Out Of Poverty, Part 7: Degrees Of Separation
The Value Of a College Education
Once it became clear that I was going broke, I decided I needed some formal business training. My grandfather had advised me, when I was a young man, to take some business classes. My response: "Why do I need to take business classes? I'm an artist!"
My grandfather's goal as a young man was simple. He wanted to make as much money as possible. That's it. There was no plan for doing something with that money once it was put into savings and investments. Though he did leave a sizable portion of his estate to a local college in his adopted town of Newport News, VA.
Why a college? Why that particular charity? Well, for a boy growing up poor in Roanoke during the Depression, graduating from high school was a big deal. Getting to college was an even bigger deal.
He attended Washington and Lee on a football scholarship, making the starting team as an offensive lineman. That one statement says a lot about his temperament.
First off, graduating from high school in 1932 and continuing to help his father with the family grocery store would have made his parents proud. He was the first member of the family not only to graduate from high school, but also to earn his own way into college. And not any ole college, but a historic Virginia gentleman’s college. He attended classes with the progeny of Senators and tobacco tycoons; boys who drove cars, while my grandfather walked to classes and took buses home to visit his family.
Also, football players, in those days, played with minimal equipment and NO facemasks. Imagine, now, offensive linemen, whose purpose was to protect the team’s assets — namely the ball — literally butting heads with defensive linemen and linebackers — whose purpose was to steal the team’s assets . . . all done every day of the season without face masks!
That was my grandfather: 5’-10", 180 lbs., and fearless!
Two years later, when he was only 20, he married a woman three years his senior. My grandmother already had a two-year degree from Longwood Teachers College; sometimes colloquially referred to as a finishing school. This made her the educated one in the family.
Married women were not allowed to work in those days. There was no way my grandfather could play football, attend classes, AND make enough money to support two people in the middle of the Depression. So he made the tough decision to quit school for a year or two, in order to focus on setting up a home with his sophisticated bride.
My mom came along in 1937 — the nadir of the Depression. Then came the War. My grandfather enlisted in the Merchant Marines. Then, of course, the economy picked up, and work after the War was too good to turn down. He never made it back to college, a regret he carried with him for the rest of his life.
My grandfather moved the family to Newport News in 1949 to work at the shipyard. Then he and my grandmother moved to Saudi Arabia in 1955 to work on the oil pipeline, just as my mom was going off to college. When my mom graduated from Mary Washington (another distinguished Virginia college) in 1959 with a four-year Bachelor’s degree, it was another proud day for the family. She accomplished what her father had not.
With her Theatre degree, my mom taught high school English for a while. Then she took a job as an Activities Director for a Boys' Club in Newark, NJ. She said she did this so she could be closer to the New York theatre scene. But I think she did this so that she could have a social life away from her nosy father.
She got what she wanted, both ways. She saw a lot of Broadway shows. They cost about $3 back then (in the early 60s). And then I happened! I have described those details elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that I was raised mostly with my mother AND her parents.
This was the best situation for all concerned. My mother needed help raising me. My grandfather had always wanted a son. And Lord knows I needed a man around to counter my mother’s overwhelming personality.
In the mid-70s, my mother and I moved to Anaheim, CA, so she could attend a small, private seminary. My grandfather was mortified, for two reasons. One, he considered me to be the son he never had; it broke his heart to have me taken away. And two, he bore prejudice against any so-called private schools; especially new ones without historic credentials outside of his beloved Virginia.
Thus, when my mother phoned him to brag about getting all As after her first semester, he replied, “Well, of course you’re getting As; they need the money!” Nevermind that the place was accredited and her professors hailed from Fuller and Union and Harvard. In his mind, a small private school outside of Virginia had no credibility. Plus, well . . . my grandfather and my mother hated each other and bludgeoned each other for many years, for multiple reasons that I won’t go into here. And for many years, my mother bludgeoned me with the same stick with which her father bludgeoned her.
I will offer this one explanation for his comment; though there were as many layers of animosity between them as there are between Israelis and Palestinians. My mother was fond of telling her friends that God was putting her through school, without mentioning that most of the money came from her father. This bothered him to no end. And, instead of extinguishing his resentment with a few obligatory thank-yous, she fanned the flames by accusing him of vanity.
At any rate, when my mother graduated from Melodyland School Of Theology in 1980 with a Master of Divinity degree, she became the first one in our family to gain a graduate credential; but not the last.
It was ingrained in me from the beginning that I would go to college. I had no choice, as far as my grandfather was concerned.
However, by the time I came of age, going to college was not nearly as special as it had been in his day. Everybody went to college! Only flunkies and drug addicts didn't go to college. Even C-students from poor families went to community colleges or free state universities. Or they got minority or athletic scholarships. Point is, going to college was a big part of the American zeitgeist during the second half of the 20th century.
Nevertheless, I went to college; to the only college I had ever thought about going to, because of my religious upbringing — Oral Roberts University — despite my grandfather’s admonition, “Son, there’s no need to go outside of Virginia to get a good education!” I graduated in 1984 with a degree in music, which qualified me for a lifetime of work in the Food and Beverage Industry.
Fast forward to the period between 2008 and 2010, when it became evident that I had made a horrible mistake with my money, and part of my punishment was to watch it slowly trickle up into the pockets of the rich. And I had no clear notion of how to proceed. I felt like I was bobbing in a foggy sea. One thing that was brutally clear, though, was that I should’ve listened to my grandfather years earlier when he told me to get some formal business training.
I had been raised to believe that more degrees meant more income. And the sales pitch at Full Sail University included this notion — that their Entertainment Business Master of Science degree would qualify me for a lucrative job as a TV, movie, or theatre producer. Something in the entertainment industry — my passion.
The notion of for-profit universities soaking up government loans and making promises they couldn’t keep had not yet become common knowledge. And so I took out a Stafford loan and enrolled in Full Sail's online one-year accelerated EBMS degree program.
If you google Full Sail University, you will occasionally find the disparaging term “degree mill” tossed in its direction. However, my experience was that the program was extremely well organized. The professors were top-notch, with superior credentials. And the school’s Career Development service did, in fact, work with me for a few months (albeit unsuccessfully) to get me a job in entertainment production. Truth be told, I gave up on them before they gave up on me. And that’s because scavenging for food and rent money became all I could handle, at that time.
I graduated in the fall of 2010, 2nd in my class (out of 64 people). Salutatorian! I also won an award for my business plan. My teacher said it was the best one he had read in his two years teaching at Full Sail.
Midway through this program, I phoned my mother to let her know that I was maintaining a 4.0 grade point average. It’s reasonable to assume that one’s parents — especially in our family — would praise such efforts. My mom had acted on this reasonable assumption thirty years earlier, when her father chose instead to piss on her pride. I remember vividly how deeply wounded she was by his contempt.
So it came as a bit of a surprise when, without a hint of irony or self-awareness, my mother responded: “Of course you’re getting As; they need the money!”
No matter. I did it to honor the man who sacrificed his chance for a college education so that his daughter and grandson could have one.