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.
Perri Williamson - December 13, 2017 7:43 am
If we are living right we are changig lives!
Nancy - December 13, 2017 10:52 am
You don’t even know me and you have a very special place in my life!
Laurie Schmohl - December 13, 2017 4:40 pm
I echo Nancy’s sentiments. Thank you, Sean, and Merry Christmas!
CaroG87 - December 13, 2017 10:53 am
That made my hard little heart grow at least four sizes this morning.
Howard Humphreys - December 13, 2017 12:08 pm
Wonderful story. Congratulations…Hard work does pay off!
Patricia Schmaltz - December 13, 2017 12:49 pm
My history has some commonalities with yours. I went to LSU in the 80’s for 4 years, but did not graduate and left right before my Dad died (2 days shy of my 21st BD). Went through the next 15 years finding work, stating ‘4 years at LSU’, while leaving out the diploma-less departure. When I met my husband, he pushed me, PUSHED me to get my degree finished. We live in Fort Walton Beach, so yes, God has helped me! 😉
I too went to Okaloosa County Community College, to get that bugga-boo STATISTICS out of the way. Had to take that class ‘long-hand’, and I ended up teaching my professor how to do stats with Excel!
Finished up at UWF, and the relief I felt surprised me. So relieved, I continued and finished my Masters at UWF. (My husband has excellent PUSH skills!). Went on and got my Doctorate at University of Phoenix. If I was going to turn 50, might as well be 50 with a Doctorate.
NOW my goal is to be as prolific a writer as YOU! See!! You continue to inspire. Your writing soothes my heart in that it reveals a kindness you can’t find in this media fixated world. THANK YOU!
Sue Cronkite - December 13, 2017 1:15 pm
I’m proud of you too. I graduated from high school in Ponce de Leon, then years later from Troy at Dothan.
Deena - December 13, 2017 1:57 pm
I am thankful for Okaloosa County Community College,also, because the people there made you- You and I get to enjoy You every single day because of them.
Connie - December 13, 2017 2:08 pm
I know you get tired of seeing my name on your comments every day. But every day you touch something in my heart. I’m thankful you had the opportunity to attend college and follow your dream. I think that hardship makes us appreciate our blessings more. I may be wrong, of course, but I can only speak for myself.
Waynette Traub - December 13, 2017 2:39 pm
Thanks for the connection on Instagram, which led me here. Now I have tears and a smile after reading this. ❤️ Merry Christmas
paula jones - December 13, 2017 2:53 pm
Sean- I am a highly educated Alabama girl-– a BS in Science, two Masters in Theology and Language, and a doctorate in Semiotics (a branch of linguistics). Let me tell you about those degrees; they are just like a curly little pig’s tail. They make a real cute decoration BUT they don’t mean there’s a bit more meat on the pig. Man, you are ‘meaty.’ You are proof again that good sense, wisdom, and kindness are not things that you learn in a classroom. My mother was too. She had to drop out of shcool in 8th grade but she was the wisest person I ever knew, and I only wish I had 1/2 her practical type of love for others. Your writing has lifted me (and others) up when life was looking pretty rough. You yourself are a person who is changing lives. THANK YOU and keep up the good work.
Teresa Stout - December 13, 2017 3:00 pm
I am thankful for the teachers that encouraged you to become “whatever you wanted.” Because I that, I have the privilege to read your words every day. Words that make my heart happy, thankful, appreciative, and joyful.
Grateful you were able to go back and rel-live those precious memories.
Dianne Hadley - December 13, 2017 3:01 pm
Oh how I identify with you, Sean. My place was night school at Enterprise Junior College. Then on to Troy State University graduating Summa Cum Laude. I did it All in four years while raising a son. I’d been told by my father that I better learn to type as that was all I’d be able to do. We in Alabama, can thank George Wallace for putting higher education within the reach of every citizen. He was wrong about segregation which he admitted but right about raising the education level of Alabama’s citizens.
Maybe that even had something to do with yesterday’s election. I believe it did. ?
Jo Brooks - December 13, 2017 3:32 pm
The power of a good teacher to change/save a life is amazing.
Pamela McEachern - December 13, 2017 4:03 pm
See they were all right and they helped you believe you could be more than a guy with menial jobs. I personally dont believe any job is menial and green is green, Ive learned it spends the same. I believe you have given those people as much as you have recieved by being the person you are today. MERRY CHRISTMAS
Peace and Love feom Birmingham
Gayledawkins@gmail.com - December 13, 2017 5:26 pm
Sean you have every right to be proud of what you have accomplished thus far. I look forward to “hearing” from you every day. Please just keep on what you’re doing. Merry Christmas to you and Jamie. Oh and can’t forget Elli Mae.
Marilyn Jordan - December 13, 2017 5:40 pm
I know exactly how you feel about high school or college Algebra…made absolutely no sense to me…and I made A’s in school! I do want to commend you for offering encouragement to students that are having a hard time. This will let them know that if they strive hard enough, they can definitely succeed. God bless you and have a Blessed Christmas and New Year.
Cameron Russell - December 14, 2017 12:10 am
I teach at a community college (Tidewater Community College in Virginia). And I love my older students because I was one once long ago. I tell all my older students that they have more than just a brain. They should not feel intimidated by younger students because older students have a dedication, work ethic, and personal responsibility and time management strategies that younger students don’t have. “Older” students are more successful due to those skills that younger students haven’t managed yet. So, you go Sean. And don’t let anyone tell you different. You are what you are by the effort, dedication, and perseverance you put into your studies. Yeah Sean!
Afi Scruggs - December 14, 2017 1:13 am
Community colleges are so important. I’ve taught at them as well as attended them. It’s been a rewarding experience. And yes, they do make a huge difference in the lives of their students. They matter.
Gloria Wethington - December 14, 2017 2:11 am
Thank God for encouragers who change people’s lives. Thank God that they changed yours! Merry Christmas, Sean!
Lisa Weber - December 14, 2017 2:36 am
And they were right…. Thank you for your stories, Sean! Enjoy your writings MANY times over! Merry Christmas!
Marion Pitts - December 14, 2017 2:48 am
Merry Christmas from a retired teacher!
muthahun - December 14, 2017 3:33 am
Root for the roots! And Merry Christmas, Grinch and all!
Michael Hawke - December 14, 2017 3:54 am
And a Merry Christmas to you and your family.
bettyjo2012 - December 14, 2017 5:50 am
MERRY CHRISTMAS SEAN ! ??
Carlin Brooks - December 14, 2017 6:10 am
Keep it up! Every essay is a home run! Good teachers bring out the best, and you have a lot of “best”. Keep it up!! Merry Christmas.
Julie - December 14, 2017 12:23 pm
No words for the man who shares so many “good ones”. You make me speechless and humble. You make me think of myself (from a different perspective) and you make me think of others. Thank you for sharing your heart and soul with each of us. I do believe your words have more impact than you will ever know, and it is a gift that God graced you with before you even born. HE had a plan and I’m thankful you are using it to stir the hearts of mankind. Merry Christmas, Sean Dietrich!
Buck Godwin - December 19, 2017 6:05 pm
Sean, I sure hope that this is what you wanted to do, ’cause you’re damn good at it!