In a recent comment here, my friend Neel shared a quote: “I am grateful for the things I wished for that never happened.” Though I have never heard this specific quote, I think about the idea a lot – especially when the hypothetical question “If you could change one thing in your life, what would you change?” And though I have had some unpleasant experiences, my answer is always the same: “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
In September of 1987 I go off an hour away to university at age 16. My mom waves goodbye to me, and my dad shakes my hand as they leave me in the parking lot of my dormitory.
After many years studying in a small school in a village with very few academic options or challenges I have big plans to study hard and become a doctor just like the one other person in my family who ever went to university.
But there are a few several things that aren’t as I plan. The first is that school is much more difficult than it was back home. When I was there I needed only to show up for classes and read the assignments once. The work was easy enough that simply doing that ensured I got an A or B on any test or assignment. But now I have to study and truth be told I’m not terribly sure of what exactly that means or quite how to do it.
It is good to be away for other reasons as well. Both of my parents are alcoholics. My dad works nights so he drinks in the morning. My mom wakes up and drinks with him because “it’s not good to drink alone.” Then around lunchtime they have a nap and sleep it off. My dad wakes to get ready for work in the evening and my mom has more to drink because now it’s night and that’s the time to drink. The only escape from this when I live with them is to leave. But in school I am always away from them. Occasionally I will get a call from my mother. A few sentences in I say to her:
“You are half way through your third beer, aren’t you?”
“Yes. How do you do that?”
“I just know. I can hear it in your voice.”
Things go well enough for a bit but then I am tired of talking to a drunk parent so I make up an excuse to leave but she’s having none of it. Tensions escalate and soon I hang up on her. The phone rings one minute later. It’s my dad.
“Don’t you ever hang up on your mother.” he shouts angrily in to the phone. He sounds like he is at four beers in.
But they only call once every day or two – sometimes even less and it’s all a huge relief.
The other big surprise is that I have friends. I was not friendless in high school – I had a couple of close friends, but otherwise was pretty much invisible. Nobody was mean to me but mostly I went under the radar. Now I am by no means popular, but with a much larger student body, the chances of meeting like minded people to spend time with and go to parties with has grown exponentially.
My first year passes quickly. I go back home again and take on as many shifts at the grocery store as I can to earn money and find a reason to not be at home. When I have time off in the daytime I visit my friends. But working nights, much of my time off is spent fully awake at 2:00 AM. I use this time to explore the back roads of Vermont, following a detailed map I bought for just this reason. Within a few months I know where every road within 20 miles goes – even the ones with grass growing up the middle.
My first semester of my second year is even busier with 18 credits – two classes with labs. I am swamped but I am also still figuring out how to study. I’m also figuring out how to balance my social life with my academic one. At 17 years old I’m not fully prepared for this.
At the end of the semester I get my grades back. I have failed Organic Chemistry, I got a C- in Cell Biology and my other grades are mediocre at best. Overall my average is below a C-. A few days after my report card arrives in the mail a letter follows. It tells me that I’m now on academic probation. If I get less than a C average in the next semester I will be expelled.
The next semester comes and within a week, I receive a call from my dad. He tells me that he’s looked at the budget and they have no more money to send me to school. After this last semester, I will have to quit. But, he hastens to tell me, “Don’t use that as an excuse to not study and just have fun with friends.” I take it as if it’s a suggestion rather than a warning and spend every moment I can laughing with the friends I won’t be seeing anymore after just a few months. Given the choice between studying Genetics or sitting in the living room with friends listening to Fred Schneider tell us all about a “Funky little shack” or taking a Friday night trip to Montreal to go to night clubs Genetics loses every time.
But I do get something out of my statistics class. No, not math skills. I get an account on the school’s mainframe. Ostensibly it is to use for homework – to have a high powered computer to do statistical analysis on my homework. I’m excited to have a new computer to play with. One night as I explore the file folders, I open a text file and read of something called Relay – a chat system that let’s you talk in near real time with people around the world. Within an hour I’ve figured out how to reach it. And soon I have a new distraction. During the afternoons I hang out with friends, but as they get ready for bed, I head for the small computer lab in our dorm. It is often locked at this hour but I’ve fashioned a tool out of a coat hanger that lets me open the door from inside and by 10PM I’m there talking to people in Europe and Asia. Soon I often end up seeing the sunrise. Soon I find I’m able even to sleep through my 3PM classes.
In early June, exams come. On a Tuesday morning I walk in to the auditorium where my psychology class is held, ready to take my final. I open the door and hear the sound of the latch echo around the big empty room. It is completely dark. When I call the psychology department to find out where my exam is they direct me back to the other side of campus. Of course I didn’t know where the exam was going to be. I hadn’t been to a psychology class since early February. I simply read the book and took the tests when they came.
My grades arrive and I’m not surprised or shocked at all. I haven’t made the cutoff. And three days later, I get another letter from the dean of students saying I am not welcome to return to school. Back I go to my parents house. I move into the basement and return to work from 11PM to 7AM in a local supermarket. When I get home at 8:00 AM I fall asleep thinking about how to get back on track. Maybe I could take some night classes maybe and show that I was a serious student again and be admitted there or somewhere else. But even then I had no money for tuition. If you’d asked me then I would tell you what a disaster it was. My life was ruined. I would forever be living in my parents basement, working nights, falling asleep as they argued over who gets the last beer.
Clearly this is a situation which one would want to go back and change. I could go back and study really hard. I could get amazing grades, work hard during the summers to save money to pay my way or do so well I get paid scholarships. After four years I would go to medical school – maybe even in a big city, practice medicine and have a successful life.
But doing so would break another chain that I wouldn’t dream of breaking. Here are just a couple of chains you could follow:
I leave school two years before I was expected to – just as a new biotechnology manufacturing plant is finishing being built. In our rural area there aren’t many university graduates so people are evaluated based on competence and ability to learn on the job. Four months after school ends, I quit my job at the grocery store and start work as a manufacturing technician, counting cells, doing aseptic filling, operating pharmaceutical production equipment and beginning to learn the regulations that govern the industry. First this gives me enough of an income to leave my parents’ house and move in to a shared house. A little over 10 years later this would give me a career that would let me be considered a skilled worker for immigrating to Canada.
Another thread has me learning about Internet chat in 1989. I would continue to be obsessed with this for some time to come. On some nights off from work I would drive 20 miles to a nearby university where I would log in to an account on their mainframe, one a friend of mine gave me the password to and spend the night on chat. And then, when I move to the shared house I’m able to access the Internet from there. In 1991, I meet Sage and she comes for a “four day visit” that never ends. And nearly thirty years later we are together in Canada with our now 21 year old son, having had so many wonderful adventures along the way.
What would have happened had I graduated with honours, was accepted to medical school and practiced medicine?