Phantom Limb

This is all gonna make sense in the end.

 

The above picture is of 1961 Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, Syracuse Orangeman running back and leukemia victim who died at the age of 23. The piece was done on commission for a friend who went to Syracuse, which she was going to give as a gift to a friend of hers who was also an SU alum.

This sort of thing is exactly the type of piece that I do, and while I prefer action shots to portraits, the source picture was this gorgeous black-and-white photograph that lent itself very well to charcoal. Add to that the significance of the event (Davis hoisting the Heisman the night he had won it, first African-American recipient in the trophy’s history, died less than two years later), I was more than happy to draw it.

And, of course, I went to Syracuse myself. For three semesters, anyway.

My thoughts about college run all over the map. In a vacuum I think it’s a tremendous experience that every 18-year old kid should be required to go through, but once you start taking cost into account and what the return on that investment will be, it starts to get dicey. Throw in the fact that it’s sold as a bill of goods vis-à-vis future employment, yet at least half of the kids enrolled at any one time are going to end up doing the same type of job whether they went to college or not (and that’s presuming they even finish, which a good portion won’t), and the whole concept strikes me as a big fat fucking shakedown. And I say this as a recruiter working in an employment office, one who looks at resumes on a daily basis and interviews candidates to try to determine if they’re qualified for the job I’m trying to fill, so I have to be able to discern this type of stuff.

College should be required for the life lessons alone. It instills independence, it encourages critical thinking, it fosters responsibility and accountability, and in most cases it exposes the student to a far more culturally diverse landscape than their high school or hometown ever provided. College can also knock you on your ass, but it’s important to get your ass stomped once in a while.

What it does not do is guarantee you a job, any job (let alone one in your chosen field of study), nor can it possibly justify its cost. Those are realities. And if so, then at least 50% of the kids going to college have no business being there. I went to Syracuse for three semesters in 1989 and 1990, and at that time it cost $25,000 a year, and I was an art major, of all things. If I had actually been a diligent student who applied myself and lasted all four years, my parents and I would have been $100K in the hole, and for what? Maybe I’d have been a better person for having had that much time at college to explore my art, but a $100K is a steep price to be a starving artist. Jesus, even if you’re going to major in Finance or Accounting that’s a tough effing pill to swallow, except these days the pill costs $200,000. Most would be better served by using their first year’s tuition as a down payment on a house and the next three years of tuition towards the mortgage, all the while working at real job, gaining that much more experience (as well as equity) in the process.

Of course, we live in a world where college degrees are required for most white-collar jobs, so there’s that. But frankly, if you’re just going to college to play the paper chase and that’s it, you might as well go to a state school.

On the other hand, would I have paid $100K to magically have the experiences I missed out on by dropping out of college early? In a heartbeat, presuming I had that kind of cash to spend. I did go back and finish ten years later, at a different school and under a different major, and while I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment in doing so (and ultimately got more out of it at my advanced age than I ever would have in my late teens/early 20s), I felt like I was marked in some deeply weird way just the same. And in the end, even after getting the degree, I still feel like I never really exorcised that ghost. For eight years, from the time I left Syracuse to the time I enrolled at Framingham State, I walked around under the acrid grey clouds of a nuclear winter, hidden from the eyes of God, wandering somewhere east of Eden with a whistling hole in my soul that refused to close. So even now, with my whole education dilemma miraculously rectified, I still have dreams where I somehow fell short.

Amputees imagine pain in limbs that no longer exist. I look at my leg, which had been symbolically shorn off at the thigh in the metaphysical car crash that was leaving Syracuse, and despite the limb that magically sprouted from that stump upon graduating from Framingham, I still wake up clutching at the perceived empty space. Despite the flesh and bone so clearly there. Persistence of memory, or simply haunted.

The car crash was my fault, by the way. All my fault. But I don’t think there was much I could’ve done about it. And as I alluded to, even if I had avoided it, I’m not sure the alternative would have been better for me. Given this knowledge, from both my time as a student and as a recruiter who hires college grads and experienced workers, I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do when it comes to my own kids and their college plans. I may not have to worry… with some kids you never do. They’ll get their good grades and do everything they’re supposed to do and generally take care of themselves. I’ll endorse whatever choices that kid makes.

But the kid who seems like they might have one foot planted in another world, some dimension where rules and expectations and laws of gravity are like a foreign language that everyone else can speak but the kid? I don’t know what to do about that kid. That kid is fucked. And I hope I’d be able to step in and guide him or her somehow, but I doubt I could have been guided at that age. Maybe I could pull it off, having gone through what I have, but it would require making some really important decisions, birthed via an ugly and bloody process. There would be casualties, and with no guarantees that the right path was chosen in the first place.

May my children grow up to be accountants, or left-handed fireballers out of the pen.

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