Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Thanking the people who got me going

When we embark on changes in our lives, we often leave behind people who have had a tremendous impact on us.

Recently, I was thinking back to the time in the late 1980s when I lived on Aztec Court in the Arbor Glen subdivision of unincorporated Palm Beach County, and the people who lived there. At the end of our cul-de-sac of two-unit townhomes was a married couple, Dave and Linda (real names are different, of course, and I saw from the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser website that they’ve moved on, as have so many of us who lived in those starter homes).

Dave worked for a company that did employment evaluations for people who could no longer do their previous jobs. He and his wife, who was from Kentucky, regularly held Kentucky Derby parties every year and I was invited, as well as their neighbor in the unit, a fellow named Stan. (Not his real name).

Stan and I both tried the singles circuit – without much success – and we had another thing in common: we both worked for the Postal Service. I worked as a mailhandler in the main Hell on Summit Boulevard in West Palm Beach, and he worked as a mailhandler at a post office in Boca Raton.

In fact, Stan and I had an acquaintance in common: Lou had been a postal supervisor who – amazingly – was a decent fellow and tried to fix Stan up with women. Even though the results had been disastrous, Stan still liked Lou. Through some process I never really got the whole story on, Lou ended up leaving management and became a mailhandler at the West Palm Beach main facility, and he and I became fast friends. We’d recite dialogue from the movie “Do the Right Thing,” (he loved to imitate Radio Raheem’s “Love, Hate, routine) and tell each other stories to pass the time.

(I suppose I should note that Lou was African American; his imitations were meant to honor, not ridicule, the movie and its characters.)

Of all the people I worked with at the post office, I missed Lou the most when I left.

Stan had worked in the past at the infamous Lordstown, Ohio, General Motors plant, and had been part of the big strikes that had taken place there over working conditions and abuse by the bosses, so he felt right at home in the post office of the time, except for the strikes. We weren’t allowed to strike at the post office, but I sometimes thought we should have done it.

It was probably Kentucky Derby day in 1987 and Stan and I had sat there and whined about our jobs to Dave, and he finally said he’d had enough.

“Do something about it,” he said, and offered to help us both.

“We’ll have you both over for dinner some night soon,” Dave said, “and I’ll give you the testing I give clients at my job, and then do the same evaluation.”

Dave was an amazing guy, and he and his wife soon had three adorable children. He said the testing normally cost hundreds of dollars, but he’d do it for us for free.

“I will note that how it turns out depends on your attitude, and how eager you are for a change,” Dave said. “I have seen that postal workers often don’t do very well because they can’t find a comparable job outside the post office.”

I didn’t care at this point. I wanted some direction and a few good ideas as to what I could do. The Postal Service had told me that I had nothing, no abilities, no skills, no opportunities. I needed an objective view, and Dave was offering it to me.

A couple of weeks later, Stan and I came over to Dave and Linda’s house, and after we ate he set everything up. Soon, Stan and I were taking tests, filling out forms and following instructions as Dave timed us.

We finished the work and relaxed in the living room with a drink or two, and Dave said he’d contact us in a few days with the results.

One day I saw Dave, and he said, “Come over tonight and I’ll talk to you about the results.”

I did. We sat down and he said, “Stop wasting your life at the post office.”

His evaluation of my results was that I had everything I needed to go to college and succeed, and that I should go to Palm Beach Community College (as it was called then) and register for classes as soon as I could.

The details are lost in the mists of time, and I’m sure Dave told Stan a similar story, but I realized that I needed to make a decision here.

It can be tough to get off a treadmill. I could have spent the rest of my life in the post office, wasting my talents and skills on a job that was never going to give me any satisfaction; in a corrupt, mismanaged organization that never was going to change; and I could look back on a life wasted in my old age.

Or I could take a chance, and do something. I had done it before, when I left Queens a scared teenager and came back a confident Marine. When I had left Long Island and moved to Florida. “It’s time to change,” I told myself.

Dave, thanks so much for showing me the way. Thanks to Dave, I have the great career that seemed impossible 30 years ago.

I overcame my fears, registered for college and soon was on my way to achievements that continue to this day.

I don’t know what happened to Stan. I hope he moved up to bigger and better things, too.

My path was hard, though my postal salary got me through college without any loans or grants as I worked my way through.

Amid the negativity of some of my coworkers and nearly all my superiors, all the way up to the top dope in the Postal Service, the postmaster general, I left the disaster area and soon was working in my chosen field.

What does this story mean for you?

Well, many years ago, there was a made-for-TV movie called “The Burning Bed.” The late Farrah Fawcett played a brutally abused woman – in a true story – who eventually waited until her drunk and passed-out husband was asleep, then covered him and the bed with flammable liquid and set it on fire. She then turned herself in to the police.

She was charged with murder, went to trial and was found not guilty because of the abuse she had endured.

The movie fictionalized some aspects, but when I saw it in the 1990s, one thing really touched me. In an effort to get away and develop herself, the wife began to attend college. She found other women there and a community of help.

But her husband kept coming back into her life, and there’s a climactic scene where he decides to burn her college schoolwork and textbooks. He picks up one of the textbooks, looks at it, leafs through it, and then snorts and shakes his head as he tosses it, and then a match, on the pile of books and papers.

In a symbolic way, he’s reasserting his power over her. In effect, he’s saying, “All this book knowledge is meaningless in the face of my power over you.”

Indeed, I often heard that the “book knowledge” I was pursuing would be useless in my future, and there were many nights when I would lie awake in bed and worry about my planned giant step into the unknown.

What if they were all right, and I was wrong?

But at college, I got the reinforcement I needed to go on.

I used to say that some of the smartest people in the county – the people at the community college and university – thought I was pretty darn smart.

And some of the dumbest people in the county – my bosses at the post office – thought I was a moron.

“I’m going to bet on the smart people every time,” I said, “ and not the dumb ones.”

In the end, I was right. Leaving the post office was the best thing I ever did.

What relevance does this have for your own life?

If you’re considering beginning the process of change, no matter how old you are, go for it. Try to avoid student loan debt but show that you’re determined to follow your dream, whatever it is.

It’s OK to be afraid. When I was in the Marines and was training for electronics at a Navy school, a petty officer in charge of the training said, “It’s normal to be afraid when you go out on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier during flight operations. But if there’s ever a day when you’re about to do that and you’re not afraid, that’s the day you better not step out onto that flight deck.”

Go out there.

Achieve.

You won’t regret it.

February 21, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons | , , , , | Leave a comment

Postal Service’s incompetent management can’t even train its employees

My comments are not statistically valid in any way, since they are based on experiences that happened more than 22 years ago, but maybe they’ll shed some light on what the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General is trying to do, which is discover why the Postal Service is spending tens of thousands of dollars for each new hire and why they are nearly all quitting soon after starting work, and why the IG will write a report that’s ultimately ignored.

I was a mailhandler in the Postal Service from January 1983 to June 1994. I was eager at the start, as most postal employees are, to become good at my job and to advance my career. I had heard that the Postal Service was a bad place to be an ambitious worker but was determined to be different. Even when I discovered that the mailhandler craft was disdained as “the strong backs and weak minds” of the system, I was determined to prove everyone wrong.

Having worked for United Parcel Service, I had few fears of the prospect of postal privatization, which I saw as a steppingstone to advancement opportunity. I had thrived at UPS, where I was a Christmas-temp, and had even been advanced from unloading large trailers to pre-loading the famous brown trucks that drivers took on their routes. I worked in a facility that had 40 workers on the night shift and one supervisor, and the workers pushed hard to get the job done because they were paid for a full night even if they got done early.

After I was assigned to the pre-loading, a second manager was brought in for the holiday rush, and part of her job was to help me learn ways to become more efficient in my work. Through her, I learned the importance of putting items in the truck in the correct order so the driver could deliver them. On a few occasions, I’d see a box with the dreaded “OOP” notation, meaning “out of place.” That meant that the driver had found the box but had passed the package’s destination and could not backtrack. I would have “made my book” at UPS but for the bad economy in early 1983. Still, I learned that it was important to train everyone fully in their jobs.

Needless to say, the Postal Service was a culture shock for me. I had taken the test for several crafts shortly after my discharge from the military, but was not betting on getting hired anytime soon. Indeed, I was beginning to pursue educational opportunities and when the Postal Service did hire me, I spent a couple of days wondering what I should do, as I had just started school and the schedule was going to be impossible for me to do both. At the time, I made the least bad choice and took the postal job.

Unlike the UPS facility, the postal facility had a horde of supervisors and managers, and training was not a priority. You learned as you went – if someone wanted to teach you – and while I was criticized for being to eager to learn outside my immediate work area I soon became good at my job. I was working in the Long Island area, where the union was pretty strong and management pretty laid-back.

But I couldn’t afford to live in that area, and eventually moved to Florida. Here I could see the challenge of massive growth – part of the reason I moved there – and the desperate need for change. Supervisors were less tolerant of new-hires and some were very abusive toward workers. Sexual harassment of female employees was rampant and, despite the promises made at orientation, usually accusations were dealt with through threats and extreme abuse and retaliation.

Again, training was never conducted for mailhandlers or casuals. (There was training for LSM operators, and that had to go continually because management seemed to have a goal of 100 percent turnover on the LSMs. They came close, especially with new-hires, very few of whom made their probation.)

I made it clear to my bosses that I wanted training to advance into management, and was basically shot down. Still, I managed to learn that there were correspondence courses I could take, including an introduction to postal management. I was warned that taking correspondence courses could actually hurt my advancement chances, but decided to take them nonetheless, figuring I’d learn skills that I could use outside the Postal Service.

The basic postal supervisors’ course, which no one else took in my facility, was an eye-opener. I really worked that course hard, learning how to deal with people and how to talk to them. Needless to say, reality was quite different but I have always found theory to be a good place to start. I was advised to stay away from the local community college but found that some of the bosses were teaching classes there in postal operations, so I took them and was not afraid to express my views. I probably destroyed my advancement chances in the Postal Service but it was worth it.

The funny thing was that – especially after the violence that broke out in facilities – I was mainly parroting what the postmaster general had been saying. Employees were reporting abusive work environments and often paying the price in severe retaliation despite promises of no retaliation. I learned that postal management was a good place if you were a liar, a sex harasser, an abuser, a practitioner of “creative postal math” and an all-around bad person.

When I finally got a chance to put theory into practice, the reality was that I was a terrible postal manager, as bad or worse than those I criticized. I was relieved and sent back to the mailhandler craft.

At this point, I had a decision to make. My first instinct was to quit. I have always been a deliberative person, though, and in my late 20s was too mature to act impulsively.

So I decided that the Postal Service was not the career for me, but decided to stay and use it to further my own goals. Despite the warnings, I trekked to the community college and began the long process of applying to become a student there. It was a lot of paperwork, and I had to take the ACT, but in the summer of 1988 I began my first course, Introduction to the Social Sciences.

I was advised repeatedly by people in and out of the Postal Service that college was a waste of time, and everyone had a Cousin Harvey who had a fancy degree and was working the drive-through at McD’s but I also learned that when people are afraid of your ambition, they’ll do anything and tell any lies to try and stop you from achieving.

College was like a dream come true for me. Not needing to take out loans or use Pell grants, I eagerly took classes and in three years had a two-year degree. I transferred to the state university and finished my college degree there in April 1994.

I was unusual. The Postal Service had then and has now very, very few college graduates, especially in its management and executive ranks. The facility I worked at in West Palm Beach had almost no college graduates in management, several high school dropouts in management and even a person with just a seventh-grade education in a management position. I had stopped even applying for postal management jobs, knowing I’d be rejected out of hand, and was soon searching for a new job outside the Postal Service.

I was gaining work experience through volunteer work and soon I realized that the best way to escape the postal handcuffs was simple: quit, then I’d have to be more aggressive in my job search.

To make a long story short, I did just that and soon was landing jobs. The confidence gained was immeasurable, and I feel sorry for those who are having a hard time and lack that confidence. I hear “no” a lot more, but that’s age discrimination, sadly. Too bad. I’ve been working and improving my skills and it saddens me that I might soon have no place where they will be wanted. The skills will be needed, but by someone younger than me.

The Postal Service has again abandoned the idea of training, from what I hear. New hires are thrown into work and fired if they cannot figure out the job. It’s a waste of money to hire people just so you can fire them, but as I saw 22 years ago, it’s the only way the Postal Service knows.

I still remember one holiday season when we had a mass of temporary employees milling around, and a supervisor who reprimanded me for showing them how to do their job. “It’s a waste of time to train these stupid assholes,” she said. “They were looking for a job here, so I know they’re idiots. We shouldn’t train people who are just going to quit or be fired.”

I tried to explain that part of the reason the new hires were having problems was because no one was explaining how to do the job, but she was a postal supervisor and I was a worker. I mentioned the postmaster general’s comments, and she said, “Fuck him. The supervisors run the Postal Service and not the postmaster general. Listen to us and not him.”

That attitude is alive and well in today’s Postal Service, and why its grand strategies will always fail.

June 20, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, Uncategorized | , , | 4 Comments

Worrying about a fellow student and his anger

Back in my community college days at Palm Beach Community College, there was a general assumption that the campus was a safe zone where education could take place without fear of violence or other wrath.

While the college police department was often considered the joke of the campus, and its officers and managers little more than Barney Fifes, there was an understanding that you were protected from other students if they got out of hand.

The biggest worry was that because the campus buildings were basically open to the outside someone could intrude. One building had its bathroom access on the outside and I’ll never forget the morning I went into the bathroom to use the facilities and found a homeless man inside. It was a cold day and he was seeking the warmth of the bathroom, while I had to go. I actually smelled him before I saw him, and felt bad for him.

I’m sure women were even more worried about what they might find in their bathrooms.

Our college newspaper, the Beachcomber, was prone to mistakes and other hilarities, and I was a staffer at the newspaper then.

Mind you, lots of people signed up for the paper but very, very few actually showed up at the offices to do any work. For most, it was just so they could put on their resume that they were on staff at the paper. (This was true at the university, too.) It’s sort of like the scam that’s pulled at Harvard. Everybody and his brother is an assistant editor at the Harvard Crimson because everybody and his brother sign up to get on the masthead, but only a few people actually do the work.

The really committed (or crazy) folks like me who wanted a future in journalism actually showed up at the paper, attended meetings and wrote stories. I eventually became news editor basically by the process of elimination – or graduation.

I also came in and wrote and edited pieces. Layout was done at the printing plant, and because I worked nights I couldn’t participate in that.

My job meant I could only have a couple of outside activities at the school, and while my work is cringe inducing now (and I have two PDF files with it; someone digitized the old papers years ago) it shows that I was moving in new directions and learning new things.

But one time we had an incident that actually frightened me, and that’s not easy to do. I mean, I was sometimes worried that someone might be pushed over the limit and “go postal” at the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility, but it nearly happened at the college.

The crux of the dispute was that over a semester break, someone had stolen a computer from the newspaper offices. A report was made to the college police and an investigation ensued. At one point in the investigation, a suspect was named. I was in the clear because I knew I hadn’t taken the computer, though I had used it in the office.

The report with the name of the suspect blacked out finally was released but someone erred in the police department and missed an occurrence of the suspect’s name in the report. A student who had previously shown a volatile temper wrote a story and used the name of the suspect in his story, and was advised that while he could run the story, it had to go without the name of the suspect because it could interfere in the investigation.

The student became so angry and upset he began to act out, began to get violent in the newspaper offices and started throwing things around the office and making threats.

He was ejected from the offices, and then the campus altogether. He eventually was barred from campus after re-entering the campus to use a pay telephone.

I had seen him in full cry and was worried about my safety. Imagine if he had had access to a gun and brought it on campus. We have seen of late the result of people bringing weapons on campuses.

The ex-student wasn’t close to being finished with us, though fortunately it never escalated to weapons.

He bought the trademark for the newspaper and other college publications (Beachcomber had never been trademarked, even though it had existed as the college paper since 1939), and one day announced that he had “published” a sheet of paper that he called the Beachcomber. It was a single page of “news,” and he demanded that the college stop publishing everything with the name Beachcomber, and also sought damages because, he wrote in a legal filing, the college had published two “illegal” editions of the newspaper and the staff of the north campus was working on a magazine with the same name.

Oddly enough, we students were able to bring the right kind of firepower to the issue now. We were upset because the president of the college – whose ego is so enormous that I won’t profane the pages of my blog by printing it, but those in the know will find it easy to figure out – shut down all student publications.

He began bloviating that it might take years to straighten the mess out, but the editor of the magazine was a woman in her 40s whose husband was a lawyer, and he said that the college could publish “illegal” (by the bogus standard the ex-student had claimed) issues because the ex-student had no case. If the college was sued, it would win in court without even going to trial, as the case would be thrown out. The college had been using the Beachcomber name for decades and the ex-student had lied when he applied for the trademark because he said he knew of no other publication with such a name as Beachcomber.

We students who worked hard on the publications were upset, but our anger was directed in an appropriate way, and we eventually got our publications reinstated, then crowed over our victory.

The ex-student still occasionally made news, but mostly for being a jerk.

It was such a different time back then. We never even conceived that someone might come on campus armed and commit violence.

I’m glad it was resolved, of course, and that I got to move on and have a great career, but I wonder about what could have been, and it scares me.

November 20, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, The news business | , , | Leave a comment

Community college killer can’t kill the spirit

When I moved to Florida in 1986 on a transfer within the U.S. Postal Service, I was focused mainly on work and advancing myself within the organization.

As a high school graduate and a veteran, I mistakenly thought that I was ready for the challenges ahead and was eager and ready to work within the defective system to make it better. Little did I know that for many postal managers then – and today – the goal was to prevent change and improvement.

It was almost like coming to a military base for the first time, and hearing of all the places “in town” that are off-limits to the troops. When I was in the service, there were places that sold drug paraphernalia (carburetors, roach clips, KISS posters (It was the late 1970s, remember), etc.) where you could get into a lot of trouble if someone in the higher ranks saw you.

At the post office in West Palm Beach in 1986, there was one place that was considered to not even exist. Back then, it was called Palm Beach Junior College. Employees considering taking courses were warned to stay away from that place. The very idea that you – a career employee – might be considering training for a job outside the Postal Service was anathema. To many postal managers, the workers at the General Mail Facility were “stuck” and could never function in another workplace.

It was important to consider the source, though many of us were so indoctrinated into the postal mindset that we failed to do so. Most top postal managers have high school diplomas or GEDs, and you can even find a few who didn’t finish elementary school.

To them, the notion of college was so far beyond what they had attained, they believed that attendance at college could turn a submissive worker with no options into someone who might leave and tell the world about what went on in the postal facility.

And believe me, there was a lot to tell. I remember watching fellow workers ripping damaged and destroyed mail out of machinery, and throwing it on the floor, where it was run over by equipment and sometimes obliterated.

At the “nixie” table, employees on light duty sat and either tried to piece the mail back together, or simply rifled the envelopes for cash. I will admit that the latter eventually were caught by the postal inspectors, who usually were trying to set up drug busts using unreliable informants and were themselves often very corrupt.

The place of hope
Despite all the warnings and threats from the post office, one day I decided that I needed a future. I passed the renamed Palm Beach Community College on the way to the postal facility every day and fantasized about taking a class or two. I actually did take classes in postal management through the college, but when those failed to get me advanced, I realized I had to go all-in.

One day, I drove onto the campus, found a parking space, went into the right building and said, “I want to go to college here.”

I often think about where I am today in life, and realize that thanks to those words I am so much more than I could have ever been, even if I had advanced in the Postal Service, because I took the big chance.

I was handed a sheaf of forms and informed that I had to take the American College Test, to be given in a couple of months, and then I could try to get in.

It was a lot of work, but I was determined and I plowed through the paperwork. I told a few people at work about my efforts, and most of the responses were negative. One woman told me her first day at the college had been her last because someone mentioned evolution. Others told me that the people there were wasting their time: there were no jobs to be had “out there” outside the Postal Service.

I felt sorry for those people who had let themselves be led by the nose into such a negative view of life.

A day of horror
For this reason, I was horrified to hear about the mass shooting at the community college in Oregon. The person who did this attacked so many people and for no good reason. They were building their future, starting at the bottom at a level of college that is often mocked and derided, but can lead to so much more for those who work through it and take advantage of the help that’s offered.

Community college kept me sane during the worst years of my Postal Service torment and reminded me that there was a world of opportunity out there that didn’t involve mentally defective and corrupt bosses, moronic top managers and a babbling ding-dong of a postmaster general.

I would come from the college and into the disaster that was the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility, with mail hidden in every nook and cranny and machines tearing through paper and supervisors wielding mindless authority, and then leave and return to college, where sanity ruled.

I met some of the most amazing people at Palm Beach Community College, who made the low-life trash at the post office like Shirley Cordle, Terry Cahill, Gary Miller and so many other postal sleazes look like wastes of humanity.

You’ve heard of Burt Reynolds, right? Well, I knew the man who first encouraged him to appear in a play. Watson B. Duncan III was one of the greatest men you never heard of. He could have been the president of not just a college but a college system, but he preferred to teach English literature to giant classes of eager undergrads in a theater that was named for him.

I’ve written about Duncan before, so I’ll just say that I was privileged to know him and take his classes. I’ll never forget what he wrote on one of my test papers: “I am enjoying your writing in the Beachcomber.”

He told me that he loved teaching so much, he hoped to “go” to his reward while in front of a class. His passing was a terrible tragedy and the life seemed to leave Palm Beach Community College after he was gone. Watson B. Duncan was everything to me that the post office wasn’t: educated, gentle, compassionate, respectful, rewarding.

And he taught at a community college.

I eventually moved on to the university after graduating from Palm Beach Community College (now called Palm Beach State College) and sometimes would see the campus at State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College) and wish I could just go back as an un-degreed undergrad and do it all over.

Hang out with the students before class, talk under the trees about our instructors and maybe even take in a sports event or two.

Back in my day, we’d argue and debate, and sometimes there were creepy people who needed to be removed, but the idea that someone would come on campus and shoot others was beyond our belief.

That happened at the post office, people said back then, not at a college.

Well, things have changed, and disturbed people have realized that college students make great targets.

I want these shootings to stop. I want community college to be what it was for me, a place of learning and education and enlightenment and new opportunities.

Postal managers would ridicule me and tell me the college was filling my brain with nonsense and absurd ideas that I mattered and was a worthwhile person.

At the college, the instructors were telling me that I was someone who could go far if I applied myself. Sadly, I remember by name those who disdained me at the post office and have forgotten the names of many of the wonderful people who encouraged me to chase my dreams. Here’s one: Ernest Parbhoo, the journalism teacher at PBCC and student newspaper adviser, who not only encouraged me but also had me come into his journalism classes at PBCC later on to talk about my career. Thanks for everything, Ernie.

I ache for those who lost family members in those shootings. I ache for those who were injured, and the hero Army veteran who took multiple bullets to protect his classmates.

The next time I’m in the Palm Beach County area, I will make a special trip to Palm Beach State College, and I’ll drive past and murmur two words to that place that gave me so much: Thank You.

October 6, 2015 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The paradox of becoming educated

Recent news at the newspaper where I work caused me to think a lot about education, and my past efforts to improve myself and my lot in life.

A top person at Florida Polytechnic University recently took the top job at Palm Beach State College, one of my alma maters. I graduated from PBSC, as it’s known now, when it was Palm Beach Community College, and attending the place was one of the greatest things I ever did. At a time in my life when so many wanted me to fail and so few wanted me to succeed, I succeeded brilliantly and moved on to Florida Atlantic University to finish my bachelor’s degree.

But the seeds of that achievement were planted by the dedicated teachers at Palm Beach Community College.

There’s a tendency in some segments of society to dismiss educated people and people seeking to improve themselves through education through a variety of dismissive and abusive terms and phrases. Believe me, I’ve heard them all and nearly all were directed at me at some time in my life. Even the venerable high school diploma can, in the right hands, be dismissed as a waste of time.

I first became aware of this derisive attitude when I reported to my first duty station in the Marine Corps in early 1979. I had finished basic training at Parris Island, then aviation and electronics training at the naval air station at Millington, Tenn., and was sent to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Calif., to get my next assignment.

It was an adventure for me. I flew on a 747 from New York to Los Angeles, and the plane blew several main landing gear tires on touchdown. We taxied to the gate and debarked, and saw the rubberized mess that was the planes’ main landing gear.

At El Toro, I learned that I would be going to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona, and after a couple of weeks was given a ticket on a flight to Yuma. It was a night flight, and I remember looking out and wondering just where we were. It was pitch black outside. The plane landed and I eventually found myself at the receiving barracks. Mind you, it was a Saturday night, and the duty Staff NCO was watching a TV show that featured Prince.

He checked me in, got me assigned to a barracks room and I settled in. On Monday morning, I reported to the famous Hootowl hangar at the base and began checking in to VMA-513, a Harrier squadron.

Upstairs in the hangar, where the administrative offices were, the mood was typical office of the late 1970s. I handed over my orders and my service record to a corporal who didn’t seem all that receptive to new arrivals. I was a private first class at the time, I think, and was used to being intimidated by people above me in rank.

The corporal flipped through the thin record, then stopped and looked at something.

He looked up at me and declared, “Well, just because you have a high school diploma doesn’t mean you have any common sense.”

I was stunned. I hadn’t done more than hand over my papers, and suddenly judgment was passed.

I figured that the corporal was probably a high school dropout – as was common at the time – and he was just establishing that while I might have the piece of paper, he had the rank. So there.

A few weeks later, I was up in the administrative offices for something and I noticed that he had taken a magazine page, cut it out and taped it next to his desk on a wall. Hustler magazine then had a feature called “Asshole of the Month,” spotlighting some politician who had earned the ire of publisher Larry Flynt. Taped over the caricature of a politician was a picture of me, taken for a new ID card. He must have grabbed the second shot taken and appropriated it.

I could never understand the reason for this hostility. I mean, I didn’t brag about my educational accomplishments to him. Maybe others hurt him and he realized that I couldn’t fight back so he targeted me, or maybe he targeted others, too.

The military is notorious for the ridicule heaped on educated troops, especially if they are enlisteds with either some college or an actual college degree. A familiar taunt aimed at those who try to act above the lowest military station in life is, “If you’re so smart, why are you in the Army (Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, etc.)”

Indeed, showing too much intelligence could border on insubordination, and some folks hid their intelligence, though it hurt them, to be more acceptable to their superiors.

I found it odd that this also happened in the Postal Service.

Brutalized for brains
It often shocks people when I describe the way the Postal Service viewed workers with an education. While my orientation in New York was normal, the one in West Palm Beach included a declaration that we were not to consider ourselves above anyone else in intelligence. It was not uncommon to be told, “People come to work at the Postal Service because they’re too dumb to get jobs anywhere else.”

There were almost no self-improvement programs or even formal training programs available for postal workers, and the few I found were correspondence courses that offered no formal recognition or training for understanding postal operations so you could do your job better.

Managers would tell me that the worst thing you could ever do to a worker was train them to do their job better, because it gave them “ideas above their station in life.”

There weren’t even very many formal management training programs in the 1980s and 1990s, though there was a college course through Palm Beach Community College in postal operations. I took it, and it was mainly a postal manager reading from the Domestic Mail Manual. Boring with a capital B. I took the course and got an A, but it offered no road to advancement for me.

I soon realized that if I was going to do anything useful and productive with my life, I’d have to get a college degree. I began the long, challenging process of getting myself into Palm Beach Community College. It was pretty intimidating, even for me. I had to fill out a lot of forms, study for and take the American College Test, get a number and wait on line to register and then finally begin taking classes. Since I worked at night I could take daytime classes, and soon found that I was finally respected for having intelligence.

People think my fondness for community colleges is because I’m going senile, but it’s because that was where things really started to swing my way and I found myself. It sounds trite, but it’s true. I began to see a world of possibilities where none had appeared before.

It was blasphemy in the post office to even imply that you might be qualified to work somewhere else, and I still had to deal with the negative vibes at the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility. My break and lunch times were spent munching meals and studying while listening to classical music on my Walkman, but I couldn’t help but hear the derisive and disrespectful comments.

“He thinks he’s better than everyone else,” I’d hear co-workers say to each other.

One boss told me, “Henry Ford said workers need to know just three things: what time to be at work, where to be and what to do. Everything else is just a waste.”

I’d hear one fellow declare loudly when he saw me studying, “You’re wasting your time.”

Everyone seemed to have a relative who had attended college and graduated, but “ha(d) no common sense” and was working at a minimum-wage job.

Postal bosses, many of them high school dropouts (and one elementary school dropout) would lord it over me that I was busting my ass in a “futile” effort to advance. “Look at me,” one female supervisor said. “I never graduated high school and now I supervise supervisors. Education is a waste of time.”

Many of those bosses who lack formal education are now high-level postal officials. If people wonder why they can never get a straight answer from the post office on a question, it’s because the organization doesn’t reward knowledge and education.

The great escape
Those who are negative about education and your attainments at school are just the losers of our society, and there’s a simple reason for their attitude.

They’re jealous.

I realized this and it motivated me to carry on.

When I quit the Postal Service, I was taking a leap into the unknown that was even bigger than when I left the Marine Corps. I was scared, but I did it, and I never regretted doing it.

It might seem that I was jumping from an airplane when I left the Postal Service, but that college degree was my parachute, and it has helped me to many a soft landing. I wonder about those who ridiculed me for my educational pursuits, and how their lives turned out.

Not as good as mine, I bet.

Never let others define your success. Keep at your education and remember that even if it takes you 10 years to get that degree, it’ll be worth it.

April 30, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No excuse for abuse of veterans

The hotel room was trashed. Really trashed.

Like, the place smelled of stale food, most of which had been thrown in the hallway – and some in the rooms — and was congealing on the walls.

I walked in and a fellow member of my academic fraternity looked up, bleary-eyed and hung over. Next to him was a tray of food. None of it had been eaten. All of it had been thrown.

The Phi Theta Kappa convention I had attended in 1989 hadn’t been that much fun for me. I lived in the area and refused to take a hotel room. Our chapter of the community college academic fraternity had a major problem. The chapter head was a very abrasive woman in her 40s who was adept at causing people to not be involved beyond their initiation ceremony and dinner.

She had about nine kids from five different men, and was majoring in education. The thought of her being unleashed on children as a teacher sickened me. Like a dope, when I was ordered to bring her neck brace – the aftermath of a car accident — to the ladies’ room, I had done it even though I said a woman should have to do it. They couldn’t find a female member of the group who’d do it. She was universally despised and feared.

I brought her the neck brace, then got in my car and went home. I never participated in another Phi Theta Kappa event again.

The propensity for some college kids to run wild is a confirmed fact. When you go to college as an adult, your main focus is on getting your degree, learning what you need to learn and moving on to a better career. There were plenty of folks who had that view at Palm Beach Community College when I attended the school.

There were very few outside activities I could participate in, and for a time Phi Theta Kappa and the student newspaper were the ones that fit my schedule. But after the hotel incident, I refused to be associated with the group. Someone, probably an underpaid hotel maid, had had to clean up that destroyed hotel room.

But when I read that a group of University of Florida fraternity members had basically run wild at an event, and had attacked a group of disabled veterans at a retreat, I at first thought I was reading something off “The Onion” or another joke news site.

The Zeta Beta Tau fraternity is suspended at UF after basically going nuts at a Panama City Beach resort and not only spitting on veterans, according to news reports, but throwing bottles of beer, hurling insults and urinating on an American flag.

As usual, the head of the fraternity said this was unacceptable behavior, as did the president of UF, who took a break from counting his money to babble some nonsense.

The fraternity, which was on conduct probation for hazing, said it suspended three members.

I was sickened to read this, but not surprised. Even when you put regular college students into a hotel, you have to expect a disaster.

In the early 1990s, Florida Atlantic University had a housing problem on campus as well as a boredom problem. The college had never told its incoming freshmen that there wasn’t a football team, something all naïve high school grads thought every college needed to have.

One day, a bored student had gotten a container of mercury from an unlocked chemistry lab, brought it back to the dorm building and began having fun with it. He contaminated his room, the hallway and even managed to contaminate one of the manmade lakes on campus. When someone finally realized what was going on, the dorm had to be evacuated.

Students were put up in a hotel, and I still remember walking down the hall and seeing the utter chaos and destruction that had been wreaked. One student told me outright, “They’re destroying the hotel.” She was furious because she was taking an overload of classes to finish her semester, graduate and start grad school, and all her books, notes and other items (including clothing) were in the dorm that she was not allowed to enter now.

One of the biggest dolts on campus was the president of the student body, and he told Don Horine, then the Palm Beach Post’s education reporter, that the incident was the fault of the university administration. “If there was enough to do on campus, the student wouldn’t have gone looking for something to do in a chemistry lab.”

“Oh, come on,” Horine said. “Give me a break.”

What happened at Panama City Beach is the fault of the students, but also their parents. Hotel rooms are for using and while there is housekeeping, they’re not so you can go crazy. Maybe that’s a lesson that needs to be taught in colleges today.

Too bad some brave military veterans found out it’s not always so.

April 26, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Community college is where your future can happen

When I heard about President Obama’s proposal for free community college, I knew that it wouldn’t go over very well.

Sadly, most folks despise the president’s ideas. If he recommended beating children bloody in school parking lots for rules infractions, people would come out against that.

Still, encouraging people to get a two-year degree, even if it costs a lot, has to be less expensive than incarcerating people. A community college president once told me that it cost the state of Florida about $50,000 a year to lock someone up in prison; by comparison, even the most costly state university was a bargain at about $25,000 a year, and community colleges cost about half that or less.

Unfortunately for Florida, the state’s leaders fell under the influence of a well-meaning but terribly wrong adviser who recommended preparing for a tsunami of violent youthful offenders on their way up from childhood. Seeking to be ahead of the curve, the state built several very expensive prisons and staffed them up, waiting for the surge of criminality that never materialized. Out in rural areas, the prisons are still there, but the youths never appeared in the expected numbers.

The reality is that we now live in a society where workers need education beyond high school to get a good-paying job, and those who drop out are going to find themselves in an impossible situation. Back when I was a youth, there were all these ads pushing “high school equivalency diplomas” and I remember the pitches: “He can’t get ahead in business because he lacks a high school diploma.” You could replace “high school diploma” with “two-year college degree,” and you won’t be far off the mark.

I know all this from personal experience.

For me, Palm Beach Community College (now Palm Beach State College) basically reinvented my life. I went into that place in August 1988 as a frustrated veteran and disgruntled postal worker whose dreams of career advancement had been dashed because I thought the Postal Service existed to serve customers.

I left the community college with a two-year (associate’s) degree in journalism, a new peer group of smart friends and the confidence to continue at the university. In April 1994, I graduated from Florida Atlantic University with a degree in communications and within two years was working as a newspaper copy editor.

I worked hard in those years, taking night shifts at the post office and attending college during the day instead of sleeping. But my instructors at PBCC and my professors at FAU gave of themselves, and I am forever in their debt.

At community college, the confidence I gained was well worth the sacrifices I had to make.

I remember getting a variety of advice. Dorothy Martin, my second cousin Angelo’s sister-in-law, gave me so much encouragement. “Whatever you do there,” she said, “take Watson B. Duncan’s courses. He’s the greatest teacher.”

I took those courses, and Dorothy was right about him.

Others were less enthused. My postal bosses were downright negative, advising me that college was a waste of time, and wouldn’t help my advancement in the post office. “We don’t like to promote college people,” I was often told. “They think knowing things is the key to getting things done right.”

What they feared, I later learned, was the worker with a brain and the willingness to use it. I later used the skills I learned in community college to start my own underground postal employee newsletter, “Samizdat,” and even sent copies to the postmaster general. Unfortunately, they were written above his reading level, and his minions were not impressed with my brilliance.

The education I received at community college gave me the tools I needed to counter the anti-education rhetoric I heard at the post office, and I can still remember the last night I wasted at the post office, leaving that shithole facility in West Palm Beach with its cheating on the Price-Waterhouse testing, exaggerated mail volume reporting, mail destruction in the machinery and human destruction by managers such as Gary Miller and Terry Cahill, not to mention Barbara Shaler and Shirley Cordle.

I drove off to an uncertain future, but one that had limitless possibilities. On the way home to my house in Lake Worth, I drove on Congress Avenue in West Palm Beach past Palm Beach Community College.

It was on the left, and I remembered that first day when I had gone on the campus and requested a course catalog and began the process of getting myself admitted.

Now I was heading into a future that that wonderful place had opened up for me, and I gave the place a hand salute as I drove by.

Today, I read about community colleges like State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College) and I wish I could go back there, take classes, sit in the sun before the classes start, talk with my fellow students, pull all-nighters at home, spend lots of time there on the student newspaper and just be a part of the academic community.

Community colleges are wondrous places, and I’m not the only one who got a life-course correction in those classrooms.

So let’s support community colleges and get behind plans, no matter where they come from, to get more people to attend community college. Our nation will benefit, of course, but so will the many people who find a new life and a new career in a place where learning is treasured, and students matter.

That’s what happens at community colleges.

 

January 12, 2015 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The greatest teacher I ever saw

My decision to pursue a college degree in the late 1980s drew a variety of responses from those I talked to. At the post office, the main reaction was derision. “My cousin Wilbur graduated from college, and he’s working at Burger King” was a typical response. In the blue-collar work world, people who pursue college degrees are viewed as not knowing their position and station in life. “You’ll fail, like you’ve failed at everything else,” one boss said.

The front page of the student newspaper reporting the death of Watson B. Duncan III.

The front page of the student newspaper reporting the death of Watson B. Duncan III.

I was determined to prove her wrong – and did.

One thing I used to tell people was that the smartest people in the county believed I was pretty smart, and the dumbest people in the county – postal management – believed I was not smart. “I’m betting that the smart people are right,” I said. And I was right.

In the realm of education, there are teachers who get up there and teach for the love of it. Sure, the doorway to administration and the really big money and recognition always beckons, but they prefer to stay in the trenches, never forgetting that it’s those who are closest to the students who truly are “educators.”

One of the great mentors of my life, Dorothy Martin, took a very different view from the postal bosses. She said it was a great idea, and added one piece of very good advice.

“I’m going to give you one name: Watson B. Duncan,” she said. “Take his class.”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“You’ll find out,” she said.

Those provosts, deans, assistant vice presidents and others who populate the organization charts at colleges are just filler. The real work is done by those who get up in front of a group of undergraduates and deliver the goods.

The second page of the story.

The second page of the story.

Watson B. Duncan III did that, and more.

What kind of man?
What kind of man spends decades teaching undergraduates at an obscure junior college, rising to become a department head but still teaching classes of about 200 students from the stage in a theater named for him?

A great one.

What kind of man believed that everyone could benefit from understanding the literature of “that scepter’d isle”?

A great one.

What kind of man would bring a bust of William Shakespeare to the class on the Bard’s birthday, and then lovingly pat it every time Shakespeare’s name was mentioned?

A great one.

The first Duncan sighting

One day, after I started classes at Palm Beach Community College (then just changed from Palm Beach Junior College, and now Palm Beach State College), I was in the Watson B. Duncan III Theater for something, and suddenly a man with a smile on his face walked through the lobby, holding papers and greeting us in a friendly tone. He walked toward a door, opened it and went into his office. The person with me said, “Do you know who that was?”

“No,” I replied.

The third page of the story.

The third page of the story.

“That’s Watson B. Duncan.”

I was intrigued.

He must have been in his early 70s then, but he had the look of a younger man, maybe in his early 60s.

I learned soon after, he’s not “Dr. Duncan” (he didn’t have a doctorate) and he never stood on titles like professor. Students called him “Mr. Duncan.”

He personified Palm Beach Community College, I learned, far more than its president, who had once been a student in his classes and had gotten Cs.

I wanted to experience Watson B. Duncan in all his glory – and I know that in my bucket list under “completed” are two notes: “Take English Literature to 1660 under Watson B. Duncan III” and “Take English Literature after 1660 under Watson B. Duncan III.” I feel privileged in ways that cannot be imagined to say that I was able to take and get A grades in both classes.

The greatest privilege was to experience the wonders of English literature through this man. I mean, in how many other classes does the final class period end in a standing ovation? The students at PBCC loved Watson B. Duncan, and taking his classes was considered the capstone of your college career.

Registration day triumph
It wasn’t easy to get in.

Today, you register for classes online, but back then – in the late 1980s — you had to line up early in the morning at the cafeteria, and if you didn’t have a lot of credits, you didn’t get to register until later in the process.

My story on the donation of his book to the library.

My story on the donation of his book to the library.

On my second attempt, I went there with my class list for the upcoming semester and hoped like mad that I’d get accepted. The registration office employee tapped in the information, then said, “You’re in luck. You got everything you wanted, and Duncan’s class.”

There it was: English Literature to 1660, and next to it: Duncan.

I was ready to explode, I was so happy.

At the campus bookstore, I saw the book I needed to buy: “The Literature of England.” I paid $37.50 for it. I still have that book, more than 23 years later. The thought of selling it back would be like selling my experiences of Duncan. No way, it’s staying with me.

The story was that Duncan used his copy to teach so much, he had to get spare copies because he kept filling the margins with notes. Today, in his honor, the book is encased in glass in the library at what is now Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Fla. My copy has moved with me, and the other day I leafed through it, remembering the lessons Duncan taught.

I remember that first class day. Students had gathered outside the theater early, and I made sure I got a seat close to the stage. The place filled up, and finally Watson B. Duncan walked out from behind the curtain to applause, and began to teach.

It was like that every day, and it was a joy that I want to cry about not seeing again. Literature came alive and he’d sometimes share experiences he had. Occasionally, I couldn’t restrain myself.

For example, one time he said, “Next, we’ll be talking about THE GREATEST WRITER IN THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE –”

“Stephen King!” I called out.

He looked down at me with mock horror – and maybe a little real anger – and said, “WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE!”

After class, I went up to him and apologized. He accepted it, noting that his beloved wife, Honey, enjoyed King’s novels, though he couldn’t understand why.

My story on the memorial service.

My story on the memorial service.

When we had tests, we couldn’t take them in the theater, so he’d direct us to report to a classroom, where we’d have tables to lean on. By this time, I know he had assistants who graded the tests, but he’d still write personal notes. One, to me, read: “I am enjoying your writing in the Beachcomber.” (The student newspaper at PBCC).

When the papers were graded, Duncan would hand them out but make sure to note that he was calling the names in alphabetical order, and not by grade.

“If I were to call you up by the grade you expected,” he’d say, “you’d all rush up here and I’d be crushed to death, and what would follow would be mass disillusionment.” At our grades, he was saying.

One time, I was talking to him and we got on the subject of him ever leaving teaching. He said he never wanted to stop teaching. “My fantasy is to go while I’m teaching,” he said, “but I know it will be a bit of a shock to the students.”

Another time, he described a dinner party he was at, where he recounted the speech of a very well-dressed society woman said to him: “Oh, Mr. Duncan. I think you should know that I’m a direct descendant of William Shakespeare.”

Duncan said he replied: “Why, the media must be called immediately. This is amazing news!”

The lady asked why.

“Ma’am, as far as anyone knows, William Shakespeare had no direct descendants.”

“Oh.”

“But he did have several illegitimate children,” Duncan said he called to the woman, who got away from him. The students loved that story.

Another story he told was of the time that an engineering student informed Duncan that he did not need to study literature, as it was of no use. Duncan retorted to the engineering student that he had checked the course catalogs of all the great engineering colleges in the U.S. and not one did not require literature. Everyone, he said, needed culture.

Be nice to animals

The actual textbook I used in Duncan's classes. I've kept it all these years.

The actual textbook I used in Duncan’s classes. I’ve kept it all these years.

While teaching the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Duncan recounted the time he was on a committee that was evaluating teachers in South Carolina.

One was teaching her class about Coleridge’s story, and she said, to Duncan’s horror: “This is be kind to animals week, and it’s appropriate that we should be teaching ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ because the meaning of the story is Don’t shoot a bird’”

Duncan said he was horrified at this interpretation, and declared, “The meaning of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ isn’t ‘Don’t shoot a bird,’ I said. So I shot her a ‘bird’.”

The place erupted in laughter at the thought of our beloved Watson B. Duncan “shooting a ‘bird’” at anyone, but if there was anyone who deserved a “bird,” it was that hapless teacher.

Worrisome rumors, and then sadness
I was in one of the last groups of students who got to experience Watson B. Duncan in all his glory. I finished the second class with an A, and moved on to other classes. I was busy with my despised job and the fun I was having working on the student newspaper, the Beachcomber.

But there were disquieting stories. A young lady who was taking Duncan’s course said he was absent more and more, and one day he taught the class from a wheelchair, she noted.

I still remember the morning I arrived at the Beachcomber’s offices (I was the paper’s News Editor) and got the terrible phone call from the university’s public relations department: “Watson B. Duncan died last night.”

Yes, textbooks were expensive back then. I would have gotten about $20 back, I think, had I sold it back to the bookstore.

Yes, textbooks were expensive back then. I would have gotten about $20 back, I think, had I sold it back to the bookstore.

We set to work on a commemorative issue of the paper and gathered information for the main story, while local media converged on the college to cover this event. I remember that I was interviewed by a Palm Beach Post reporter, and others shared their fond memories of the beloved and great man.

People walked around campus stunned, and even those who had never taken Duncan’s classes felt the loss keenly.

The stories were told of the great man, how he’d advised a young fellow who came into his class, how the young man had been recovering from a football injury at the University of Florida, and Duncan had encouraged him to try out for a play.

That man was Burt Reynolds, and the story was that Reynolds had been shooting a movie and the crew had found out about Watson B. Duncan’s death, but kept it from him until shooting was over because they knew he’d be so upset.

A few days later, the memorial service for Duncan was held in the main theater. I looked and saw Duncan, lying in state, and felt like something was gone from Palm Beach Community College. The buildings were there, and nothing else had changed, but it was like a bright, bright light of love and knowledge had been extinguished.

Life went on, as it should. I moved on to Florida Atlantic University and eventually went from the college newspaper business to the real news business.

I’ve never forgotten Watson B. Duncan III or those great lessons he taught. But if there’s one quote that illustrates his greatness, it’s the one below.

[lines 287-310 of the General Prologue to
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer]

A Clerk from Oxford was there also,
Who’d studied philosophy, long ago.
As lean was his horse as is a rake,
And he too was not fat, that I take,
But he looked emaciated, moreover, abstemiously.
Very worn off was his overcoat; for he
Had got him yet no churchly benefice,
Nor he was worldly to accept secular office.
For he would rather have at his bed’s head
Some twenty books, all bound in black or red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophy
Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.
Yet, and for all he was philosopher in base,
He had but little gold within his suitcase;
But all that he might borrow from a friend
On books and learning he would swiftly spend,
And then he’d pray diligently for the souls
Of those who gave him resources to attend schools.
He took utmost care and heed for his study.
Not one word spoke he more than was necessary;
And that was said with due formality and dignity
And short and lively, and full of high morality.
Filled with moral virtue was his speech;
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

April 2, 2013 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Debt for education may be the worst idea ever

I’m a bit of a know-it-all, I openly admit, and there are a few topics on which I cannot shut up.

One of them is student loans.

I am not opposed to debt. Indeed, I actually have lived a goodly proportion of my life on borrowed money, and it always was an article of pride that I paid back the money I owed. I’ve borrowed to buy cars, houses and used credit cards.

After I got out of the Marines, I took out a student loan to attend what was then called the Academy of Aeronautics, near LaGuardia Airport in New York. It had been a dream of mine since I first saw the place as a child. Back then, student loans were tough to get and I was very worried that I was taking on this kind of debt, betting that the airline industry would recover. Shortly after starting school, I quit school because I had landed a job with the Postal Service.

The job paid well, and it was clear I couldn’t take classes and work nights and weekends. I think that then I made the right choice. I gave back the loan, and have never regretted abandoning those studies.

Years later, when I began attending Palm Beach Community College, I had a steady job and a decent paycheck from the Postal Service. I loved then and love now to complain about the post office, but the regular schedule and pay enabled me to go through college and get a degree at Florida Atlantic University without borrowing a cent. Thanks to the taxpayers of Florida, I had a well-subsidized education, for which I am very grateful.

At the time, I had a mortgage, a car loan and credit card debt, but attending college part-time was well within my financial means. I was worried, however, about my peers.

Part of the orientation in 1988, when I first matriculated at PBCC, was the mandatory financial aid session. Everyone there was told that student loans were an integral part of higher education, and the logic was that everyone else was going into debt, so why not you?

Step onto any private or public college campus, and the “Financial Aid” office usually is pretty large and very, very busy. (At least, it was when I was in college, up until 1994). Brochures touting student loans showed smiling people working at good-paying jobs with benefits. This was what was possible if you had the gumption to borrow the money for your education.

I was hesitant, despite the pressure to take out a loan, because being older I knew the financial risks at hand. I wasn’t really borrowing for anything tangible, like a house or a car. If I didn’t pay the mortgage, they’d take the house. If I didn’t pay on the car, they’d take the car. I’d take a hit on my “credit rating” (that’s what the credit score was called then), but what could they seize if I didn’t pay on a student loan? My brain?

In the 1980s, there were stories about people who had gone to medical school on student loans, and just never paid them back. The parody group The Capital Steps wrote a song equating medical students with the federal government’s budget writing:

Do medical school on credit,
Take a student loan and then, forget it.
Look at me.
A doctor, exalted, my debts I defaulted,
My schooling I got for free.

And later:

When writing a federal budget,
If it doesn’t balance you can fudge it.
Like we do.
What’s $200 billion, on top of a trillion?
It won’t matter when we’re through.

The need for financial aid among those not making good money led to cottage businesses that were downright exploitative. For example, I remember one fellow coming into the student newspaper to buy an ad pitching a service to help students find loans and grants. In actuality, all the information was available for free from the financial aid office. The help, for which the student would have to pay about $100, seemed to be just putting it all together and giving it to the student.

The pressure to borrow more continued at the university. At Florida Atlantic University the mandatory sessions were ratcheted up, and more opportunities to go into debt were offered. Short of cash on Friday? Just sign and walk away with a few hundred dollars – added to your balance, which you will pay off later – for weekend fun.

I had very serious misgivings, all of which were dismissed by other students and financial aid personnel. I was labeled as being some old worrywart and against debt, but to me debt is a tool and a very good one for getting things you cannot afford to buy in cash if, and only if, you can pay it back.

After college, it might take a few years to land a good job, and then all that debt would be hanging over you like a vulture. You might want to buy a car, a house, start a family, etc., but that debt is always there, knocking points off your credit score and demanding priority. Private student loans are even more troubling than the federally backed ones, and cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. They always are there, and you are tripped up financially.

Why won’t anyone listen to me on the dangers of student loans?

Maybe it’s because I’m just an old fogy now, and no one listens to you unless you’re a drug addict in recovery, or they think I’m just an arrogant old fool.

Thanks to my debt-less college degree pursuit, I was able to take a job that paid less than my postal job in the field for which I had attended college, and advance in that field. Not having loans due meant I could move around, buy houses where I moved to for work and more.

My tendency to take responsibility, even when it wasn’t to my immediate advantage, left me free to pursue other interests as well.

I feel sorry for those who are deeply in debt – sometimes into six figures – for education that often isn’t even completed. They still have to pay back the loan, and can’t even begin to address it. That’s not a good way to live.

Going for broke
A big problem I’ve seen in a lot of media coverage about student loans and former students in debt is that the latter kind of went crazy and signed for more and more debt. It’s not uncommon for those pitching student loans to be incentivized monetarily for closing the loans, and often they act as unofficial financial advisers in their efforts.

Students may feel that there’s a narrow window for them to get their education, and that they had better just go ahead and borrow all that money now and register for 24 credits, and worry about the consequences later.

Also, it amazes me that students just out of high school would consent to allow themselves to be so deeply indebted so soon. Easy credit isn’t so easy when you have to start paying it off, and you don’t have a job that pays enough.

Here are some of the myths students will recite and my destruction of them.

1. I have to go to college now, when I’m 18, or I won’t have the full college experience.
OK, people, I know that every politician and businessman talks about his or her wild college years, but there’s nothing in stone that says you have to go to college at 18. When I was at Florida Atlantic University, some students were stunned to find students my age and older, and even senior citizens, taking classes with them. A few expressed the view that their college years were being ruined by all these “old people” on campus and supposedly getting in their way. (I think they included me in that category.)

2. I have to go to an expensive private school like Harvard or Yale, or I won’t be able to compete out there.
Private colleges and the Ivies are good at pushing the point that they are well-respected and their degrees carry a lot of weight. But the fact that you can’t afford Harvard or Yale doesn’t mean that you can’t afford college. Look, I can’t afford a Cadillac or Mercedes, so I drive a Chevrolet. It has four wheels, an engine and it gets me there, albeit in not as much style as others, but so what? Small, less-expensive colleges may lack the bells and whistles of the Ivies, but they have much more to offer. Sure, you may be interviewed by someone who is a fellow Harvard or Yale grad, but maybe not. And most of the folks who interviewed me for jobs only cared about my grades and work experience, not where I went to college.

3. I have to go at 18 and finish in four years, otherwise people will say I have a “night school” degree.
A degree is a degree, OK? I went to work at night at the post office, and to college during the day, and maybe I didn’t have the whole college experience, but I had some of it. I worked for the student newspaper, and believe me my determination to succeed impressed those who interviewed me for my first jobs after college, even if I didn’t get hired. I read once that a New York City mayor, the late Abraham Beame, worked his way through both high school and college. Hell, most of us have it easy; we just have to work in college.

4. America is desperate for technicians/chemists/doctors/veterinarians/anything else in the news, so I need to hurry and hang the expense and get this degree now.
A recent article noted that while there is much talk of the need for scientists, in fact many are unemployed. The pharmaceutical industry has cut hundreds of thousands of jobs, and research scientists often are working way below their skill level. It’s dangerous to try to time the job market. Here in Florida, they’ve been pitching biotech careers and using tax money to attract biotech companies for years, but no one’s hiring.

5. I can’t work my way through school and take more than four years because people will think I’m a moron.
It took me three years to go through community college, and three years to go through university. At the post office, people thought I was as dumb as rocks, but out in the real world my accomplishment got a different reception. I was able to pay for my classes and books as they happened, and got good grades. I did, in fact, do one university semester as a full-timer while also working, but it was tough and I never did it again. Still, I got As and one B that semester. Not bad.

6. As an adult going through college, everyone will think I’m stupid and make fun of me.
I was really unsure when I started college in the late 1980s. About a minute after my first class began, I realized that this was where I needed to be. The instructors and professors – and the other students — treated me with respect, and even the ones where I didn’t agree with the instructors all the time were learning experiences. Look, things aren’t always going to go your way, and college is a good place to learn to deal with that.

7. People who work or go into the military after high school can’t succeed in college.
I joined the Marines in December 1977 and left for Parris Island in August 1978. After the Marines, I worked for the post office. By the time I started college, I had all that experience and perspective behind me, and it served me well in college. In a way, I had an unfair advantage because I had sown my wild oats. As an older student paying his way, I was committed and focused on getting my degree, not going to parties and feeling off the parental leash. (I’d been off the leash for years.) I could have gone on for a master’s degree, and even took a few graduate-level classes, but decided I needed to get back to work. It was the best move I ever made.

8. Why should anyone listen to you? You’ve been laid off twice from journalism jobs.
Very true. I always say that at least I had a few good years in the news business, and I know I have several more ahead of me. In any case, the experience, knowledge and skill are still there; that hasn’t been lost.

9. I have no choice. I have to do college now.
No you don’t. Here’s an idea. Join the military for four years, and come out with GI Bill eligibility. A free ride at a public college (what a deal!) or $75,000 for a private college. (Want my advice? Go to the public college.) You’ll go, get free military training, work with great people, see the world, gain life experience and come back with a credential that will help you for the rest of your life. Then go to college, and put the finishing touches on a great preparation for life and good citizenship. And if you decide to work after the service, college always will be there, and I bet its call will draw you in.

It sounds like the rantings of some lonely loon. COLLEGE WITHOUT DEBT!

But it’s the best way, people. Try it, you’ll like it.

July 9, 2012 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Regular colleges offer a tougher path to a degree

Back in the early 1980s, when I was in the Marines and stationed at MCAS Yuma, Ariz., one of the guys in my squadron decided to avail himself of the educational opportunities offered at the local civilian college.

Back then, there was something called “distance learning” – usually over the television — and there were correspondence courses from the Marine Corps Institute, but few guys seemed to have completed any of that. The main way to get a college education was to go to college.

Arizona Western College’s offerings were touted on the base, but the lack of transportation to attend classes blocked me from attending. My co-worker, however, found that once he was admitted, going to college while working in a Marine squadron was not as easy as he thought it would be. He often missed classes for extra duties – the Marines always took priority – and I do remember one incident where he needed a note from an NCO because he had missed something important, like an exam.

Today, the troops have not only unrivalled access to education but also a government eager to pay for it. Unfortunately, easy access does not mean that the education is useful or even legitimate. Private “career colleges,” both online and those you attend in person, have sprung up. While some may be sincere in their claim to want to educate, the consumer needs to be careful.

My experience with these training schools is very limited and I won’t use names. But let’s be realistic: they’ve existed for decades. Go to google.com and check out the old back issues of magazines like Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, etc., and you’ll see countless schools in their issues going back into the 1910s, offering training (correspondence or through local schools) in a wide variety of fields. In my quick study of the offerings, financing was available, and I wonder how many people got themselves deeply into debt back then trying to learn a skill to land a job.

Education was not free for me in the military or afterward – the GI Bill did not exist in the post-Vietnam era, and there was something called VEAP and I paid into it, but later cashed out before I was eligible for benefits.

I had registered and attended the first day of class at a school that could train me for the Airframes & Powerplant licence, but I had just been hired by the post office and decided to drop out. I also gave back the student loan I had taken out.

In the late 1980s, down in Florida by this time, I initially thought about going to a local career college for electronics training, but decided not to because of the cost.

I had become terrible disaffected with the Postal Service but had bills to pay, so quitting without any training was irresponsible, so I decided my best bet was to knuckle down and continue working, go to a regular academic college and see what would develop.

The hard part for many adults, who believe the nonsensical idea that college is only for the 18-21 set, is just getting themselves in the door. It’s also psychological, because many adults incorrectly think that they are not that intelligent and will be made to look unintelligent in college classes, and humiliated by the professor and fellow students.

I was apprehensive, but one day in 1988 I drove to Palm Beach Community College (now called Palm Beach State College), parked the car and went into the admissions office. It was an intimidating place, even for me, in my late 20s, a former Marine and then-postal worker. The woman behind the counter wasn’t too welcoming, and handed me a list of things I needed to do if I wanted to attend.

First of all, I had to take the ACT. Then I had to see if I needed any remedial work. And then, finally, I could register, but I’d be last in line.

The important thing was, I wasn’t in a hurry to get started or get some certificate or degree. I had time to look over my options and get ready. I registered for the ACT, studied for the test and passed it. I filled out the many forms that a public college requires and eventually got set up for my first class, a summer-semester course, Introduction to the Social Sciences.

Some of my postal superiors and co-workers thought I was wasting my time and money going to college, but I knew they were wrong. My friends and neighbors thought it was great. I thought it was something that would help me in the future.

The thing was, I was flexible about what I wanted to be, and in any case the first two years at the community college would be just courses I needed to get a degree. Later, I could take the courses toward my specific area of study.

The social sciences class was great, and I fit right in. We were a mix of kids out of high school and adults returning to school, and I did well. Soon, I had my first three college credits and was off to the races.

College was a long-term commitment since I was working full time, and that meant taking two or three courses a semester. I think one semester at Florida Atlantic University I took five classes, and got four A’s and a B. Working and making a good living – albeit for an organization I despised, the Postal Service – meant I could pay my way through college with no borrowing or grants.

It took about six years to get my bachelor’s degree in communications, and I graduated owing nothing to those student loan companies, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Believe me, I attended too many “mandatory” financial aid meetings.

That piece of paper I earned has opened countless doors to employment and insight, much more than a certificate from some for-profit “college.”

The hard way is the best way, in my opinion.

January 12, 2011 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment