Confessions of a Transfer Student
By DANIEL GREENE SMITH
(Notes From the Blunt Edge, The Badger Herald, 1993)
Four classes. I looked at her across the L&S desk in South Hall at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It was the desk of "THE ADMINISTRATORS", where the academic hand of god patted you on the back or smote you with a swipe.
She had an aged beauty; late thirties, well dressed, a certain bohemian style. She had a wonderful motherly quality for a dean.
"What?" I stammered out.
"Four classes till graduation." she said smiling.
After detours overseas, after three years of being a carpenter, after the thousands of dollars, the many papers, the bottles of Advil, the cans of Folgers, I had finally arrived. Twenty seven years old and I could finally see the finish line. I heard the "crunch" as Catherine Mackinnon calls it, when the real lives of people meet the fabricated boundaries of a bureaucracy. I would be embarking again on the ocean of my life. A more real life, a life with bigger risks and bigger victories and bigger failures.
There was no confetti, no trumpets blaring my praises, no smiling angel at my shoulder. Three years ago I was an unemployed carpenter, and in six to eight months I would have a degree in Philosophy and English. The only thing that marked the portent of this moment - the only thing that faced me in that office was her, my transcript, and my fears of impending unemployment. And what fears those are. Nightly the hearse chasers on CNN announce gravely, tacitly with the rehearsed austerity, with the "this is bad news" look on their made ready for TV faces...."The worst job market since 1942..."
The dean had leaned back in her chair and raised her eyebrows waiting for a question...I looked at her. I wanted to ask her out on a date, take her out to dinner, to celebrate.... Admittedly she was a dean, but Iíve been around the world and now I would be graduate...I wanted to make this a moment so to speak.
I did not.
Instead I looked at my transcript - simple black and white, I looked at the list of the classes that remained between me as a student and me as a graduate. All was quiet.
"Thanks very much. " She nodded in response. I left.
I went home and was greeted by apprehensions. Single twenty-seven, four classes away from graduation. Forecast unknown. Unknowable. History; questionable.
That night I realized my biggest fear.
"Why?!" I thought.. " Why should I be terrified if I am like everyone else?" And then I remember yesterday a balding Burger King manager complaining to one of his employees about the alimony payments, and the companies benefits package. I remembered a man I worked with as a carpenter, Barry. He turned to me one day and said. "I can either divorce my wife and shoulder the child support or I can get a new four wheel drive truck, but I donít make enough to do both..." (He wasnít joking)
It occurs to me, If I am like everyone else, than maybe I am in trouble. Maybe those people are I in years to come, mediocre, alienated, and lonely.
The problem is every choice has consequences, and the ones Iíve made might be the wrong ones. Ten years from now I might realize that this entire endeavor at Madison was a mistake. After a few years I want to go to God (if there is a god) and say, " Iíd have really preferred that future instead of this one Iíve chosen." But I hear the voice of necessity, a voice that chimes in as if from some haunted playground..."No do-overs, no take-backs"
The sacrifices, the roads taken, and the roads not taken confound me, and the roads which should have been taken that werenít. My friends say to me
"Lighten up Dan, 'Just do it' .... like the commercial?"
I know theyíre right. It's the process, the struggle, suffering builds character. Well Iím not a psychologist, but I know a lot of assholes that have suffered twice as much as I ever have or ever will. Maybe nobody told them that suffering builds character so they just suffered and continued to be jerks. Who really cares what I want? How self-indulgent. I know Iím an ant. Four billion people, and most of them donít know where I live. Iím not that important. God, Iím sure, is busy elsewhere.
And then to add humiliation to fear in the back of my head I hear the voice of Stuart Smalleyís Reflections on Saturday Night Live (I'm good enough Iím smart enough and darn-it, people like me!!)
"The more you worry the less you do. So, worry less do more, don't be so cynical and Damn it.... Don't think so much, Things work themselves out."
And I reply "What do you mean donít be afraid, how could any sane human being not be afraid? Look at Bosnia, at Serbia, look at the divorce rate,
Look at what we do to each other to ourselves, to our loved ones. Meanwhile our political leaders seem to be more interested in partisanship and character assassination than in the fact that when I graduate I will be facing the worst Job market in half a century.
So you must act as if you trust everyone but trust very few. You must think you are safe all the time, but know that youíre not. You must accept that there is suffering that things may not be O.K. no matter what you do - that life throws curves. You may make the wrong choice, but all you can do is all you can do. Besides if you walk around thinking all the time no one will be able to talk to you. Youíll loose your keys, and get lost, and misplace things and miss the very thing your afraid of. Life itself.
I remember a friend I had in anthropology class. We both thought of ourselves as bright and promising. A couple of years went by and then I saw him at the U of M admissions office. We shook hands and exchanged warm greetings.
"What have you been up to?" I asked
"Well mostly Iíve been sick"
"What do you mean?" I said, confused
"Iíve got cancer," He said
"Bullshit." I said smiling
And then he pulled up his olive green T-shirt and there was a scar running the length of his abdomen.
"They had to take out my pancreas and some other stuff..."
I wanted to look away, or to act like it was no big deal. "Yeah, so what you got cancer" Honestly it was a sense of propriety that kept me there. Propriety and a faint sense of sadness that I wanted to run from. Sadness that if I ever stopped to look at, would engulf me. But I stayed with him, became quieter, and he asked me to hang out.
I went out to eat with him and his girlfriend to a great little Chinese restaurant in Ann Arbor. We ordered and talked about cancer and dying and living. Our food came and he became very quiet. I spoke with his girlfriend for a long time and then I realized that heíd been eating this small plate of food for 45 minutes. I watched him. He would take one small forkful and it seemed chew very carefully for a long time. I was frustrated but I felt there was some law that one had to be polite to the dying. So after a little while I asked gingerly
"Isnít it good"
"Itís wonderful." He said looking up at me smiling, and it was a big smile, so big that I smiled too.
"Well I just wondered.... It seems like itís taking a while."
He smiled again and said looking in my eyes...
"I just want to taste everything"
Here I am, poised on the diving board of the rest of my life as he was posed on the diving board of death. Two months away from his funeral he told me the answer to life in a Chinese restaurant. Taste everything. It is not the destination that matters; itís the taste of the journey, the texture of my friend's voices, the taste of laughter and tears, the taste of rice ... Good-luck to all.