Wednesday, October 07, 2009

This One Isn't That Funny

I was supposed to have finished this before my thirtieth birthday - I turn 31 in a little over two months. Despite that sad commentary on my ability to meet personal deadlines, I am determined to stick it out and finish this damn thing(even as it gets harder). Looking back should, you would think, help me in the present.

There are murky times in our lives. Confused, chaotic times that leave us shaking our heads trying to piece together what happened, and why. My 'college years' are among my murkiest. That said, here we go.


Something definitely true: I double-majored in Journalism and Computer Science at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Something maybe true: I was in Journalism because I helped layout the newspaper in high school and I liked to write. I was in Computer Science because...well I'm not exactly sure. I liked it enough, and I figured it was good to have a backup plan in case Journalism didn't work out.

Wait, what? Is that what you were really thinking back then? I know for a fact you weren't thinking that far ahead.

That's true. OK, the real reason I added Computer Science to Journalism was I foresaw the rise of online journalism, blogs, and what not and I wanted to be at the forefront of it all and...

You are full of shit.

...I was a nerd. Still, sadly, sulkily a nerd. College didn't change that. I didn't fit in at Journalism orientation1. Sitting among the other new journalism majors, I listened to a red-headed guy dressed in khaki shorts and sandals go on about how he wanted to work at an ad agency2 or newspaper where he could dress like he was that day and just kick around ideas while 'chilling'(journalism, as a major, also included advertising). He seemed friendly, the kind of person I wanted to be friends with; the entire place just felt like what I thought college would be like, free of my high school reputation and free of small-minded people - until he started making fun of me and telling his buddy how gay I looked. During the safe-sex part of the orientation they handed me the LGBTA pamphlets and asked me how much I liked golden showers. Typical, enlightened college students. I hadn't changed, life hadn't changed. People hadn't changed.

They never do. So Computer Science was an escape, wasn't it?

Computer Science was full of fellow nerds. Guys who didn't score at prom; girls who didn't cheerlead. In programming and math classes, I felt a little safer. Comfortable. The guy sitting next to me in Calculus II was unlikely to call me a four-eyed faggot or jokingly ask if I was still a virgin(no and yes).

Still, even in CS, I never was completely comfortable. I didn't love it the way some kids did.

And you weren't as good at it, either. Despite your outer nerd-trappings you didn't really give a shit about programming, and it showed.

I did well in the early classes in both majors(grade-wise, anyway). The first semester I got straight As, something that had never happened in high school. Still, the big change I had expected, the clean slate - it remained a dream. Everything felt like high school, but without direction or purpose. Why was I trying to be a journalist or a computer programmer? I had just aimlessly floated into them.

I didn't make any new college friends. And I mean that literally, to this day I have no friends from UMCP who were not also my friends before I attended UMCP. Pathetic. I couldn't fit in. In my journalism classes I was the nerd, in my CS classes I was an impostor waiting to be found out.

Commuting to campus instead of living there made things difficult. Driving to classes everyday, missing the "dorm" life experience, it felt like I was missing out on a big part of what college life was supposed to be. I drove, I went to class, I came back home.

Well, you could have made more of an effort - joined a campus club, talked to people at the Student Union, done more than go to class, get Roy Rogers for lunch by yourself, fending off the guy with the Jews For Jesus flyers before driving home.

And things at home were getting worse. As my father struggled more and more with depression, my family's money problems worsened. My Mom was angry and exasperated. Two of my brothers were too young to really understand what was happening, but the next eldest, in the middle of high school, took the brunt of seeing my father and mother change. He struggled with going to school, despite being popular and (being a Teehan) smart. Still, I thought things would get better(despite having no logical reason to believe so, a habit I still have).

I needed to make money, so I took a student job as a janitor on campus, but it only lasted a week before I quit because the schedule wasn't flexible.

You quit because you felt ashamed to be cleaning up your college-mate's trash on the weekend while they recovered from the parties you were never invited to.

I started working at a nearby movie theater. I only ran into a classmate once there, selling him a ticket to Godzilla(I think, plus the schedule was flexible). The people I worked with were also college-aged for the most part(there were some high school kids, of course). I was the only person who went to UMCP, though - everyone else was either just working, going to Prince George's Community College or another two-year school.

The thing was, a lot of them were smarter than my UMCP classmates. They worked harder, and made do with less. But their parents couldn't afford tuition, and they couldn't all get student loans, scholarships, or grants to go to a four-year school. It was enlightening and infuriating at the same time.

I worked there one summer, before landing another job at UMCP, this time managing the web site of one of the honor programs. It paid a little better than cleaning bathrooms at the Student Union. I had lucked into a web internship during the summer and had learned all the basics I needed to do the job. There wasn't that much to it, and while working I started learning Perl, JavaScript, ColdFusion  and CSS. I didn't realize at the time how important it would be, later in life, that I fooled around with those things because I was bored.

Anyway, I did that job for a while, and continued doing respectably well in my classes. I knew I would eventually have to choose between Journalism and Computer Science, because I was struggling to do both, and work.

Failing a required math class probably didn't help.

I was doing fine until the final. The last couple months of that semester, though, I lost motivation. I didn't really care. Something terrible had happened at home(can't really say what), and after that, I was convinced I had to drop out of school and get a full-time job. My father was unemployed, my parents were having trouble with the mortgage, and I had three younger brothers still at home. I was the oldest, I could work, I could help get us out of the hole. Things at home would improve, my parents would be happier, no broken home, no brothers growing up in separate apartments or with Aunts or whoeverthefuck, they would do better in school and not have to worry about this shit when they were ready to go to college and I wouldn't have to ask anyone for a place to live. I could do it.

Honestly, I was also depressed. Seeing my father reduced to a shell of who he used to be, hearing my mother scream at him and us every morning, looking at how my brothers were being robbed of a happy childhood - it got to me. Life wasn't fun, so college wasn't fun. Least I could do was get paid for not having much fun. Plus, it wasn't a recession, or an unexpected financial crisis that was sinking us. It was just...weakness, in my mind. My father's weakness; a genetic legacy that every male in the family shared(I remember my mom yelling that down the hall one morning, frustrated beyond belief with the men in her family). That weakness was why my family was facing losing their home, and maybe I could redeem my father, myself, and my family name.

So I dropped out, after a little under two years. It took less than a month for me to parlay my web internship skills into a job at an Internet start-up. I started working as a web developer, and I've been doing it ever since(except during a brief period right after the first Internet bubble burst). I was making money, not great money, but good money. I was 20 going on 21; the first time I went with my co-workers for after-work drinks I had to stick to Coke.

You know, some people work full-time and go to school. Maybe they aren't supporting their family, maybe they are, but they still do it. You could have worked harder.

I did my best; the best I could get out of myself at the time. I've thought about going back, but at this point, over a decade later, I don't see the point. I don't need a degree in what I do, and I don't really want a Journalism degree. Don't, don't, don't.

And part of you doesn't want to go back as a final fuck you to the circumstances that led you to drop out in the first place.

Still, it would have been nice to get a degree. I was supposed to be the first in my family to do it. Ironically, my father had dropped out of Georgetown two years in to join the Army(to piss his father off). My mother dropped out to be a mom. Guess I was following in their footsteps, in my own strange way.

Watching my friends graduate was hard. I was ashamed; ashamed to have failed, to have been too weak to get through everything and still have a diploma waiting for me at the end. I was paranoid their parents saw me as a bad influence. The kid from the bad, irresponsible family. And I still have shades of that, no matter how good my job is or what high-profile account I work on.

I would visit them, go to their parties, and pretend to be one of them. I remember the first time I had to leave something early because I had to get up to go to work the next day - is there a word for feeling grown-up and a failure that same time? Failturity? There should be.

When I think of music from this period of my life, a couple songs come to mind. Both remind me of my brother: "Keep Ya Head Up" by Tupac Shukar, and "Only God Knows Why" by Kid Rock. My brother was a huge Tupac fan(his two heroes are Tupac and Cal Ripken Jr., which to me, sums up growing up in PG Country), and he suggested I listen the Kid Rock tune because he knew I'd like it. When I hear them, I remember our hard times and trying to get through them, together.

"You can't complain you was dealt this
hell of a hand without a man, feelin helpless
Because there's too many things for you to deal with
Dying inside, but outside you're looking fearless
While tears, is rollin down your cheeks
Ya steady hopin things don't all down this week
Cause if it did, you couldn't take it, and don't blame me
I was given this world I didn't make it"

Anyway, that was the end of college, and it was on to being a working man. The next few years were nothing if not interesting: I worked at the start-up until the bubble burst sometime after Y2K, I started online dating(of course), working out, went from glasses to contacts, found myself painting pipes in a Civil-War era barn in the middle of Antietam, worked building a terminal at Ronald Reagan National Airport(wearing a hard-hat is kinda cool), installed security systems all over Baltimore and DC(and lived in some of the worst areas of both cities), got progressively better jobs in web development as the field recovered from the dot-com crash, met a girl who would one day write a song about how much of an asshole I was, and at some point, got married.

But I'll get to all that later.


1One detail I'll never forget about freshmen orientation was hearing a girl gush about a new show called South Park that I'd never heard of. She loved the cursing little children and that a character named Kenny died every episode. God, I'm

2Strangely enough, I now work at an ad agency. So fuck that guy.


Ian said...

I like that italics guy, he should guest star more frequently

Kris said...

Ian: Haha, really? I think he's kind of an asshole.

axs said...

lol well we all have an asshole inside of us. and no need to feel ashamed for lack of a degree, we are who we are, life is entirely too short to always try and fit in with others, regardless of what the perceived difference in status may be. 2pac is also my favorite artist, and i agree, keep ya head up, u've come a long way considering the circumstances. if ppl dont accept u for who are u, fuck them =)