In the late 1980s, I was a high school kid living in the upper middle-class suburbs of northern Houston. Average is an appropriate word to describe me at that time. I wasn't an athlete, nor was I an outstanding student. While I had enough sense to stay clear of trouble makers, I wasn't a member of the National Honor Society either. I was somewhere in my school's vast middle. To most people, I was a standard American teenage boy. I wore blue jeans and Nike sneakers and drove a beautiful 1968 Chevelle that I tinkered with in an endless effort to make faster. I had a steady girlfriend, and a part-time job paid for gas, fast food and issues of Hot Rod magazine. But I had a problem. I had a character flaw that caused me grief. When it came to schoolwork, I was lazy.
Scolding after scolding didn't improve my lack of effort in the classroom. My father, a dedicated businessman with a fierce work ethic, sat me down one night in the living room and told me that my grades would have lasting effects on my path in life. “You have the ability to do anything you want, but you have to work for it, son,” he told me.
One October evening during my senior year, my high school hosted an event called College Night. Recruiters from institutions all over the country lined the cafeteria in booths decorated in colleges' colors and livery. Many of my friends' parents, with their sons or daughters in tow, shook hands with recruiters and earnestly talked about grade point averages and tuition. People smiled and carried pamphlets and folders of literature. Many gravitated toward booths of well-known state universities, while several expensive private schools were also popular. But amidst the excitement, my mood quickly darkened. As I suspected, my grades were far too low to be accepted to any of the schools I found attractive. I returned home that night dripping with self-doubt.
After College Night, nearly all of my friends began laying plans to attend college, while I carried on with no motivation to improve my situation. Although there were times when I proved that studying yielded favorable results, I normally exerted just enough effort to earn a passing grade, and sometimes not even that. In May of 1990, I graduated from high school in the bottom half of my class with an equally anemic SAT score. One night I drove to a secluded place in the woods and sat alone on the hood of my car, staring into the sky through pine trees, begging for some sort of inspiration. The only thing that came were tears.
In the fall, my friends moved away into dorms to be full-time university students, and I stayed in Houston to attend classes at a community college that had no acceptance requirements. Still without a plan, I reasoned that I would simply transfer into a university.
If my grades in high school were weak, then my first three semesters of college were atrocious. I accomplished nothing and decided to stop taking classes until I figured out what I wanted to do. I found a job at an upscale deli and spent nearly a year slicing meats, baking potatoes, making soups and serving sandwiches to long lines of customers. At closing time, I scrubbed the floors and cleaned the walk-in cooler, then drove home stinking of cold cuts and dill relish. My friends came home from college during holiday breaks, telling me of their experiences. I pined at their stories. The feeling of failure weighed heavily on me, and I wondered how people perceived me.
The rumble of a personal revolution stirred within me. Not all at once, but slowly, my parents' wisdom took root, as I finally understood the urgency of having only one chance to navigate through life. I felt I was squandering my one chance and living well short of my potential. I was finally ready to work for a something better.
In the spring of 1993, with limited money, I enrolled in two classes at the community college. I attended classes in the morning, worked at the deli until it closed, then came home at night and pored over my homework before eventually collapsing into bed, exhausted. I was driven to push myself in school for the first time in years. The results were exhilarating. At the end of that semester I earned my first A in college. I enrolled in classes every term, including summer sessions. One by one, I retook the classes I had previously failed, replacing poor grades with good grades. My GPA ticked upward, and by the end of the fall semester in 1993, it finally made sense to ponder what college I wanted to attend. Wanting desperately to redeem myself, I remembered some of the private universities from College Night and imagined myself as a graduate. Baylor University made a positive impression on me, maybe because many of my high school classmates who went there after graduation were the “Most-Likely-To-Succeed” types. It was a quiet idea that I kept to myself, but maybe I could still go to Baylor, I thought.
I made a phone call to inquire about transferring into Baylor as a full-time student. When the school literature arrived in my mailbox, I ripped the package open like a child on Christmas morning and read every word of the brochures and booklets. So, this is the way my classmates felt on college night, I thought. I quickly scheduled a campus visit and a meeting with the admission's office. My dad, who was understandably skeptical of my new lofty pursuit, went with me. I knew Baylor was within reach, and my parents' doubtfulness only intensified my resolve to follow through.
A smiling admissions counselor greeted me with a handshake before I handed her my transcripts. A twinge of anxiety tickled my stomach, knowing she would see the dismal grades of my first few semesters. I explained that I was taking two classes not yet on my transcripts. After taking a few uncomfortable minutes to review my academic past, the lady began typing my grades into her computer. My dad sat calmly next to me, allowing me to handle my own affairs.
The lady finally turned to me, smiling, and said, “Let's project the grades you anticipate making this semester.”
“I'll make an A in both classes, Geology and English Literature,” I answered, a bit too confidently.
“Great,” she replied, then typed them into her computer. A moment later, she looked at me and smiled again. “Well, if you get an A in both classes,” she said, pausing, “you will meet the credit and GPA requirements to transfer in the fall.” I struggled to contain the surge of joy that shot through me. My campaign to rebuild myself was working.
I was gripped by elation the rest of the day. Sharing a comfortable glass-sided tram with other prospective students and their parents, my dad and I viewed the campus, learning the impressive history of the school's stately brick buildings. We saw students with backpacks crisscrossing the campus on sidewalks adorned with decorative black lamp posts. Benches were situated in the soothing shade of century-old oak trees that canopied over manicured green grass. Later, we ate lunch in one of the student dining halls and attended a party where prospective students enjoyed root beer floats and mingled with faculty members in an opulent ballroom. Baylor University was extending an invitation, and I planned to accept.
I returned home to earn an A in both of my classes and complete the admissions application and lengthy financial aid forms. My acceptance letter arrived a few weeks later. On August 18, 1994, with a fully packed car, I left the community college, the deli and my laziness far behind. I drove north – to Baylor.
There are occasions when I still have to explain why I graduated from college seven years after high school. When I look at my Baylor diploma hanging proudly on the wall of my study, I hold the years of reinventing myself very dear, knowing I did everything I could to restore my teenage shortcomings. I've achieved other notable successes since college, but none without focused effort. I quietly promise to make sure my two little boys understand that the arduous road I took could have been much smoother if I had started with a clear objective and let determination drive my steps along the way. I often imagine the conversations I will surely have with my sons, and as I watch them grow up, I find myself hoping that they listen to their dad better than I did.