86: A Long but Ultimately Very Rewarding Road

86: A Long but Ultimately Very Rewarding Road

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

A Long but Ultimately Very Rewarding Road

Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.

~Abraham Lincoln

I didn’t go straight to college after high school. I thought, “Why should I, anyway? I’ve been trying to get out of school for twelve years now; why would I want to go back?” I wasn’t the first eighteen-year-old boy to have that thought, and I won’t be the last. So, instead of going to college, I got a job.

Telemarketing was my first, full-time job as a high school graduate. At first, it was almost thrilling. The intensity level at the company’s offices was very high. And it felt professional to put on a tie every day. I even thought that I could build a career for myself — garnering accolades and smashing sales records, my meteoric rise through the company ranks serving as a model for future employees! My enthusiasm waned sharply after about six months of repeating the same, lengthy sales pitch every couple of minutes and hearing the same objections from angry customers:

“You know I’m in the middle of dinner, right?”

“I don’t want what you’re selling!”

“Take me off your list! Now!”

“Get a real job!”

That last one always hurt the most. Looking back, I think that I was using that job as an insufficient surrogate for the things I was missing. The telemarketing office was near the University of New Hampshire campus, and most of the coworkers who were my age were only working part time while they were in college. I always felt a little left behind knowing that they would be off to lead interesting and fulfilling lives while I was told to “get a real job” fifty times a day.

In order to alleviate those feelings, I got a different job. I became a line cook at a busy restaurant. It was a refreshing change of pace: from air-conditioned office to searing hot kitchen; from quiet civility to loud, high-energy mayhem; from telephones and computer screens to fire and sharp knives—after the cubicles and the nonstop rejection, it was a kind of heaven. I got a free dinner every night and even some overtime pay on busy weeks. Best of all, nobody ever told me to “get a real job.” And there were no more ties, which was good because I was sick of wearing them by that point, and I had promised myself I would never wear one again.

That job, in many ways, purified me. The heat of the kitchen and the hard, hard work. Long days and longer nights. Staying up all night and sleeping all day. Burns, cuts, bruises, sore back and sorer feet, all beat me down to the point where I had to find the strength to get back on the line. Day by day, week by week, for two years I seared steaks, fried chicken, grilled fish and prepped salads. I got invested in the tiny, infinitely complicated world that the kitchen offered, and it took me in, burned away the parts of me that couldn’t stand up to the pressure. It helped to silence forever that facet of my person that had thought that a career in telemarketing was even remotely feasible. I had no delusions of grandeur or a future in the kitchen, only the food and the fire, one night at a time.

While I was working in the kitchen — losing the little weight I had to lose and gaining a sense of skepticism and a sizeable set of burn scars (the ghosts of which I carry to this day) — I kept in contact with my best friend, who was in school at that time. Sometimes, I would visit him at his dorm. We would hang out, catching up on the time we’d been apart, catching up on each other’s lives. He would tell me about his school, his classes, and his friends. I even went to his school a few times, to investigate the building and the people who took classes there.

His world was everything mine wasn’t. My existence as a cook was a single-minded life that let me shut my mind down and focus on one exceedingly narrow thing. For my friend, his life at school was the exact opposite. It was all about the massive influx of stimuli that the college atmosphere generated all around him. I realized that there was more going on in that one environment than anything I had ever experienced before—and I was just a peripheral observer! I grew pretty jealous of my friend, and I told him so one evening while we were talking in his dorm room.

“You know,” he said, “you could go to school. There’s really nothing stopping you.”

It sounds silly, hard to believe, certainly not to my credit, but I honestly hadn’t thought of that. I hadn’t even given myself the chance to think of that. I had stopped thinking about “the future” — that big, scary, shapeless mass of time sprawling out in front of me—in any real or practical way, so college had just never seemed like an option.

“Nah,” I told him, “that’s not for me.”

But what he said got me thinking, a lot. I turned the possibilities over in my mind, weighed the pros and cons, and finally decided to give it a shot. My friend was overjoyed in an “I know you can do it” way. I went to my parents’ house (since I didn’t have a computer at the time and I was staying with my grandmother because I couldn’t scrape together enough money to get a place of my own) to do some research.

Everywhere was closed. Application deadlines were long past. It was mid-February and I was losing hope. I checked all the schools I could think of, but it was too late to apply for admission in the fall semester. Despairing, I called my friend to tell him that I’d given it my best shot but it was hopeless. He told me to keep trying and he recommended that I check with a small, liberal arts college of which he knew. He had some friends who went there.

It turned out that they accepted applications through the end of February. At the eleventh hour, I found a school to which I could apply. Needless to say, I applied, and I was accepted. Getting that letter in the mail, the one that began “Congratulations,” was probably the most significant thing that has ever happened to me. Getting into college, and the decision to go, of course, turned out to be exactly what I needed. It wasn’t exactly all easy from there, naturally. It turned out that school was a battle for me. But, since it was one entirely worth fighting, it was never too hard or too much. The biggest challenge by far was taking that step and getting in. Hard won battle that it was, it is one thing about which I have never had so much as a single, brief regret.

~Ian Pike

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