I was getting too big for my britches.
I had been reporting for a number of years by now, I had written hundreds of stories, I'd written a book about emigrant Finns, I'd published a couple of short stories, I'd started free-lancing for magazines. I thought I was pretty damned impressive. I decided I wanted to go to grad school.
One small problem: I had not yet finished my B.A.
I'd been taking university classes off and on since graduating from high school. Now I was in my early 30s, and I was not really all that close to getting a degree. I'd airily skipped all of the basic requirements--biology, and astronomy, and whatever the hell the other ones were. I'd just taken the fun stuff. It was like going to Old Country Buffet and heading directly for the pudding table.
But now UMD was about to split its English program into two separate departments--literature, and composition. I needed to get my degree quickly, so that my credits still qualified, and so that I could get a degree in English instead of in composition, which, to me, sounded boneheaded and basic.
I had even gone so far as to test out of some classes. You still have to pay the full tuition fee, which seemed like a scam to me, but instead of going to class for three months, you just take a test. I'd gotten a number of credits that way, but it wasn't enough. I was still about 80 credits short of graduating.
So I decided to talk to the department chair and see if there was some way to expedite the situation. It just seemed boring and tedious to keep slogging away at those classes and paying all that money when what I really wanted to do was go get a master's degree.
The department chair was a small man whose name is the same as a body part. Feel free to guess; I won't tell you here, in case he's still alive and still tormenting students.
As it happened, even though I had taken hundreds, if not dozens, of English classes, I had somehow managed to not take one from him. This did not help my case, I realize in retrospect. Also, my father was an English professor who taught at the two other local colleges. That probably somehow hurt my cause as well; I think they did not like each other.
Or maybe what he told me was perfectly reasonable and true. I still am not sure.
In any case, I went into his office and explained my situation. "I'm a reporter for the paper," I said. "I've been taking classes part-time for years, but I'm wondering if there's some way to expedite getting a degree so that I can go to grad school."
Professor Body Part leaned back in his chair and looked at me. He made a tent of his hands and bounced his fingertips together. He allowed me to wait a long time before answering.
"I cannot believe how arrogant you are," he said. "You think that education can be speeded up?"
I stared at him. This was not the response I had been expecting.
"Going to college is a privilege," he said. "I have students who live on beans, and starve in garrets" (he really said this; I will never forget it, because my mind started wandering and I tried to picture which houses in Duluth had actual garrets) "in order to stay in school. And you think you can keep your little job" --here he sneered--"and hurry up your degree?"
After that I quit listening. I know that he told me that what I should do is quit my job, devote myself to my schooling, and take some classes from him. (He was an American literature expert, and he said my transcript was shocking in its lack of credits in American literature.)
After a while I got up and left. That's it, I told myself. I'm done with school.
It was a humiliating moment. But it was also rather freeing; no more classes. No more big tuition bills, no more late nights on campus, no more juggling work assignments with classes; no more expensive textbooks.
Yes, I regret it. Yes, I should have finished. Yes, the lack of degree is embarrassing to admit to and has hampered me in some ways. But that day, that moment, I felt nothing but lightness and relief.
A note on the photo: I was covering a campaign rally at Canal Park. Even in a steady rain, Sen. Paul Wellstone got the crowd incredibly fired up. I've never heard such a passionate speaker before. Then Jim Obsertar--whose wife had just died of cancer--brought everyone right back down again. And then Gore came out and, frankly, even though I wrote a story about him, I can't remember a thing about his talk.
And even though it looks like I was wearing one of those false-nose-and-glasses combinations, it's really just a bad picture of me. I hope.
55 minutes ago