A couple of blogs ago I talked about my two-decade-long struggle to see myself as who I always was, a writer, a person who loved to write and rewrite sentences to say something to the world. Part of what got in the way of my discovering myself as a writer until turning 30 was my obligation to the practical. For years after my ex-stepfather’s abuse of my mother and our fall into poverty I saw it as my duty to help take care of my mother and my four younger siblings. Even going to college was in part a mission for my family, to earn a practical degree so that I could get a practical and decent-paying job. So I started my undergraduate education at Pitt as a Computer Science major, hoping to get a job as a computer programmer in the NYC-area that started at $25K a year.
That was in August ’87, and it was my naive plan for helping to lift my family up out of poverty and the violence of the recent past. Almost as soon as I set my plans in motion, I knew that something felt wrong. I’d taken a Pascal class my junior year at Mount Vernon High School and thoroughly enjoyed it. But the same class at Pitt seemed like a lot of effort for nothing. I got a B on one of my first big projects, a 500-plus line program that kept screwing up because I had two semi-colons out of place. I never felt like my class was something I should enjoy. I did okay enough, a B- in a course I earned a B+ in just a year and a half before.
I thought that it was just a symptom of my homesickness and my disillusionment over my second crush. Then I took a Logic course that was required as part of my major during my second semester. We had a British guy with a bar-handled mustache and over-dyed red hair. He was a professor with subtle British contempt for his American students. In a semester where I channeled all of my hurt and rage into my courses, the Logic course was the only one in which I didn’t do well — I earned a solid C. I never understood what this had to do with programming computers. It wasn’t as if I would be feeding a computer software based on some of my loopy logic problems anyway.
I came away from my freshman year knowing that I needed to change my major to something I loved, History preferably, although American literature would’ve worked as well. I knew all of this. I just couldn’t do it at first. My unemployed summer of ’88 experience didn’t help matters. “What can do you with a History degree,” I could hear my mother saying to me if I dared to change my degree and my plans to help her and my siblings. I could also hear what some of my former high school classmates said to me my senior year. “The only thing you can do with History is play Jeopardy,” one of them said in derision that year. Another classmate, jealous of my class ranking (14th out of 545), said “History’s the only reason you’re ranked in the top twenty.”
So I proceeded to take an Assembly Language course at the beginning of my sophomore year at Pitt, the Fall of ’88. After my week of homelessness, I was already a week behind in the course. For those of you unfamiliar with Assembly Language, it’s the language that makes sense out of all of the 0s and 1s that tell computers to do everything from turning on and off to turning every letter I’m typing into this Georgia font. My first program for the semester earned me a 50, which was in the middle of the pack. I could have coasted frustratedly to a C or a C+ by the end of the semester. What bothered me the most, though, was the fact that I knew that I couldn’t stand another nanosecond of this course, of any course, involved computer programming and systems analysis. If I somehow had been able to grow a mullet, I would’ve torn it out of my head by the time the middle of October rolled around.
I met with my teaching assistant from the Western Civilization II course I’d taken in the spring and told him my situation. He smiled and said, “Who cares what you do with your degree, as long as you’re happy doing it? The rest will fall into place.” Looking back, I know that taking advice from a poor history grad student about my life and career prospects probably wasn’t the wisest thing I could’ve done. But it was better than anything I would’ve gotten at home.
On Tuesday, October 18 of ’88, I called my mother collect from one of the front entrance phone booths inside William Pitt Student Union (I could barely afford to eat, much less a phone in my fire trap of my one-room in a falling-apart rowhouse). Then I told her what I had done that afternoon. That I had marched into the College of Arts & Sciences office on the eighth floor of the Cathedral of Learning and changed my major to History. There was a long pause on the other end of the phone, which seemed to go on longer than a Grateful Dead concerts. Finally, she said, “Are you sure, Donald? What you gonna do with a History degree?” “I don’t know yet, but I’ll figure it out,” I said in response.
That was just a day more than 19 years ago, a lifetime since my confusion over who I was going to college for. I learned something that day, something I sometimes need to remind myself of on occasion. That we all need to live our lives for ourselves as much as we do to benefit others, and sometimes, despite the others would may need your help. If I had followed through and earned a B.A. in Computer Science from Pitt, my mother and family would’ve been moderately happy, but I know I would’ve been miserable.
People make too many tradeoffs in the illusion that what they are doing for money will offset their unhappiness and help maintain the life that they want to have, for themselves and their loved ones. I know first-hand that for so many of us, this is an excuse waiting for a reason, and fear of failure or of disapproval or loss is that reason. Dreams may not pay the bills (although they can in my case), but they do make life worth living.