I am in the auditorium of my old school. The community-college band is playing Christmas music.
This is where I became the me I am today.
It’s your typical community college. The brick campus used to be only a couple of buildings, a few trailers, and a tennis court. It’s bigger now, but not much.
Students hail from Crestview, Freeport, DeFuniak Springs, Red Bay, Mossy Head. Some even live in Fort Walton—God help them.
When I was a student, it was Okaloosa-Walton Community College—and people were still listening to cassette tapes. Today it’s Northwest Florida State College.
Everything is different now. Tonight, I am seated among college-age kids, and I feel like an old man. A few of the students called me “sir.”
The band played “Mister Grinch,” “A Child is Born,” and even sang “Jingle Bells.” They wore Santa hats and made the season bright.
I couldn’t concentrate on the music because I was swatting memories like gnats.
This place is my alma mater—sort of.
About me: I didn’t go to high school. It’s a long story. But after my father died, my mother and I worked menial jobs. While friends attended pep rallies and football games, I didn’t.
Anyway. Big deal. The point is, I DID eventually attend school—as an adult. Right here.
And this place—humble as it may be—was the biggest thing I’d ever done in my little life. The microscopic junior college became part of me. In fact, for many years this was my second home.
Here’s how my days went:
Leave the construction site at 2 P.M. Get lunch.
2:15 P.M.—eat sandwich while steering with my knees toward class
2:30 P.M.—social studies.
4:00 P.M.—music class.
5:15 P.M.—college algebra; somebody please stab me in the throat with a slide-protractor.
8:00 P.M.—supper from the gas station. A cold, plastic-wrapped burrito, pork rinds, and a tall, ice-cold, infinitely thirst-quenching, Budweiser.
Saturday-mornings—creative writing classes. The best time of my life. The teacher told me I was her favorite student. I didn’t know if it were true.
Until then, I’d never been anybody’s favorite anything.
The truth is, I was a sad kid in an adult’s body. And these professors believed in me. My literature professor told me I was “smart.” Professor Domulot said I was “going places.”
My English teacher said, “I think you could be a novelist one day.”
I remember the exact day she said that. I almost cried after class.
The concert was good. The band played me into Christmas. Afterward, I shook a few familiar hands. Old friends. Old professors.
“Merry Christmas,” said one old teacher. “How’ve you been?”
“Good,” I said.
“I’m so proud of you,” she added.
Well. As it happens, I’m proud, too. I’m proud of this place. I’m proud that my memories reside here.
I’m proud of the folks who work here. I’m proud of the maintenance men. The janitors. Security guards. I’m proud of small-town teachers who care.
This isn’t a school. It’s the place that adopted me. A place where people once told a sad fool that he could be whatever he wanted.
These are the folks who changed my life.