One meets his destiny often in the road he takes to avoid it. – French Proverb
I am writing this blog for a very smart and accomplished student who now attends Purdue University. I have started corresponding with him under a program that Purdue offers for career counseling and mentoring. He expressed concerns about “choosing the right major” but went on to reflect that it is “through those ‘mistakes’ that we learn and develop into the person we are and become in this world”.
For anyone reading my blog posts, you already know that I come from very modest financial underpinnings. “Avoid The Cinnamon Rolls” is about the time we didn’t have 15 cents in our household and the utter regret I felt in asking my dad for 15 cents only to discover he was broke. But, that was long ago and far away and happened when I was a second grader. Later as young adult, I engaged in behavior that revived some of my feeling of regret with far more severe consequences. This is the story of one of my big mistakes. I share this with him and you to help make his point.
After graduating from high school, I was fortunate to be admitted to Purdue University in the Pre-Vet program. Because I did well on some of the college placement tests and in high school science and math, I was placed in some advanced classes during my first term at Purdue. Some of those classes were also used to eliminate students from some of the more rigorous majors. In my case, my family had expectations that I would become a professional, a veterinarian. My mother and father used to brag about their son who was “going to become a veterinarian”. Since education was highly valued in our family, and since I was the first of my eleven siblings to express a desire to graduate with an advanced degree, my parents made the most of it. They told everyone we knew about my career plans with great pride.
When I arrived on campus at Purdue, I recall my father dropping me off in West Lafayette, Indiana at Cary Quadrangle. This was to be my place of residence while living on campus for the duration of my college years. The “quad” was full of history and a beautiful ivy covered building. In Fort Wayne, I grew up in a turn of the century three story house. It was, by far, the oldest house in the neighborhood. This wasn’t a restored victorian “painted lady”. No, it was a plain white old house with cracks in the walls that you could see snow blow through in one of the upper rooms on the third floor.
It had one bathroom and four bedrooms. My seven brothers and I shared two bedrooms and slept three to four to a bed. We had no privacy. Our clothes were subject to inconvenient disappearances when our siblings “borrowed” the brand new sweater. It might be returned pilled and wrinkled after it reappeared. What was yours was not yours alone.
We ate pretty basic fare. We all shared the one and only bathroom. I constantly feared that one of my friends might come to visit and see the chaos that was the interior of our house. This was the result of crowded conditions and limited resources. I apologize to my siblings as my memory is clouded by circumstances which paint my objectivity with less than brilliant colors. Many of them have much more positive recollections, but they grew up under slightly different circumstances and would see things in a much different light. For me, however, I couldn’t wait to move away and “restart” my life in different circumstances.
When I arrived at Purdue, I was independent and free to mingle with my peers. For the first time in my life, I would be measured without the “baggage” of my upbringing. I was free to set the stage for my new version of the world. That isn’t to say that I was dishonest about my upbringing or status. But, I ate what everyone else ate. I dressed like everyone else and lived in the same quarters as everyone else. I also attended classes that were more advanced placements, and for those who knew this, I was respected for my academic acumen. This elevated me somewhat from my peers, as I had tested out of some of the more basic courses. For that reason, I felt that I was everyone else’s equal and not inferior in any way. I fit in and I loved it.
In the dorm, there was constant activity up and down the halls. I was invited to go along whenever someone yelled out “party”. Off we went to frat houses, sorority houses, or to the “Pig and Whistle” which was a local bar. I would hang out at the bar into the wee hours of the night socializing and having the time of my life. Soon, I found that the alarm clocks didn’t work and I began to miss classes. When I made it to class, I was unprepared and I crammed for exams. I didn’t even show up for some of my labs. By the end of the term, I was on academic probation. It was then that the realization that another term of socializing would mean that I could be dismissed from school. During that time, the Vietnam war and the draft was “knocking on my door”. Failing out of school meant certain tours of duty as a Marine or Amy draftee. That also meant almost certain death or injury as a foot soldier in Viet Nam. With this in mind, I moved to a different dorm where I didn’t know anyone. Tarkington Hall had a lot less character than Cary. It was known to house many of the grad students known less for their social acumen and more for their study discipline.
My new roommate and I barely spoke. Each day, we went to our corner of the room, turned on the desk lamps and studied. I was never more disciplined. But, I was scared. By the end of that term, I found myself on the Dean’s List. However, my cumulative grade point average was still abysmal. I was also kicked out of the advanced placement classes. Why that is important is that admission into Vet School was premised on superior academic performance. Getting into Vet school was extremely competitive. Part of the assessment for admission was an evaluation of grades in the context of the difficulty of each of those classes. To get an “A” on one of those classes was a mark of distinction. To get an “A” in a lower level class was good, but not GREAT. To get into Vet School, you needed to excel. My first term was the death knell of my ticket into Vet School. I had blown it. There was no going back. I couldn’t resurrect my grades in undergrad. There was no deferment after undergrad, so an advanced degree was out of the question during those times.
I remember my best friend in high school (who got admitted after two years at Purdue due to his perseverance and hard work) inviting me to the Vet School during his first year of those classes. We were in the kennel area where he was showing me a dog he used for surgical procedures when one of the professors walked up to me and asked who I was. I told him that I was Don’s friend. He said, “you are not a vet student, you will need to leave right away”. He sent me out the door. As I walked back to my room I started to cry and kept crying most of that evening thinking about how I had left my life on the trash heap of success. I blew it! And I knew it.
As I sit here at the computer, as a tenured professor in law school, where I have been teaching for almost 20 years, I can tell you that it is something I absolutely love to do. My plans to be a Vet were sabotaged by me alone. I made very bad decisions in my first term of college, but the price I paid turned out to be an unanticipated benefit. The path I followed as an officer in the Air Force, a Sales Rep for a Japanese company and finally a law degree with a tenured position as a professor of law couldn’t have been predicted by me. If I had it to do over again, I would choose the path I ended up following, not the one my parents and I planned on.
As someone in undergraduate studies, or even in high school, the trajectory of your career path may be one that plan and follow. However, more often than not, your path will be dictated by circumstances. Some will be under your control, many of them will not. So to worry about making good choices is an exercise in futility in most cases – unless you are the underling in a monarchy with a predestined path to the top. But, fortunately, most of us will experience the excitement of life changes and not be locked into a single destiny. Do well, do good, and give it your best effort. If you fail, don’t despair, move on and move ahead. Life is good, keep on the lookout for the positive outcomes that are all there waiting for you to discover and act upon them.