Deep Background, or, The Story So Far
In 1991, I graduated from high school with what I like to think of as “undistinguished honors”. I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging, but high school wasn’t very hard. Most of the time I didn’t have to try – so I didn’t. I skated out of old Stearns High School with a GPA in the high 3s and early-decision acceptance to Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where I’d spent a couple of interesting weeks as part of a summer program the year before, and when I arrived in Worcester that fall I figured it wouldn’t give me much trouble. I wasn’t quite so full of myself as to assume it’d be a walkover, but still, I wasn’t expecting significant difficulties.
Of course, I found them anyway. I was not in any way prepared for the college environment, much less the demands of performing to a sufficient standard in coursework of that level. Plus, I had gone ahead and declared my major (not actually required until sophomore year in those days) in computer science. I realized fairly early on that this had been a mistake, as CS meant programming and programming didn’t interest me. Computers did, networks and systems did, but WPI didn’t have an information technology degree program (it would launch one the following year, something which still annoys me slightly to this day), and I had no fallback plan – had no plan of any kind, really.
I had some good times at WPI, make no mistake; I made (and, in one surprising case, renewed) friendships that still endure today and began, in a real sense, the never-really-ending process of finding my voice as a writer. I still think fondly of the campus, the city, and even the school’s rather endearingly crazy administration. What I did not do – not even a little bit – was succeed academically there. I simply wasn’t prepared for the pressure or the need to maintain some kind of academic rigor. I must have, because I did manage to pass several fairly challenging classes (like Calculus I and II), but I cannot now remember ever actually working or studying while at WPI. I never really knew how to do it. After two undistinguished terms, one mostly disastrous one, and one that I more or less wrote off entirely in week 3, the university pulled my financial aid in the spring of 1992 for poor academic performance, and that was the end of me as a WPI student.
Interestingly, I managed this academic flameout without ever once falling prey to the usual causes of freshman failure. I didn’t drink at all, never so much as experimented with drugs (and believe me, they were all around me if I’d cared to give it a go), didn’t even have a serious girlfriend (not that avoiding that was any great challenge at WPI in the early ’90s). I came by my academic probation the old-fashioned way: by just plain being a lousy student.
I returned to college the following year, having spent the 1992-1993 school year doing everything from construction to power loafing. This time, I figured, I’d stay away from the technical disciplines, figuring that it was the heavy math and general science-y-ness of WPI that had tripped me up; so I entered the University of Maine in the fall of 1993 as a history major. Not for me the private sector of technological arcana. I would happily spend the rest of my life safely ensconced within the cocoon of academia.
That lasted until March, when a friend from my WPI days called me up and told me that the computer manufacturer he worked for, a PC-clone company headquartered out in Westborough, was hiring technical support people. This was at the very beginning of the great high-tech boom, and the money they were offering was startlingly good considering how not-picky they were about qualifications; so I withdrew from UMaine (properly this time, the one thing I did right in those days) and headed south, chasing the paycheck.
I would, though I didn’t know it then, be at it for seven years, jumping from company to company like a rat having a very bad day during a major naval battle, scrambling constantly from ship to sinking ship. I made what, in retrospect, were really shocking quantities of money for a double college dropout, and I didn’t really have to do a whole lot to earn it, either. I managed to spend even more money than that, ruining my credit and making myself a lifelong object of scorn to the tax services of two states and the federal government, and generally conducting myself with the sort of cheerful abandon that characterized that interesting period in our nation’s history; and then the tech bubble burst in early 2001 and the ride was over. The last high-tech company I worked for went under so quickly and quietly that I found out I’d been laid off over the phone.
Marooned on the shores of a sea of bad life decisions, I moved back to my hometown in Maine and, through a series of curious incidents not all of my own making, found myself a reporter at the local newspaper. Eventually I found myself editor of the local newspaper, in which capacity I had the interesting experience of working much, much harder for considerably longer hours than I’d ever clocked in high-tech, for about a quarter the pay. I still miss that job. The paper closed up shop in 2005, a victim of the usual sort of shady-but-legal small-business cutthroatery that you get in places like this. For the next few years I explored the equally interesting, but not particularly lucrative, field of the freelance copywriter who doesn’t get much business. Things seemed set to go on in like vein pretty much forever.
Then one day, back in the middle of July, I was sitting here in my fortress of solitude and thinking about all the points in my life where I’d made the wrong call, and it suddenly burst upon me what I should have done when, long ago at WPI, it dawned on me that computer science was not going to work for me as a course of study or a lifepath:
Switch to the Electrical Engineering Department.
In retrospect it seems blindingly obvious, but from the late winter of 1991-92 to that day in July 2010, it never once crossed my mind that that’s what I should have done. Let some other schmuck program the damned things; I could be one of the guys who builds them. Or makes the electricity they use. Or gets it to the house. Or any number of other things that have to do with technology and matters electric, but don’t have to do with algorithms, or syntax, or making sure all the parentheses are closed (one of the programming courses I bombed at WPI was in Scheme, a dialect of LISP(so there was a lot of stuff like this(which gets old (pretty fast)))).
Things started happening pretty fast after that little epiphany. I applied for readmission to the University of Maine and filed a financial aid application in the middle of July, figuring, what the hell, the worst they could do was say no. At best I expected them to say something like, “Do you have any idea how much you’ve missed the deadlines by? Call us back in the spring semester.”
Instead, they said*, “Hey, great! Welcome back! You’ve missed the deadlines by a fair bit, but we can offer you enough financial aid to pay for your classes, anyway. And you’ll have to take whatever class divisions we can shoehorn you into, so your schedule is probably going to be pretty wacky. But we can handle it if you can!”
Which is how, after six weeks of really quite startlingly rapid bureaucratic processes, I find myself beginning classes tomorrow. I’m a slightly odd case, neither fish nor fowl: I’m beginning right at the start of the EE curriculum, a member of the class of 2014, which technically makes me a freshman; except I’ve been there before, so I’m not subject to the various weird and arbitrary rules to which freshmen are subject. I don’t have to live on campus the first year, for example, which all normal freshmen who live more than 30 miles from Orono are required to do. (I actually kind of wanted to – it’s a long drive – but the money didn’t come together, so I had to cancel my room assignment.)
So in the morning, I’ll rise at what for me is a truly absurd hour, drive for a bit longer than I’d really care to drive, find a place to park in one of the University’s gargantuan commuter lots (which are roughly as far from the useful parts of campus as is, say, Denver), hike down to Aubert Hall on the campus mall, and report for the first lecture of the school year – CHY 121 (General Chemistry I), with Dr. Rowe. I don’t know why first-year electrical engineering students have to take Chemistry I either, but they do.
I’m 37 years old. My classmates will, I realized after a quick mental calculation the other day, have been born right about the same time I was dropping out of WPI. Most of them will never have seen a Walkman, used a computer with a monochrome display, or known their parents to have a car that didn’t have air conditioning or electric windows. Bill Clinton will have been the president at their earliest awareness of the office (mine was Jimmy Carter). I’m not quite old enough to be their father unless I’d been much more, er, enterprising in high school than I was, but it’s close; when my dad was my age, I was in high school. They will have only the vaguest recollection of the world before the World Wide Web or having to take your shoes off at the airport.
This should be interesting.
At least I hope it will be. It’d be a bit silly starting a blog about it otherwise.
(* They didn’t actually say this. It was just implied in the results of those applications I filed.)