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.