It’s all ho-hum to boast an acceptance letter to a college, but it’s a whole separate, more ache -inducing thing to capitalize on the opportunity. We idolize college graduates; but prestige is far harder to come by for college dropouts. In a world of educated men and women, they are societal outcasts (other than the 0.1 percent of dropouts like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc.). Everyone in the 21st century has a college degree. How hard could college really be if so many people have succeeded?
Half a century ago, my grandpa dropped out of high school and worked as a carpenter in a town of 800 people in the armpit of California. Eventually, he toiled and worked enough for a job as a hydro engineer at Wells Dam. He earned a better living than most college graduates today. Things are different now. The American Dream had a lower threshold for participants. Today, dropping out of high school means SES (socio-economic status)-suicide. Anybody ditching high school dooms themself to years of hard labor and food stamps. But, compared to college dropouts, at least these high school flunks recognized their place in society instead of attending a school that is out of their league and then continuously living in denial about their own capabilities.
I guess that’s the situation I am in right now: wondering whether or not I belong in a school full of elites. Whether or not I am prepared, though, the time for talk is over. If I have any opportunity out in the real world, I must acknowledge the difficulties ahead. It would be naive to romanticize the college experience, but God knows, we are all naive enough to think otherwise.
Hunter Brawley is a columnist. Follow him on Twitter @thebrawley9.