Saturday, February 04, 2006

Everything I know, I learned in a puddle of beer

The party was in the basement of a frat house and it was raucous. By the shank of the evening, I was weaving back and forth and sporting a dopey grin. At the pinnacle of this finesse, I prepared to lay a killer line on a pretty sorority girl. In doing so, I leaned against a wall that wasn't there and landed in a gutter filled with vile water.

High times at the University of Maine at Orono. I have many stories filled with such lowlights from UMO and yet I was never a student there. I never went to college at all.

Here, some of you will fold up the paper in disgust and cast it aside. How can you respect a writer who never received formal schooling? There are such people and they are aghast when I tell them. I have no degree. They never gave out diplomas for the kind of education I sought as a young wanderer.

I used to be ashamed of it. I used to mumble, "Yeah, I went to college." And I did. For about two days at the university in Augusta. And my, how I hated it, sitting in deep classrooms trying to learn about matters I had no real interest in. It took two days for me to realize that my attendance there was a joke. What did I want to be, anyway? An astronomer? A truck driver? The guy who puts the "inspected by No. 9" tickets in shirt pockets?

No idea. So I quit school and I roamed. I hitchhiked a bit and drank with people beneath bridges. Not a noble education, but I wouldn't exchange any of it for a B.A. in this or an M.A. in that. I'm not ashamed of it anymore. These days, I tend to wander around the newsroom declaring: "I ain't got no book learning."

A friend from the old days visited the newsroom not long ago. We talked about the business and how I had managed to evolve since the rowdy days of my youth. He finally asked where I went to college. I told him I hadn't. And he asked the question. How the hell can a person become a reporter without a degree?

It half amuses, half irritates me. Some of the best reporters I know barely graduated from high school. Some of the worst I've worked with had master's degrees in journalism. They had great theoretical knowledge, but ask them to respond to a scanner call and write about it on deadline.

Part of me wishes I had gone to college. Part of me also wishes I had joined the military. But I didn't do either. I wandered.

Back at UMO, I did most of my fraternizing with a group of my brother's friends. They were journalism majors, wide-eyed with expectations and plans for the great stories they would write. They planned to lay bare the inequities of society. Me, I pumped gas five days a week and cooked hot dogs on the weekends.

A few years ago, I got together with the same group on a beach in New Jersey. One owned a restaurant. A few had gone into sales. One was a welder. Happy, successful men, yet none of them had written a single word of news since collecting their diplomas and tossing their mortar boards into the air. I told them war stories from the news trenches and we mused over the irony.

Back in the day, a girlfriend who had a B.A., an M.A., and some other initials I forget, advised me that I'd never get near a newsroom without a college diploma. No way, no how.

The sad fact is, for a time I believed her. I spent a lot of nights staring up at the newspaper building in Waterville, imagining the news machine inside and wishing I could be part of it. And you wonder how many others are shuffling around with their heads down, convinced that without a nod from a college or university, they can never do what they feel created to do.

All some people have is what they have learned through the hard knocks they have taken. Down-and-out addicts have risen from the dust to do great things with knowledge that has been beaten into them. Seasoned criminals walk from prisons and turn their agony into gold.

I don't push a lifestyle of restlessness and hedonism as a means of education. I recommend higher education to anyone who asks about it. With a degree, doors will open quicker. Paychecks will likely be fatter.

But there's something to be said about embracing the experiences you do have, even if they were painful and ugly. There is a certain shabby nobility in the feisty mutt in a roomful of purebreds. There is something to be said for the person who has clawed his way into the kingdom rather than entering with the key of higher education.

Of course, I'm only raving, provoked to memory by an old friend aghast that I was never formally schooled. In the long run, I still have no book learning. And I'm still the guy who fell in the swill.


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