This is Part I of a 3-part intermittent series on education, success, and how I fell through one but still landed in the other. Part II will show up some time down the road.



My Father’s Path…

For a majority of my life I have had a conflicted perception of the word success, and all that goes with it. Like his father before him, my father raised me to pursue excellence in life. He dedicated much of his life to providing my brother, and I opportunities to create successful lives. He did this with diligence, and a great deal of love if not with an overwhelming passion.

My father’s idea of success was linear, direct, and had a clear progression; college, business, suburbia – man in a gray suit kind of stuff. What he really wanted, I believe, was for my brother, and I to take his path, but to find better results than he was able to. I have often wondered if my father sacrificed his visceral idea of success to better enable the superficial idea of success that society, and his own father immersed him in.

What my father had really wanted in life, he confessed to me in his later years, was to have taught school in the winter, and run a camp for kids in the summer. At some point though, with a wife, a mortgage, and kids of his own, I believe he became driven by dollar signs rather than canoes, and campfires, and the gravity of the business world drew him in.

The man with the plan, and the pocket comb.  Each successful in our own ways...

The man with the plan, and the pocket comb. Each successful in our own ways…

Against The Grain…

My definition of success has always been murky, malleable, and has evolved through the years. By the time I was in my late teens though, my definition of success began to solidify, and was in obvious contrast to my father’s intentions for me, and to the flow of common American culture.

As I began to explore my idea of success, the distance between my path, and the path my father laid out for me grew further apart. Looking back today, I am better able to reconcile my father as a young man, with the man he would go on to become. When I was younger, I couldn’t comprehend this.

By my father’s standard, and by the standard of culture art large, the first step on anyone’s path to success is obtaining a college degree. My father had been down many career paths, but he began as an educator at the high school, and college level. He would often say to my brother, and I,

“Get your ticket punched boys, and you can go anywhere”.

Inferring that a college diploma was guaranteed a ticket to success. This was so heavily instilled in me that by the time I was in my early teens I came to believe that people without a college degree were a lesser form of life, and less worthy of life’s rich pageant.

In truth, I believe my father wanted me to feel this way. He would often take time to impress upon me the toil, and struggles of those went through life with a wrench in their back pocket, pushed a broom, or drove a municipal bus. Because he was my father, I believed him. I have only recently come to see that this isn’t true, that there’s no shame in hard work, and that success is simply a state of appreciation.

American Dream…

My American dream has always been more simple than most; I don’t want to be forced to do the goosestep down Main Street. That’s it. I would like to have access to water, shelter, and to have the opportunity to work hard for anything beyond.

One does not need a college degree to pursue shelter, food, and a few nice things. One simply needs to have ambition, a good work ethic, and reasonable expectations of life. Those too, are qualities my father instilled in me, and they have served me well.

I recognize that I’m a minority with this way of thinking, and I don’t wish offend anyone who has worked hard to reap, and enjoy the finer things in life. That has just never been my trip. I have always been content with just enough. I often suggest to friends that my dream house has four wheels, and gets good mileage. I am approaching that dream house, and hope to move in within the next 3-5 years.

My dream house.  I will never again by a car I'm not also able to live in...

My dream house. I will never again buy a car I’m not also able to live in…

School Is Out Early…

I struggled with school from an early age. In elementary school, reading could be so strenuous that it often lead me to nausea. My math skills were several years behind, and I barely survived middle school with Ds. Despite this, I was advanced into high school.   In high school it became clear to me within weeks that I would probably never graduate. The text books I used seemed to be written in a different language. I failed typing, Art, and even PE.

With an open campus, and a modular schedule, I could go to high school every day, never walk into a class room, and just sit and visit with friends in one of the three cafeterias which were available. This was my existence for a year and a half. I would register for school, never go to class, get Fs, and placate my parent’s attempts to get my head right by promising I would try harder. In a school of 4,500 students, I fell through the cracks.

At one point I was even put on the short bus to study with all the other challenged learners. Unfortunately, most of them were there out of laziness, and not need. I was surrounded by stoners, with teachers who weren’t dialed in, and nothing was being done to help me improve my lack of learning skills. One day at 16, I just released myself on my own recognizance, and never looked back.

I would spend the next couple of years working odd jobs, sleeping with the television on, lifting weights, and trying to figure out what success truly was, or if it would ever be within my grasp – largely disbelieving that it would be.

Though I would ultimately take my GED, and attend college, my father’s notion that success, a college degree, and a suburban mortgage were synonymous, became a poison in my veins that has worked against me more than it ever served me.


Please check back in a few weeks for Part II of this series. Oh, and there’s this from Albert King.   Enjoy…

14 responses

  1. My brother,Spending time with you on our road trip peeled back layers revealing similarities we have. I’m with in that minority mix as well of our American Dream. All I know is hard work whether it be pushing that broom,scrubbing toilets,or in that cubicle getting product out. Thank You for helping me get through it all,while going against the grain….

  2. “…success is simply a state of appreciation.” Poignant. I’ve come to realize within the past few years that it’s entirely acceptable to stop the arduous climb by stepping off the corporate ladder. I was the first to receive a college degree in my family and I do firmly believe it opens doors of opportunity. But one does not need a piece of paper to prove their work ethic and place in this world is important. In fact, people with college degrees like mine (bachelors) often feel like slackers for not getting masters degrees. I simply feel the opposite…I ask myself which motivates me more? A loftier title/more pay or the chance to show my own children that work (while not easy) can be enriching and personally fulfilling. I continue to work on proving the latter. Good, thoughtful post, Roy.

    • Thank you Heidi. In know way do I intend to undervalue or make light of an education. Doors open wider, pay can be greater, more freedoms to arise. Mike Rose, a PhD himself from UCLA has studied, and written volumes on the lives of the working class which, by al accounts can be just as meaningful. I wish my father had understood that.

  3. My father’s notion of success was almost exclusively intellectual, so college degrees it was. I know I disappointed him by not choosing a scientific path (the top of the top according to him, a mathematician).

    My father passed away during my Master’s. I know he would probably be disappointed that I did not go on to earn a PhD (although I did marry someone who is entitled to call himself Doctor).

    I still value education very, very much, but mostly because of the way it opens one’s horizons.

    Based on how well you write, Roy, it is hard to believe you did not enjoy reading!

    • Thanks, Julie. My daughter told me when she was 13 or 14 she would have her PhD by 30. She is on that path now, and I am very grateful. Her world will be her oyster. If she decides to bail and be a waitress, it will just be a different pearl, but no less meaningful.

      I’ll get to my own college years in the next part of this series.

      I did not develop the ability to read at a fair level, and to write until I was in my mid-20s — that’s when the light went on and I knew there was something there. Prior to that, it was the Sunday funnies, and comic books — all I could comprehend. True.

  4. Ditto. I guess that makes sense since our dads are brothers. My dad surprised me this mothers day with a card that made me blubber like a baby. He said he admired me for taking my own path. NEVER thought I would here that.

  5. I don’t know if it is a jewish father thing, but I have spent the majority of my life not living up to my father’s expectations. Was disowned when I married the southern baptist girl the first time around, which in truth may have been partly just to piss him off. Could never possibly match his level of material success so I decided not to try.

    Jerry Garcia once said that the most liberating day of your life was the day your parents die, a very cold observation but one that surely holds a kernel of truth.

    I think that the great myth is that one can have it all. The people who have doggedly pursued money are also often the ones with the failed marriages or who have trouble establishing personal relationships.

    You set your course and you give it your best shot. No dress rehearsals.

    • On the heels of your TBT post yesterday, Robert, this was a nice follow-up. One thing I have attempted to do as a parent is not steer my daughter’s course. She has been exceptional in steering her own, and I am grateful.

      My father said to me a couple of years back, “I wish I could say I was proud of you son, but I am content”. I almost died. At that point I just let go.

      Jerry Garcia was on target with that. Should I be ashamed for saying, one down, one to go…?

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