Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Day 36

"Argue for your limitations and, sure enough, they're yours". Richard Bach, Illusions

I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a college drop out. Often times I skirt the issue avoiding the topic entirely. People, especially...and I might say entirely, people with degrees begin to swim in assumption once they find out. There is the "oh you couldn't hack it" assumption. Theres the "oh you're a quitter" assumption. Then there is the "oh you're not college material" assumption. Then we start getting into classism, and I'm not going to go there. I hate to call it discrimination because there are other more profound and vulgar kinds of discrimination and i don't want to compare them, but it's the only word I can really muster at the moment, and because i've experienced it i've become shy about being honest with people when I discuss my educational past. Truth is if I don't tell someone that I bailed on higher education they assume I have a degree. I'm comfortable letting them assume that. For this blog though, that lie of omission felt blatant and like something I wanted out of the way, because I knew I was going to talk about this subject.

I am not, and I have to stress this, I am NOT a hater of college. I think college is amazing. I hope I can go eventually. But I do weep for what college has become, how it's marketed to kids, what people do when they are there, and what value it has when they leave. The hard and true fact is that I have managed Doctors because we don't value a doctorate in Philosophy or History or Womens Studies. We value the degree, for purpose of using a progressive sieve to eliminate people from contention for jobs. We value the degree but not the information. Once the information loses it's value, the degree isn't far behind. I know many people walking around right now with a piece of paper I would like to have, waiting to hear from RiteAid or Target for a job. How did we get here?

When I was young I had people encouraging me to attend college, "just get in" they said, "you'll find the money" well, they were wrong. I did get in, to a bunch of colleges....good colleges, actually great colleges, and the money never materialised. My mother and I were incapable of taking on decades of debt for the purpose of getting me a document declaring that I do, in fact, have a brain. Eventually, because I was a late admission, I ended up at the the local university attending what was called the "university college" not declaring a major . My circumstance and my ego were headed for a major collision there, but there was a third player rounding the corner to the crash; pressure to get a job. You have to get a degree to get a good job. You will never amount to anything without a degree to get a good job. Oh and PS there are no jobs in what you want to learn about so pick something else, something practical. Ahhhhh, crash smash, bang boom. kapow. I was out of college.

All I wanted to do was sit at the feet of people who knew more than me, and learn. I didn't want to learn so I could get a job, I wanted to learn because I wanted to KNOW. The "University College" felt like an insult to me. I wanted to declare a major, I wanted to tell people "i'm double majoring in philosophy and 20th century literature with a concentration on creative writing"...or something. My ego was telling me the University College was remedial. I was better than that. I was wrong, on both counts, and stupid for making that decision. A decision I knew was wrong the morning I made it and accepted a job at a local drug store. I was instantly angry and a particle of a chip appeared on my shoulder.

That particle grew overtime, particle man became triangle man, and triangle man became person man. I was wholly absorbed into the persona of somone who couldn't/wouldn't/didn't get a degree. Who didn't join the military, or get a job at a mill (a dying profession even then). I didn't want to be a laborer. I wasn't the kind of clever with my hands that my brother was. I didn't have a family like my sister did. I was just kind of floating knowing what I wanted to be but couldn't do. Bouncing from retail job to retail job and from food service job to food service job. The one thing I had in my favor was that I was a demon of a worker. I was in a constant upward trajectory pay and responsibility-wise. It was just a slow ascent.

Then I landed at Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble, is like...if Jane Austen had a dinner party and invited Oscar Wilde (time travel between literary luminaries is a known fact). It's perhaps a bit naughty but it's still very proper. Its well pressed and tidy. Every person I worked with practically was a teacher at some point. I loved it there at first. I worked in the cafe and it was great fun. But my chip was getting heavier. I had never been to a borders. So one day for fun I went. If Barnes & Noble is Jane Austen with a drive by from Oscar Wilde, then Borders is Jack Kerouac, Richard Feynman, Tom Wolfe, and Carole King having a picnic. I was hired in weeks, and my chip while never decreasing in mass, floated nicely above my shoulder.

Borders became my college. Finally I was surrounded by people who could teach me. And did. I remembering reading "Feudal Society" by Mark Bloch on the recommendation of that Doctor of history I mentioned earlier. Instantly it became one of my favorites. I listened to Woody Allen's Clarinet and Woody Guthries tales of America. and Watched throat singers perform. I read R.Crumb. It was when I became the Religion/Social Sciences bookseller that I began my "three at a time" habit. It's a habit I got into of reading three books simultaneously. One in the morning, one at night, and one at lunch. I remember it started with Moses: A Life by Kirsch, Feminine Mystique by Friedan, and The Subtle Knife by phillip Pullman, all to a Soundtrack of Ani Difranco, Wilco, and Belle and Sebastian. Over time i began reading computer books and as CRC made friends in the Linux community (the fine people who provided me with an operating system to write this blog. Linux 4 Life!). I remember sitting down for an hour with a lady from La Leche League to learn all about the benefits of breast feeding just so she could set up a meeting at our store. I went to Exhibit openings at museums and met major recording artists with the CRC's in my region. I discovered veganism and quickly decided it wasn't for me. I read cook books, and foreign language books. I frequently would use my two book borrows for a book of history or fiction and then a travel book that was relevant to the topic. I did this, almost religiously from 1997 until 2002. At the time I didn't need to download music because my coworkers were always so willing to share. One day i sat down to estimate how many books i've read since working for borders. I can't.

I remember hours spent in my cafe talking with a gentleman from Syria. He told me so much about Islam, about being a non-American in America, about Damascus and history. He moved back after he finished his medical degree here. Tonight while coming home I was listening to a news article on NPR about the Syrian protests and a protester was talking to the reporter, and mid report he bolted away and stood between a member of the Syrian Military and a protester who was getting beaten. Apparently dozens of people did the same thing. I don't know if he was there, probably not it's a big country, but I felt like I had a stake in what was happening. I felt like I knew this man who is in all likelihood being impacted by this event. I'm made to care, because someone I haven't spoken to in over a decade, who may or may not be there, was kind to me, and gave me the benefit of his experience, and was enthusiastic about the time he had to give a westerner his Point of view.

Earlier this week a coworker said in the midst of a group conversation "it's just a job, we'll find other jobs." It was a sentiment I felt had to be said at the moment. Sometimes the weight of losing Borders begins to shift onto the pragmatic, and while philosophically, losing this company is something earth shattering to me and many others, on the practical front it's just a job, I'll find another. But at my heart I don't believe that it's just a job. It's not for me, any way. For Me Borders was my college. It was my window into the world. It was my access to things out of my reach. I'm always going to owe it something for that. Of course what it owes me, well...thats another post.

The chip is still there, but it's different now. I feel capable and inadequate at the same time. It's an awful feeling, but it's not unique to me. The woman who cleans our bathrooms has one of the best educations in film preservation you can get. I frequently go for long meandering walks through a field of regrets. One thing I don't regret though, is that I spent time LEARNING. Not because it got me a job, not because I was paying for it, Not because it was expected of me, but because I could.

And that is all I ever wanted.


  1. "We value the degree, for purpose of using a progressive sieve to eliminate people from contention for jobs. We value the degree but not the information."
    - "Cory"

  2. Wonderful post. I started reading this blog to try to explain why I felt loss over a store closing and you offer an insider's intimate view. You're right- Borders was such a wide window into the world. I saw it as a resource, a place of knowledge, with something magical about it- I'd often stumble over a book that quickly hit home, or an author that read like a good friend. And many times these books would lead to other titles and writers. And as we come to discover, such reading is as valuable as a college education... even more so. Reading about your experience at your store, I wish I, too, could've worked at Borders.

  3. "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." --Mark Twain

  4. So much good stuff to highlight & agree with, I don't know where to begin.

  5. Even with the TMBG reference, this is the blog entry that made me saddest. It IS a great loss to society, and to be personally in the thick of it, must be soul crushing at times. {{{hug}}}

  6. Points for working Richard Bach AND They Might Be Giants into the same post.

  7. Love the last paragraph. It's always more fun to know things than not to know. Keep curious. Keep learning.

  8. "For Me Borders was my college. It was my window into the world. It was my access to things out of my reach. I'm always going to owe it something for that. Of course what it owes me, well...thats another post."
    I spent 22 years working at Waldenbooks/Borders. I never finished school, either... and once I became the Sr Manager in Ops, I was both ashamed and defiant about not getting my degree. I am sure I had my own chip on my shoulder.
    I'm in my fourth semester at the locall Community College, and refuse to apologize for attending a CC. It's what I can do for now. I'm gettings A's, I'm learning stuff... I'm earning those grades.
    I'm not ashamed of the hard work that took me through my career in BGI... and I'm not ashamed of the decisions I made regarding school. (I may regret them, but I made them and I'm not ashamed of them. To me, there's a distinction)
    I found a program that assists with the costs, after I was laid off, I went to the local MI Works! (damn that cheerful exclamation point... the place is just dreary. helpful! But dreary)
    I encourage anyone going through this process to check their local unemployment office, and see if there is a program to help them.
    Once that money runs out... and it will.. I'll find a way to keep going.
    I already know you will carry on, Cory. Consider looking at any and all options to do so that could include college. Once I stopped getting that constant influx of knowledge (and yes, that happened at the HO, too), I knew I needed to find it some other way. For me, college has been fantastic.