My first taste of freedom came in 1992 when I was 18. It was late August, and my brother dropped me off for college at Penn State. Happy Valley was huge. The dorms were divided into six housing areas : North, South, East, West, Pollock, and Nittany Apartments and Suites. I never took a campus tour so, essentially, I was plopped in the middle of Central Pennsylvania and had to figure my own shit out. No one in my family set foot on campus again until almost four years later when I was about to graduate. My parents didn’t even come to drop me off. When my brother left my dorm, I could hardly contain my excitement. Finally, I was on my own and loving it.
That night, I went to some dorm party for freshman. I immediately befriended some girls on my floor. We had a great time. I came back to my room exhausted but happy. In the morning, I woke up and thought: Oh shit. Am I going to make it here? I’m not sure what came over me. I think it was just that it was such a big campus, and I had to navigate by myself. From the same unknown place, another feeling came over me: I am going to make it.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
That was a defining moment for me. I was scared, but I decided to get over it. That was the first time I decided to just plow through fear. I also got over the shyness that was such a huge part of my high school existence. I just blossomed socially. I called people to see what parties were going on. I hardly did that in high school unless I knew someone well. At Penn State, I just went with the flow. On many a night, I would be hanging out in my dorm and random friends would stop by and snatch me up for some adventure. Let’s be honest. It was usually a party. During that time, I just decided to get on with it, whatever was happening and whatever apprehension I felt.
Another defining moment was when I was about to graduate in 1996. I was pretty much broke, like most college students. Despite that technicality, I stayed until the end of my lease in my studio apartment. I came back home with about 26 dollars in my checking account. I was a fresh college graduate and had already decided that I was going to enter a graduate certification program to become a teacher. I chose that route because I thought it best to get my certification and Master’s at the same time. Even with just 26 dollars in my checking account, I had a plan and a brain. With those two things, my gut instinct told me I would work through this thing called life.
The Best Teacher
Two years later, life threw me a curve when my father’s emphysema dealt him a blow that almost killed him. Getting a tracheostomy saved him but he had to breathe through a tube and stay attached to an oxygen tank for the next three years. According to his doctors, he was only supposed to live one more year after the tracheostomy. He proved them wrong. He was good at proving people wrong who underestimated him. As am I. How he handled an illness that he wasn’t sure he would survive cemented the foundation for who I became.
He taught me one of his greatest lessons through his example. He had a hospital stint and wanted to leave his room. He had to take his portable oxygen tank to walk down the hall to an equipment room he had laid claim to when he wanted some down time. I watched him as he silently and deliberately straightened himself so he could walk with dignity and composure. He couldn’t breathe on his own, and no one would have blamed him if he walked in a hunched position. But he wouldn’t have that. In that small action, he taught me to stand tall and walk proud no matter what is happening to you or around you. Even as he took his last breaths, he kept showing me how to live.
These moments showed me what I’m made of. No matter what may come, I will keep my swagger, just like my old man did.
Until next time...look behind and beyond the veil...