In the old school days we often joked about women, those pompous politicians, the insufferable teachers and the athletes who had just ripped the teams off for the most outrageous contracts. But never did we rant more than on the futility of school. After all, if education was so important and formative as the pedants claimed, where would the drug dealers, the streetwalkers, the failures, and all the prodigal sons be? We all thought of education as something more pretentious, more aristocratic that the privileged set up to hide the ugly truth that they were smarter, more erudite (the word I only picked up later from thesaurus) than everybody else. We seemed so serious about our belief, then, declaiming against the newly renowned educator whose work no one cared but only quoted. Yet it wasn’t until John Jackson, the little scholar who suggested that we all drop out of high school that the empty talk became a possibility, then a reality. 

Whether it was out of vanity or valor, like the insane Don Quixote whose obsession with chivalry led to his crazy adventure, I dropped out the year Mom died. What year I didn’t remember too clearly. Sophomore, perhaps, I couldn't ascertain. They didn’t keep any record then.

The problem was that it was supposedly all a joke. I was the only who took it seriously and foolishly enough. Naivete, simplicity, or just idiocy. I tried to ascribe my action to my own personality. Yet it wasn’t later that I chanced to look upon a word that seems to describe my situation perfectly. Conformity. And because of my loyalty, my belief in peer pressure or cult affiliation, whatever you call it, I thought they would follow in my steps. Only I was no leader. I was the first one, the martyr that no one followed.

So here I am, in front of an imposing, formidable building, to finish my diploma, twenty years after I left school.

I arrived early today, the first day of school. It’s a summer school, and I’m hoping that the other students (my peers, shall we?) are middle-aged dropouts like me when a bunch of youngsters saunter from the bus stop toward the school entrance, near where I am standing. My anticipation gives way to panic, Shit, I curse. I can turn back now, I say to myself. I can’t, however. The stakes are high and I have no choice.

Having a diploma, I have learned, is a blessing, if not a necessity, and that’s my sole incentive for going back, to be honest. In case you’re that unbearable know-it-all who has completed ten graduate degrees, it feels nasty not to have one and to have it dug out by the others. I can lie, of course, but it’s more debasing, at least to myself, than admitting yourself to be a dropout. So naturally it goes that people are invariably scandalized by my innocent, forced confession of having lived a life so far without a diploma. “It’s like being an illiterate dude in this world,” John Jackson told me quite innocuously several years later when he contacted me upon his becoming a university professor at Vanderbilt. That bastard, I thought. Betrayal didn’t even register. It was all shame and anger mixed together.

I watch the students enter the building, hesitating whether I should follow. No, I decide. I’ll wait some time.

It’s a constant struggle for one to waver and quaver, all the while knowing that he eventually has to confront the inescapable. Part of me thinks that not having a diploma contributes greatly to this indecisiveness, but who knows? Having no diploma has already deprived me of much good I had and a little compensation of some extra unwanted personal trait for the loss seems reasonable.

As I count down the minutes, I start doubting my conviction that a diploma is necessary. And why am I so unnerved by the class I haven’t even taken yet? I always imagine myself rather unassailable by such agitation, and my sudden dread seems inexplicable. For one thing, I don’t recall ever fearing a class in my youth. I had held the class with contempt, but now somehow, somehow the contempt is no longer there. In its place is an unaccountable dismay. Have I become more diffident over the years? I don’t know for sure. I only know that I have become more cautious, more paranoid; The daredevil within my younger version seems to have dissolved. The identity of the student that I was seemed to have also faded away. I have become less bold, the realization hits me. Is it a good thing? I can’t be sure.

And now standing in front of the building, mired in this dilemma of whether to proceed or not to, I suddenly notice an old, bespectacled man with scraggly hair walking toward me. He sees me, too, and before I can avert my eyes he says, “Are you the professor? I surely need your help finding the classroom. I got no orientation, you see, and if you can kindly tell me where room 201 is . . .”

Hell, I think. This old man is taking a class, not even bothering to politely ask a younger man whom he’s taken as the professor for direction. It doesn’t even matter whether he’s got a diploma or not, I realize. Maybe he is an ignorant fool like me, or a university professor who somehow thinks it an appealing idea to audit in a summer school, what does it matter? He’s here to learn, and who cares how old and senile he looks? The old man’s humble attitude stuns me, and for some moments I just stand there, unable to answer him. He is nice, though, and waits patiently as I think about how to field the question. Should I admit that I’m a student? Or perhaps I can just shrug and tell him to ask someone else?

But then I think, hell, what do I care? We’re all here to learn, even the professors. And so I say, “hey, I’m a new student too, but I can surely help you find the room.”

August 14, 2020 02:28

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Amy Sutch
17:48 Aug 21, 2020

Nice story


Al Johnson
18:33 Aug 21, 2020

thank you!


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Keerththan 😀
07:51 Aug 21, 2020

Wonderful story. It was very reflective. Nice job. Keep writing. Would you mind reading my story "Secrets don't remain buried?"


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Marcus Wilson
02:42 Aug 16, 2020

The story is so poignant and reflective! The beginning is captivating.


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