MY ONLY SHOT

This is another piece about how much I hated my college years. Except this one is painfully honest and even funny in places. It also teaches a lesson. Please comment nicely!

Every time I write a piece about how much I hated my college years, the same thing happens. I get about six views on Fiction Press and my friend Katie says "Uh, that's very interesting." So clearly, my strategy needs to change. I will now tell a story about the nicest professor I ever met at Columbia.

It was the spring of 1983. I was taking a required course called Contemporary Civilization (CC) where about twenty guys sat around talking about philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. I hated it. None of these authors ever had anything to say about liking yourself, making a living or helping others. The other guys in the class were as bored as I was. Not that I ever talked to them. There were a few big football players who could have broken me in half. There was a sad, lifeless-looking kid who was some kind of Orthodox Jew. There was an obnoxious preppy guy who always came to class wearing a suit.

Our instructor was a guy we called Dean Randolph. Apparently this guy was no ordinary professor. I think he was the Dean of the School of International Affairs, or something. Not that I had any idea what that meant. But Dean Randolph was always hinting that he was really a very big deal. He wanted us to know how significant it was that he was teaching a class like a regular guy. His attitude was like, "well, I could just be an important Dean, but I'm right down here with the troops, really getting the job done, because I'm excited about what Columbia University is all about!"

None of that made him seem especially friendly. He kind of reminded me of George Will, the conservative columnist. You know, a very uptight looking old white man in a fancy bow tie.

Well, one morning after class we were all standing around by the elevators, and suddenly Dean Randolph looked at me and said, "well, what's this . . . what's this supposed to mean? Just what is this all about?"

Dean Randolph was asking about the t-shirt I had on. It was nothing special, just a shirt from the mall with the name of my favorite rock band on it. The shirt was white and it said THE WHO in big black letters.

I just didn't get it. I looked at him and said, "Uh, it's a rock band. It's the Who." And he just looked at me. And then that preppy guy in the suit made like he was playing the electric guitar, and everyone laughed. And that was the end of the conversation.

None of this seemed very important at the time. I wasn't humiliated, exactly. I wasn't even terribly embarrassed. I was just sort of confused. What did the guy want from me? All kinds of people wore jeans and t-shirts around campus. I wasn't the only one. So why was he picking on me?

Well, I never spoke to Dean Randolph again. I graduated, I joined the Marines, and later I went back to school. I became a high school teacher, couldn't cut it, and became a librarian instead. In all those years I couldn't have spent more than twenty minutes thinking about Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau. I probably didn't spend more than ten minutes thinking about Dean Randolph.

But looking back now, I realize that conversation was one of the great missed opportunities of my life. That man wasn't picking on me. He wasn't giving me a hard time. On some level Dean Randolph was asking me to talk about myself.

He was curious about who I was.

I have written so many times about how much I hated Columbia, about how the classwork was meaningless, about how the professors just didn't care. But in his brusque, offhand way, Dean Randolph was letting me know that he was willing to talk to me. Not about classwork, but about my life, my feelings, the things that mattered to me. I should have realized that he was offering me a rare opportunity. But I didn't. I had no idea what was really going on. I felt like I was being put down and I clammed up fast.

That was a mistake. You see, Columbia is just like anyplace else. You have to fight to win, and sometimes you only get one shot. Out of a hundred professors you might meet one who wants to talk to you. And brother, God help you if you blow that one shot.

There might not be another one.