Monday, March 9, 2009
Community College Doldrums
Early in 1990 two things were certain as I watched the months count down to the end of my enlistment in the United States Army. The first was that given the post Cold War draw down being planned with the size of the army being cut substantially it would be best for me to reenter civilian life. I had achieved a measure of success in the active army with a real chance to further it but after four years I realized that making a career out of it was not for me. The army had allowed me to do and see many things that I otherwise never could have done but in my four years serving I had changed greatly from the gung-ho kid planning a lifetime wearing the uniform. The order and discipline that at one time seemed so attractive was now stifling and restrictive. The second was that I would be attending college as soon as I could get home and registered. Luckily one of my most brilliant mistakes was signing up for the GI Bill at the beginning of my enlistment, something that I originally had not planned on doing.
Hindsight being what it is I now figure I under shot what I should have done because I did not attend a four-year college coming away with a bright and shiny bachelor’s degree in some field but I enrolled in Horry-Georgetown Technical College looking to earn an Associate Degree in Electronics. Being fair here but I never gave any real sign of being the sharpest knife in the drawer while growing up. So the two-year degree was my best bet to successfully further my education and get a job doing something other than manual labor for the rest of my life. While my little technical school was a straightforward affair, it did offer a few surprises and insights on higher learning.
Several decades ago South Carolina found itself transitioning from an agricultural based economy to one of industry leaning heavily on manufacturing. The only problem was that South Carolina lacked the trained work force that these new businesses needed. To correct this problem the state government established a county based technical school system that at least in its early years catered more to adults already working but wanted a chance at a better job. By the time classes started for me in August of 1990 that had significantly changed. What had once been a technical school system geared toward adults had evolved into more of a constellation of statewide community colleges with a far less motivated and younger student body.
Walking into my English 101 class for the first time I literally thought I had returned to high school. I was twenty-five years old and excluding the professor easily the oldest person in that particular class. Looking up at me already sitting at their desks was a room full of eighteen and nineteen year-olds each with their own reason for being in class but all primarily boiling down to one simple statement.
“Damn dude, my dad said I either had to get a job or go to college.”
At the start of each semester this collection of America’s finest would jam the student parking lot with new and shiny graduation gifts in the form of all manner of sports cars, big-wheeled trucks, and motorcycles. Only to have it thin out over time leaving plenty of parking spaces and many former classmates asking me if I wanted fries with my Big Mac.
I wasn’t the only one in his or her mid-twenties attending school, but we were a minority. There were other veterans like me in school because of the GI Bill. Many single moms dealing with the demands of classes, the needs of their children, and a full time job. And a few grizzled men in their thirties and forties tired after years of doing exhausting labor wanting a chance at something a little easier on the body.
For those of us older and, excluding myself, wiser the antics of our fellow students fresh out of high school was often like watching a cast of kindergartners in some comical soap opera taking themselves far too seriously. What none of us realized was that other people, whom we never gave any thought of were watching us as well and thinking about the same thing.
Around March of 1992 I had a damn good grade point average and was just two months away from graduation. My fellow classmates that had not flunked out and succumbed to the siren call of fast food employment and I could often be found discussing future job possibilities. Two small problems though were throwing a monkey wrench in our plans. There was a relatively minor recession going on making entry-level jobs hard to find. The other one was that a flood of experienced electronics technicians had just left the various active services due to the post Cold War and Persian Gulf War draw downs making the job market even tougher. The irony that I was still affected by the planned reductions in military forces even though I had left the army did not escape me.
Most of my classmates just planned to graduated with their degree and enter the job market hoping for the best. On the other hand I still had a large amount of GI Bill I could use and began making plans to branch off into the Computer Science program offered at my school. During the last semester for my electronics degree I began taking a data base management class for the Computer Science program which for some reason was only offered on Saturdays.
The class was rather small with twelve people total attending with only two of them about my age. One was a world-weary single mom who I already had several classes with and knew held men in utter contempt. The other was a friendly but geeky guy who I accidentally insulted one rainy Saturday by turning down his offer to share his umbrella while walking to the school cafeteria. The rest of the class was the usual suspects of high school age kids but with the distinction of being more motivated just by taking a class that required getting up on a Saturday.
The most interesting person in the class was our instructor Professor Davis who in appearance looked like a cross between Albert Einstein with crazy hair and Ben Stein with a patented disapproving sour look. While more than competent in teaching the class it was easy to tell he wanted to be somewhere else far, far away. He would often drift off the computer related subject and start lecturing on economics, what he mainly taught during the week, or history, which was easy to tell, was his true passion. However, it was uncomfortably easy to see that he was a very unhappy man for the most part.
Little friendliness was ever displayed between the students after class was over when we collectively walked out to the deserted parking lot empty except for our cars. Most everyone seemed slightly embarrassed to be seen in the presence of the others and did their best to be the first ones in their cars driving away from the campus. The only exceptions were four girls that I often heard talking together as we left for the day.
It stayed this way until the last weekend in March when we dismissed the usual way. The day was overcast and gloomy matching most of our moods. The four girls who were the liveliest of our sullen group were laughing about something when one of them, a girl named Natalie, started singing out loud the Jackson Browne song “Lawyers in Love” much to the surprise of the rest. I looked up to see her step a little ahead of her group doing something akin to a ballet jump landing softly on her knees and throwing up her hands. She had everyone’s attention now and after looking around to make sure she stripped off her shirt and with an agility I frankly admired removed her bra with one hand throwing it up in the air.
Most would think such a stunt was fraternity related but this being a community college we only had a prudish, civic orientate organization that prided itself on its straight lace behavior. The nineteen-year old topless girl that had now started running around the parking lot was definitely not the archetype for such an association. Had it been I’m sure the membership would have been far greater, Hell, I would have joined myself.
Curiosity being a curse for me I tore myself away from the running topless girl and looked to the others to see what the reactions of everyone else were. The stunned looks of the girls she had been walking with suggested to me that they had no idea Natalie was going to do such a thing. The single mom who I don’t think had cracked a smile the entire time I had ever been around her was fighting back snorts of laughter as if she might injure herself if she did. The geeky guy stared in awe at Natalie leaving me to think that might be the first time he had ever seen a partially naked female. I realize this geeky guy probably now is a retired multi-millionaire living in the Caribbean married to his third supermodel after having sold his software company to Microsoft. The other kids about her age were hooting and hollering screaming for her to take the rest of her clothes off. Professor Davis just looked on with that disapproving frown he never could shake. Natalie finished two laps around the parking lot, collected her loose clothing and then got in her car and left. With the only interesting thing now driving away like lemmings the rest of us followed suit and went our separate ways.
Never one to waste any chance to sit next the ocean I drove into Myrtle Beach and on a whim found my way to a small open air bar facing the ocean that was situated beside the now torn down Myrtle Beach Pavilion. Sitting on a barstool nursing a cold beer I looked out at the ocean hidden in a heavy haze easily imagining rampaging sea monsters, derelict pirate ships crewed with zombie pirates, or worse of all sleazy real estate agents looking to sell condo timeshares scooping up the stray person walking the beach. I probably could have stayed that way for hours had not a familiar voice outside the bar penetrated my mental haze that was about as thick a what was over the ocean.
The place was empty except for the bartender who was watching some talk show involving infidelity and chair throwing on a small television behind the bar and me. The voice was male so I had no interest in seeing who it was but after several minutes my curiosity again got the better of me so I left the bar and stepped out to see who it was.
I saw Professor Davis with three other guys all late middle age gathered around listening to him several feet further down the deserted boardwalk. Davis was incredibly animated describing the events that had just happened back at the campus actually jumping up and down with his hands up in front of his chest jiggling much the same way Natalie’s boobs had been in her semi-naked run around the parking lot.
Seeing an unhappy, middle-aged Einstein-looking man jumping up down describing nineteen year old boobs bouncing around had a surreal aspect that normally would have had me laughing myself but I had no desire to surprise the guy. For once he seemed like he had broken out of whatever doldrums that held him prisoner and I wasn’t about to possibly embarrass him back into such a condition. I paid my for my beer and drove off looking for further adventures while thinking of Natalie’s boobs. Hell, I’m a guy too and they were spectacular.