It was late. I pulled into the campus after seven o’clock to attend my last class of the semester. My last college class. Ever. It was a night class.
In America, most self-respecting people my age were finishing supper, settling down to watch “Wheel of Fortune.” But I was in school.
I had been attending community college for 11 years. I had been taking a lot of night courses. Which meant that I had perfected the art of eating supper in my truck, on the way to class. I drove with my knees, ate with my hands, and controlled the radio with my big toe.
Supper often consisted of foil-wrapped tamales, purchased from Carmela, a middle-aged Mexican woman who visited our construction jobsites. Carmela traveled in a battered ‘84 Nissan Maxima that looked like a roving salvage yard.
Every time I’d buy a tamale, Carmela would pat my cheek and say, “Joo are very sweet boy, but joo need a bath, joo smell like goat butt.”
So parked my truck. I rushed into class, smelling like the fundaments of a horned barnyard animal.
Eleven years it had taken me to finish school. Me. A middle-school dropout. My formal education ended in seventh grade, after my father took his own life with a hunting rifle. I simply quit going to school. I was a rural child. It wasn’t a big deal. Nobody seemed to care what rural dropouts did.
I got my first job hanging drywall at age 14. I started working in bars, playing music shortly thereafter. I had a lot of jobs. I hung gutter. I worked as an ice-cream-scoop. I was a telemarketer. I was a nobody. I was white trash.
Until I enrolled in community college.
I enrolled as an adult, and my life changed. I became alumni at Okaloosa-Walton Community College.
I completed high-school equivalency courses. I finished the collegiate coursework. It took me eleven years. I worked hard. And I count every year I spent at OWCC as a blessing.
I don’t care what you’ve heard, community college is the beating heart of America. Your big, fancy schools are well and good. But show me a community college, and I’ll show you the vascular system of this nation.
America is not built on the shoulders of Harvard or Yale graduates. America’s internal organs are made up of men and women who know the difference between good and bad tamales.
That night, our classroom consisted of a commercial plumber, an electrician’s assistant, a few GIs, and a Hooters waitress who looked as though she had come directly from work. And me, a degenerate bar musician/tile-layer.
Our literature teacher arrived. Soon, we were discussing what was known to our class as “TKAM.” “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And everyone in our classroom had something to say about TKAM.
Namely, because this book was not just literature to us. It was a taste of home. The book took place in Monroe County, Alabama. We were one-point-five counties away from Monroe County.
We all talked about deeper meanings within the book. We spoke of metaphors and hyperboles and allegories and a bunch of other five-dollar words nobody understood except the Hooters waitress. And it was a great night.
And when class was finished, our teacher got this tear-stained look in her eyes and said, “I’m going to miss you all.”
She said, “A few of you are going to graduate this year, and I wanted to do something special for you to mark this occasion.”
She invited the graduates to the front of the room. We all shyly walked forward. She gave us tiny potted begonias and greeting cards. She kissed our foreheads.
They don’t kiss your foreheads at Yale.
The Hooters waitress and I stood shoulder to shoulder. The teacher made a big deal about how we were all such important people. She told the Hooters waitress that she was going to be a big-time nurse someday. The waitress blushed.
Then the professor told the classroom that she believed I would become a writer one day. I wanted to bury my face from embarrassment.
But the old woman touched my cheek and said, “You are so beautiful, Sean. I know God is going to use your past to make a marvelous future.” Then she kissed my forehead again.
If there was a dry eye in the classroom it belonged to a needle.
And anyway, this goat butt will forever be a proud community college graduate.
Steve Winfield (lifer) - January 19, 2023 8:23 am
And look how far you’ve come.
I’m as proud as a peacock.
Your momma is too.
I read your first two books. Had no idea you’d come so far so fast.
Boy! Just look at you.
Love to you all.
Can’t wait to see you again.
oldlibrariansshelf - January 19, 2023 9:25 am
Yes. Community colleges are where you find real people. My daughter’s professors encouraged her to bring her newborn to class so she could be there. “He will be fine. He can sleep through classes just like everyone else.” A.A. degree in 1991. B.S. degree in 2011.
Carol from GA - January 19, 2023 10:29 am
Hopefully your teacher is reading this now…. and smiling… from wherever she is :):)
Keloth Anne - January 19, 2023 10:41 am
Oh, Sean, this was so incredible — for a moment I felt as though I was in the classroom! Such a wonderful teacher — certainly dedicated, caring and believed and loved her students. I know she’s very proud of you and we’re so grateful you are a writer ♥️♥️
I love having you a daily part of my life and I eagerly look forward to each morning when a new writing arrives! Thank you and know you are loved and so appreciated 🥰
Keep it up
Gordon Walden - January 19, 2023 10:41 am
Thank you again! Ain’t this life beautiful!
Brian - January 19, 2023 10:45 am
Congratulations, Sean. What a great story and lesson of how perseverance pays big dividends. The life lessons you share in your writings are meaningful and very loving.
Thank you again for sharing another beautiful story!
Anne Arthur - January 19, 2023 12:00 pm
It’s heartwarming to read when a teacher “gets” her students and recognizes their talents. Kudos to you and everyone else who attends community college. True, it’s the heartbeat of America.
Robin - January 19, 2023 11:04 am
Congratulations on your hard work and perseverance!🎓
Steve Garrett - January 19, 2023 11:11 am
Another great story. Thanks Sean.
Julia - January 19, 2023 11:11 am
Thank you Sean
Dolores - January 19, 2023 11:16 am
“You are so beautiful, I know God is going to use your past to make a marvelous future.” No truer words have been spoken and they apply to every person who feels less than.
Bitterness and resentment pave the way to destruction, a downhill trip. Do right by God and man though the way may be long and steep.
The Lord will make a way out of no way; your test, a testimony. Thanks for yours, Sean. And Lord, bless all the encouragers.
Joy Jacobs - January 19, 2023 11:31 am
Ernie in River City - January 19, 2023 11:34 am
The community college network has never had a more perfect spokesperson. Great job. Both you and OWCC are great examples of treasures from the Panhandle.
Barbara A. Farr - January 19, 2023 11:53 am
I agree. I went to Pensacola Junior College. I was in the music department. I am still in contact with my voice teacher, Doc. He was fresh out of college and was 7 years older than we were. I learned more there than any other school.
I was married to a Navy man. We moved often. We were stationed in Albuquerque, NM, when I graduated. I had to get 5 transcripts for UNM! I graduated the same year my oldest child graduated from high school.
I am 75 now and Doc is 82. He is very special. He is caring and still encouraging. PJC was the best school of all.
Julie - January 19, 2023 11:55 am
Boy was she right!!!
Alan Martin - January 19, 2023 12:02 pm
Thank you Sean….I have run out of words to express how you set my day up for happiness. Just know that you do.
babs - January 19, 2023 12:43 pm
blessed are the few, the really good Teachers, you were fortunate
Roxanne - January 19, 2023 12:58 pm
My son is currently attending a community college. And I am in my 26th year of teaching junior high. Despite what ANYONE says, the goal is to keep moving forward. And you did. God bless your sweet teacher and you.
Carol James - January 19, 2023 1:14 pm
What a heartwarming post and a beautiful memory for you. Thanks for sharing.
ransom19d642fb18f - January 19, 2023 1:19 pm
And what you write HAS fulfilled her prophetic words. I am thankful for the encouragement you offer brother. So thankful.
Richard Baker - January 19, 2023 1:21 pm
Good things come in small packages. Some will always go for the big package, thinking it holds the most valuable treasure. Some have no choice but to take the small package. God seems to consistently hand us the small package to show what the mustard seed can deliver.
Ann T - January 19, 2023 1:28 pm
I for one am glad you are a writer that shares your experiences. Thank you.
David in California - January 19, 2023 1:30 pm
bubbastubbs - January 19, 2023 1:34 pm
I, too, am a community college graduate (during my time, however, they were called “junior colleges”!). As a proud graduate of SJRJC (St. John’s’ River Junior College, Palatka, FL), I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world! My classes, too, were filled with folks from ALL walks of life and the diversity, I’m sure, fed my desire to continue my formal education in later years!
lanierh2 - January 19, 2023 1:34 pm
Peeling back another layer of the onion for us today. Beautiful story. Thank you.
Trent - January 19, 2023 1:39 pm
BYH! Hands down one of my all time faves Seaner. You are definitely a Seaner. A Gamer! You have my eternal respect for trudging forward and never quitting.
Dawn M Monday - January 19, 2023 1:58 pm
Good for you!! Such a wonderful testimony to education and how it’s never too late!! Also kudos to teachers like the one you had for the encouragement she bestowed upon her students!
mccutchen52 - January 19, 2023 2:02 pm
I also am a Community College Graduate and I also was an adult. I wanted my HVAC license. After finishing almost two years I was told I had my HVAC certificate and that I had a job waiting for me but If I tool two more courses I would receive my Associate Degree. My wife told me I had been going to school after work and they said I could take hybrid classes. I could do the school work at home and go take my test at the college so I agreed (after a lot of pushing from my wife). What does it mean now that I retired. Well it hangs on my wall and every time I look at it I am proud of the accomplishment. Always swing for the fence.
Tim - January 19, 2023 2:20 pm
Community college =
The Body n Blood
You R Christ
I went to Community college (in Florida)
Before finishing at a “Proper” University (of Florida).
Waited tables and a slew of other jobs to pay my way through.
Took me 7 years.
I learned a lot (most of the useful stuff outside the classroom).
One of which was (is)
Sometimes Less IS More.
More(al) of the story.
Tathel Miller - January 19, 2023 2:21 pm
I could not love this more! I went back to school as an older adult–started at a community college. When God allows you the blessing of finishing your degree after years of working during the day and going to classes at night–there is this feeling of a greater joy that only those who have experienced this can explain. And then it is hard to put into words still.
MR - January 19, 2023 2:26 pm
Your professor saw in you so many years ago what we all get to see ( and read) today!!! ❤️❤️❤️
Marie - January 19, 2023 2:31 pm
I went right to work after high school, having finished Cosmetology school while attending my senior year of high school. As a child, my dream was to be a nurse but money and love shifted my course. I married my high-school sweetheart a year after high school. We didn’t have much but we both were working and eventually ran 2 successful businesses, his in construction, me making people “pretty”! After 28 years of standing on my feet at a career I loved, I decided I needed to find a job less wearing on my body. My 35 years of keeping 2 sets of books (besides our personal ones) got me into UNC-CH on the accounting staff (VERY lowly job but with BENEFITS and paid days off, and I loved it) After a few years our son was grown and out of college so this gal, at age 48, went BACK to school at our local Community College, nights and online. I got my accounting degree which led to better paying jobs! It was a rewarding time with other like-minded folks looking to better our education and from so many walks of life, most of us rushing from full-time jobs straight to class……yes, eating in the car while sometimes cramming last minutes of notes in our tired brains for a test. I agree with you, the Community College system is a valuable resource for so many folks. Not everyone can afford or even WANTS to go to a major university. There is something for everyone in a community college.
Dennis - January 19, 2023 2:42 pm
Loved the story. Next time, when you write the story, MARRY THE HOOTER WAITRESS. C’mon, that is a no brainer.
Torence - January 19, 2023 8:09 pm
I was also wondering what happened to the Hooter Waitress.
Sandy Fopiano - January 19, 2023 2:44 pm
Good Morning, Sean !!! I so look forward to reading your posts each day – warms my heart. Our family is from Ft. Walton Beach, FL, so I’m familiar with OWJC. You have been through so much and look how the Lord has blessed you. Love you and Jamie — God Bless You Both.
Renee Welton - January 19, 2023 2:47 pm
Stacey Wallace - January 19, 2023 2:47 pm
Sean, my husband and I are retired teachers and community college graduates. Your teacher was right; you are a beautiful person and an amazing writer. Today you are speaking at the Opelika Public Library, only about six miles from our home in Auburn. We are so disappointed that we found out about it too late. The place filled up the day it was announced that you would be there. Please come to Auburn, the Loveliest Village on the Plains. We love you even though you’re a Bama fan. 😂 Love to you, Jamie, Marigold, Otis Campbell, and Thelma Lou.
Carmen Denton - January 19, 2023 3:01 pm
I went to college. Got a degree. What good did it it do for me? Maybe-maybe-the degree might have helped me get a job that I immensely disliked. I’m all for community colleges. I always advise young people not to go to a university right away because many of the university graduates that I know have no common sense and are still dependent on their parents. I could go on and on but I won’t. Just say I believe in community colleges!
Suzanne Mcquiston - January 19, 2023 3:06 pm
Oh my gosh you really nailed your work on community college. They are considered the bottom link but should be at the top. They make the work force of this country
Thank you for your writing. I look forward to it every morning with the knowledge that I will cry or laugh.
Jim Duncan - January 19, 2023 3:11 pm
I hope the professor’s prediction for the Hooter’s waitress comes true, just as her prediction she had for you. Your article
was so well written and the pictures you paint with your words are priceless.
pattymack43 - January 19, 2023 3:42 pm
Middle aged community college graduate here. Got my Registered Nursing degree at age 47. Thank you for acknowledging those of us who are not traditionally educated. My 3 teenaged sons were my cheering section. That was 33 years ago. No regrets! Blessings!!
David Britnell - January 19, 2023 4:10 pm
Loved this story! Thanks for sharing Sean!!
sjhl7 - January 19, 2023 4:13 pm
Me too! Single mother of one who had attended a state four year college for 1.5 years then dropped out to get married. I enrolled in a community college, graduated from nursing school. After marrying and the birth of my second child, I graduated with a B.S.N. from a 4 year school and five years later after the birth of my third child, I received my Masters Degree. Anything is possible if you want it badly enough!
Pubert Earle Bozemann - January 19, 2023 4:16 pm
SEAN, like they used to say when I was a kid, “it ain’t how long you make it, it’s how you make it long!” Old teach was on to something. What you’re saying about the Harvards and the Yales is more true now than ever- they don’t teach courses in common sense. Write on with yo stinky self!
Gayle - January 19, 2023 4:23 pm
Sean, your story does echo the heartbeat of America.
I squeaked through high school. Not long after I started community college that was Florida Jr College (FJC) or as we lovingly called it – Fruit juice college. My journey was long with gaps and starts. The support & encouragement of my husband is what kept my shoulder to the wheel. Finally after our two children were born, I had just about given up on ever finishing. One Sunday an older couple at our church, that we lovingly called by their cb handle, Mama & Papa Redbird, said that I needed to sign up for classes and they would keep our children while I finished up my degree. I finally finished my A.A. degree and after our children were in school, I went on to complete my additional two years to get my teaching degree. And once our children were becoming more independent (meaning they could drive themselves to sports and other activities), I went back one more time to get my masters degree in educational leadership. That was a long time ago, but I will never forget all the individuals, including professors that encouraged me along the way.
Gigi - January 19, 2023 5:08 pm
Great story ! I’m so very proud of you Sean for going to college to get your degree !! ❤️ Our married daughter was working full time as an office worker in a factory when she decided, at the age of 30, to go to college to get her Accounting degree. Instead of going to the huge (and well known) University in our town, she wisely chose to attend a Community College, but it was 40 miles away. She worked full time during the day, then would drive across town to get on the Interstate to drive the 40 miles to take night classes, then drive back late at night to her home. Needless to say, I was a very concerned Mother knowing my beautiful daughter was alone in a car late at night 3-4 nights a week. She did that for 6 years to get her degree. Shortly after getting her degree she got a job at the University in our town where she makes a good salary and has great benefits. I’m so very, very proud of her !! ❤️
Stephanie Brogdon - January 19, 2023 5:20 pm
Sean, EVERY word that wise teacher said about you is true! What a blessing she was to her students!
Ellouise - January 19, 2023 5:28 pm
…and an inspiration to so many. Definitely a blessing to me
Carol Driver - January 19, 2023 5:35 pm
I am a 75 yo women who left college to get married at 19. I later return to UGA night class for a business degree and attended for many years, one class at a time for two nights a week. As my children got older, I said I would graduate from UGA with them, but they both graduated from business school and left me behind operating a commercial construction company with my husband. Now, one grandson has his UGA business degree and another is in his first semester at UGA. I lack 5 courses to graduate, and you have given me encouragement to return to the classroom.
My husband and I have been married for 56 years and have owned and operated a commercial construction company together for 49 years. We can look around University of Georgia campus and see many projects that our company build/remodeled/renovated. God has been so good to our family. I think He will help me work out the details to complete my degree requirements.
Duane Shelley - February 3, 2023 9:11 pm
You go girl! War Eagle!
Dottie Doherty - January 19, 2023 5:58 pm
I got my college one class at a time at night while raising 3 kids. I remember that proud feeling and know that it took all of us working together for me to get that degree. One of those kids was that Episcopal priest you often talk about 😉
Brenda M. Leslie - January 19, 2023 6:21 pm
Congratulations! So proud of you and for you.
Determination and persistence!
Lola K Edwards - January 19, 2023 7:52 pm
MAM - January 19, 2023 11:00 pm
All your readers, definitely including me, are happy this teacher gave you the nudge to indeed become a writer. We live reading your stories every day. Thanks, Sean.
MAM - January 19, 2023 11:01 pm
WE LOVE reading your stories, although maybe we live to read them, too. This grammar nerd needs to remember to proof her stuff before posting!
Eddie Pigg - January 20, 2023 3:54 am
It was such a thrill to get to meet you tonight in Opelika! I am the community college math teacher. Thank you for signing my book “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”! I agree with youv1000%…folks who go to “Little Schools” usually go on to do GREAT things and a difference in the lives of others…just like you! For me, you rank right up there with Jim Plunkett and Bo Jackson!
Diane - January 20, 2023 1:06 am
That was beautiful! Thank you!
Diane from DeFuniak!
Cindy Welch - January 20, 2023 2:02 am
I’m a retired masters-prepared nurse (18 as nursing instructor at the baccalaureate level) for nearly 50 years whose educational pathway began in a community college to 24 years, one husband, and 3 children later a graduate degree. Greatest of respect for community colleges!
Larry W. Tyree - January 20, 2023 2:07 am
As a graduate of a community college myself (Pensacola) and president emeritus of three of the colleges in Florida (Gulf Coast, Panama City; Santa Fe, Gainesville; and Florida Keys), this is my all-time favorite column of yours which I have read so far — and I read them every day. Thank you for sharing your experience at O-W (now NW FL State College) and for being a champion and advocate for our institutions. Most gratefully, ~Larry W. Tyree, Interim Ex. Dir. and CEO, Association of Florida Colleges
denise - January 20, 2023 2:12 am
You are one on the backs of American dreams. You went after your dream and made it. God bless.
AlaRedClayGirl - January 20, 2023 2:54 am
What an inspiring story!
Cindy Gallop - January 20, 2023 12:40 pm
Teachers, with personal interest in their students, can ROCK the planet!!! May we never lose sight of this! Typically, the caring hearts do show up in smaller classroom environments! If I were your teacher reading this I would have used up a box of Kleenex by now!!!
cherylcrt - January 20, 2023 1:19 pm
It’s amazing how just a few words make all the difference.
Sean Dietrich…My little school… – What I think is… - January 21, 2023 2:43 pm
[…] https://seandietrich.com/my-little-school-2/ […]
Derksen Mary Lou - January 21, 2023 8:48 pm
I want to kiss you on the Forehead!
P L D - January 21, 2023 10:18 pm
What a inspiration you are…Our daughter was in a horrible car wreck her first year at Santa Fe Community College…in fact she was DOA at the hospital,after much prayer and excellent care at Shands the physicians saved her. She had a closed head injury among other severe injuries. She was in the hospital in a coma for a month and eventually was moved to a rehabilitation center where she learned to walk ,talk and everything else again,we told everyone we raised her twice. She recovered enough after two years to go back to Santa Fe one class at a time,I drove her fifty miles a day to campus because she couldn’t drive…It took her ten years to get her diploma as she went on to U of Florida and got her bachelors degree in Elementary Education…She is a wonderful Kindergarten teacher who teaches at the same school she attended as a child!
Judeene Hancock Blankenship - January 22, 2023 7:29 pm
Sean, I wish you had believed in yourself as much as other people believed in you!
suzi - January 23, 2023 12:08 am
Wonderful and uplifting testimony, bless you.
Dawn Hockenberry - January 24, 2023 7:07 pm
Amen and amen
Renee Welton - February 5, 2023 3:00 am