By the time college rolled around in the fall of 1996, my muscular dystrophy had progressed to the point where getting up from a chair was difficult. I had to be aware of what material the soles of my shoes were made of and the type of flooring to be sure there was enough grip for me to do the awkward dance I had worked out to go from seated to standing. In order to stand up, I would spread my feet out as wide as I could to get my center of gravity as low as possible and form a steady base for the upcoming action. Then, I would rock forward to shift my weight from the seat to my legs. Next came the dance where I sort of swayed left and right, each time bringing my feet closer together until I was standing normally. If my shoes or the floor was too slippery, the side to side shifting would prove fruitless, and I would be stuck until I figured out how to gain some traction or until someone came along to give me some assistance. During those years, I spent most of my time just standing. There were many times that I would stand up for up to 8 hours because there either wasn’t any place I could easily sit, or I didn’t want to have to perform my embarrassing dance in front of a pretty girl or a group of people I wanted to impress.
I spent my first two years of higher education just down the road from home at the local Harvard-on-the-highway community college. It worked out great for me in that lots of my friends from high school were there or showed up there the second semester after they bounced out of whatever university they went off to a few unsuccessful, expensive months earlier. Another benefit was the transition it provided from the structured environment of high school to the free-for-all excesses of being away from home for the first time at a university. It was also really cheap. In fact, after my scholarships and grant from Vocational Rehab, I cleared about $500 profit each semester of those first two years in college.
Not much noteworthy happened to me during that time, though. I went to class, if for no other reason than because my parents knew if I was at home when I was supposed to be at school, my grades were pretty decent, and other than one Thursday night trip to a bar in Jackson for penny pitchers of beer that resulted in me regurgitating in my bed, I didn’t get in too much trouble. That’s not to say I didn’t wander around in close proximity to trouble, I just managed to never get in more than ankle deep.
It was during this time that my friends and I started visiting Mississippi State University (hereafter referred to as State) on the weekends if there was a football game or any other reason to sow our wild oats up and down the land of free beer, also known as fraternity row. We stayed with a friend’s sister and had high times all over Starkville those two years. Oddly enough, once we were enrolled there, we hardly ever went near the frat houses.
In the spring of 1998, the guy I planned to live with at State was tipped off to the availability of a house for rent for the next school year. In our youthful exuberance (stupidity), we rushed to Starkville from our jobs cleaning used cash registers so we could sign the lease and put down our deposit on this awesome (at the time) house. We were so proud that we were able to snatch up this gem before anyone else had a chance. My parents weren’t as thrilled as we were with this opportunity that I didn’t inform them of until after we had signed the lease. Looking back, I think that lease would have still been available two weeks after school started if we hadn’t jumped on it so eagerly. The house was old, in a bad part of town, drafty, oddly laid out, had no air conditioning, had a heater that only worked sporadically (we had to stomp on the grate in the floor to get it to come on), and worst for me was that it had steps going up to the outside doors. How stupid was I to rent a house with steps? I spent a miserable year (without comment on any experiences with my roommates) in that run-down dump before moving right down the street into a comfortable, but not really all that nice, 2 bedroom apartment all to myself for the 1999-2000 school year. I didn’t spend much time there, however, because that was the year PJ came to town, and under his tutelage, I learned how to party like a pro. If you remember the high school installment of this series, PJ was one of the 2 guys that went to Arkansas with me after graduation.
The biggest physical challenge of my time at State was that my classes weren’t all in one place. The sprawling campus meant that I might have to get from one side of campus to the other in 10-15 minutes in between classes. Since there was no way I could walk that far, even without a limited time allotment, I had no choice but to drive, and if you’ve ever tried to drive around or find parking on a college campus during the week, you know that it’s quite congested and there are precious few parking places, even if you have one of those handy blue plastic parking passes in your dash. Thankfully, Student Support Services (SSS) and Dr. Donnie Prisock were there to help. They moved several classes that were either upstairs in a building with no elevator or were too far apart for me. I hated using their services at the time, though, because I was embarrassed to get special consideration. All I wanted was to be just like everybody else, and I thought that if I could just ignore my physical limitations, everyone else would be blind to my disability.
Because I tried to avoid using the assistance of SSS as much as possible, I mastered the fine art of skipping class. If there was anything that was physically more difficult than usual about a class or if a class was going to be super easy, I would analyze the syllabus and the professor’s level of give-a-damn to determine the appropriate ratio of class attendance to watching In the Heat of the Night at PJ’s house. My skipping skills were finely honed. The best example occurred during the spring semester of my senior year when I had a class at 8:00 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays that I attended 9 times in total. That was the most extreme example, but there were scant few classes that didn’t feel the gentle caress of my calculated absences. By the way, I had a 4.0 gpa that spring semester of my senior year, so it can’t be said that my academics suffered from my truancy.
After attending the first semester of summer school in 2000 to take a Logic class, which was one of the most useful classes I took in all my years of formal education, I was awarded a bachelor’s degree in political science. Since I had been too short-sighted or lazy, if I’m going to be completely honest, to find a job in the months preceding my graduation, and there weren’t any employers beating down my door, begging me to go to work for them, I decided to hang around and get my master’s degree in public policy and administration. The classes would be in the same building and taught by the same professors I was already comfortable with, and all my friends were still in Starkville. Also, the classes were at night, and my weekends usually began on Wednesday nights at 9:00 since I only had to take three classes per semester.
During my time immersed in post-graduate education, I worked a super easy job in the political science department where I assisted two professors each semester for a total of 20 hours of work per week. Dr. Charles Menifield was blessed to have my expert assistance for all four of my grad school semesters, but my 2nd professor to work for changed each semester. They were Dr. Krish Bhansali, Dr. Stephen Shaffer, Dr. Mfanya Tryman, and Dr. Marty Wiseman. I worked for Dr. Menifield editing a book he was writing, teaching classes in his absence, grading tests, or writing book reviews for him, but the coolest thing I got to do for him was writing an essay for publication by the Stennis Institute of Government on the 2000 presidential election and the mess that occurred in Florida. I even got credit for it, making me a published author at the tender age of 23. While Dr. Menifield kept me moderately occupied for a few hours every week or two, the other four professors that shared my time over those four semesters rarely, if ever, even asked me to do anything for them. It was a cush gig.
By the time my last semester of grad school rolled around, most of my friends had gone back home to regroup before making a final push toward getting their degrees, a few others had graduated, and there were a very few still around. I was exhausted and finally ready to get finished and get on with my life. As my time in college wound down, I managed to pass my comprehensive exam by the narrowest of margins, turned in term papers written with the least possible effort necessary, and skated through my final exams before loading a U-Haul trailer on the morning of the graduation ceremony that I skipped. While many of my classmates were walking across the stage, I was trucking all of my possessions south on Highway 25, leaving Starkville for the last time for almost a decade.
A few weeks after I got settled back in my parents’ house, still looking for a job, I realized that I hadn’t received my diploma, so I called the automated phone system to check my grades. That’s when I received the shocking news from the choppy, digital representation of a woman’s voice that I was given an incomplete in one of my classes.
The first thing I did after hanging up the phone was to call the professor who’d held my graduation hostage to find out why I’d been given the first incomplete of my educational career for a class in the last semester of my educational career. He informed me that my term paper was only 12 pages and the minimum page count was to be 13. For that transgression, he said he would have to give me a C for the semester, and he didn’t want to do that since the penalty for getting 2 Cs meant that I would have to take some extra classes and do some other stuff, which I have since forgotten. He wanted me to rewrite my paper and submit it again to avoid the C.
Well, I didn’t have a C already on my transcript, and I was finished with all the other requirements to get my degree, so there was zero chance that I could accumulate 2 of them to trigger the probationary academic activities. I had also already relinquished the keys to my apartment and had no intention of finding a place to stay for a few days while I utilized the resources of the Mitchell Memorial Library to rewrite that paper. So, I politely informed him that I had considered his offer, and while I appreciated it, I would go ahead and accept the C so I could get my diploma and be done. He then asked that I write him an email stating what we’d just talked about before he would do it. I thanked him before hanging up the phone, immediately pecked out the request, and emailed it to him.
A month or so later, I realized that I still hadn’t received my diploma and, after calling the grades hotline again, my incomplete was still gumming up the works. In a fit of rage, I snatched up the phone and called the professor’s office only to find that he had taken off on a two month trip to Europe without changing my grade. My next call was to the department chair who said he would get in touch with my professor and see what was going on. A few days later, the department chair called me back and offered me the same deal to rewrite the paper that I’d already been offered. Once again, I declined the offer and requested the C, and once again I had to submit my request in writing explaining why I didn’t want to rewrite the paper and wanted to take the grade I earned.
Finally, In August of 2002 I received a large manila envelope with a Mississippi State, MS postmark containing that precious piece of paper marking the end of my formal education. Unbeknownst to me at that time, it also marked the beginning of a more valuable period of education taught by those I worked for and with, as well as other random people who walked my path with me for varying lengths of time. My education shifted from between the covers of the most boring books ever written and the stoic halls of academia to exchanges between coworkers in the halls of office buildings or simple conversations with those people smarter or more experienced than me over lunch. Life really is the most effective teacher.
I appreciate the opportunity that was given to me to pursue my formal education as far as I wanted to take it. My disability would prevent me from using physical strength or skill to earn a living, and I knew I would have to prepare myself for a job at a desk. Crucial to that end was the guidance, support, and preparation supplied by my parents. Beginning on my first day of kindergarten at South Louisville Baptist Church, they began laying my educational foundation. They placed emphasis on my grades, attendance, homework, and attention to detail, and like any kid, I struggled and fought back against their guidance at times. However, as I reflect on those times, I see the wisdom they were trying to impart in me, and I still find myself striving to live up to those same ideals. Some days, I’m more successful than others, but the goal remains the same.
(To be continued…)
I’m going to close with a quick political thought because it pertains to the theme of this writing, and it’s something about which I feel strongly.
I recognize how blessed I have been in the celestial luck of the draw of where you are born and to whom you are born. I also recognize that there are many, especially in my state, that don’t benefit from the same advantages that made my path as smooth as it has been. These folks have to work much harder to achieve similar levels of success, and that is unacceptable. The opportunity to achieve success should be available at the same price for everyone, no matter who is pursuing it. We have to work diligently to ensure that quality educational opportunities are available for every child in Mississippi and every other state no matter who their parents are, no matter if they have two, one, or no parents in their lives to encourage them, no matter if they lack the financial resources to buy school supplies, and no matter if they live in Madison or Mayersville. In order to lift ourselves, we must lift those around us. The centuries-old practice of Mississippi’s leaders retaining power by keeping their boots on the necks of the poor or the disadvantaged has to stop.