As a writer, I’m privy to a lot of conversations. A good majority of those conversations come from my characters who converse inside my head. Sometimes they gang up on me, like little kids, demanding, “Me next!” “It’s my turn!” Other times, as I write their journals, they talk about their deep wounds, their darkest secrets they want no one else to know. Other times they make me laugh at the things they say to each other.
As a teacher, I was privy to a lot of conversations. Before class would start, I would overhear two guys boasting about their 1) truck mudding weekend, 2) their beer/sports binging weekend, or hear about 3) their boring weekend where nothing good happened because 1) their truck was on blocks or 2) they were so broke, they couldn’t buy any beer.
I’d overhear young mothers exchanging stories about their kids; or, I’d overhear an older student reveal that she wrote her draft due that day late the night before while in a hospital or hospice room or at the home of a parent because a parent had 1) fallen and broken a hip, 2) suffered a heart attack, 3) or that the end was near.
I overheard many, many heartbreaking stories, ordinary stories, and sometimes the extraordinary story that got many of us involved in conversations well before class started and often become part of the class discussion because of the topic.
As a citizen who enjoys eating out, I’m privy to a lot conversations that swirl around me in the restaurants. My favorite place is a local diner where the tables, as opposed to the booths, are close, reminding me of New York and Chicago, where tables for two are lined up in neat tight, rows, with just enough room for the booth-side occupants to squeeze through to get seated.
On Father’s Day, I took my step-father out to breakfast at our favorite diner. Naturally, the place was crowded. In a corner that had four tables in close proximity, we were hearing each other’s conversations.
In the middle of our group was a family of three: mom, dad, and a young man of college age. The dad was telling the son that he was embarking on a life-altering experience and not to shrug away the wonderful opportunity that he had been given.
The topic: getting a college education.
The initial discussion was about algebra. Dad was saying that even though the son might never use the algebra as he was taught (the equations specifically) that he would be using algebra his entire life to solve other kinds of problems.
It sounded like the son didn’t like algebra and didn’t want to take the class because he didn’t know what he wanted to do. That such classes were a waste of time. The son respectfully listened as his father explained that no class is ever a waste of time, that those first classes are building a foundation for all other classes that would follow.
Go Dad! It was a speech I’d given with experiential understanding as to why they are necessary.
The father continued saying that anyone who has earned a doctorate deserved to be called doctor, simply by the fact that the degree involved a lot of work. Dedicated years. The son was saying he didn’t know if he wanted to go to graduate school, with dad saying even though he didn’t know now, not to blow off the early classes, as they would become important.
And then, the magic happened.
A father at the next table on the other side, spoke up, saying, listen to your dad. He knows what he’s talking about, that what you earn in life is determined by the education you obtain.
Soon, these two families had me and a woman at a fourth table engaged in the conversation, because we had been nodding our heads in agreement.
What I wanted to be able to tell that young man was:
College is not like high school. College attracts people who want to be there.
College is about your beliefs and your values being scrutinized in a way never done before or by people you’re not related to. That college is about turning your life upside down and inside out, which forces understanding of why you believe what you do. For some, it’s a huge transformation because it’s their first encounter of such scrutiny, and where they first realize that their values and beliefs belong to their parents, not to themselves.
College is where you’ll find your people: people who think like you do, who have the same career dreams, who act like you do; meaning, you won’t be the only nerd in the room; now, it’s a roomful of nerds! And yes, we’re all nerds of one kind or another. I’m a writing nerd. There are language nerds, literature nerds, math and science nerds, computer nerds, accounting nerds…
College is where swear words are allowed. I always found it amusing when a student would throw out the first f-bomb and everyone held their breath, waiting for my retort. I would laugh. That’s when the real conversations began to take place, because we professors are after the ideas behind the words.
When the dad had sent the son off to pay the bill, to figure out the 20% tip that needed adding, we asked and learned that the son was 19.
That’s when Dad turned to Mom and said, “He’s not your little baby boy, anymore.”
Yup, the magic of a village was happening that morning in one small diner in one small town.