One of the thing I like best about the US is that, more than just about anyplace else in the world, it’s the land of second/third/fourth/morth chances. The ability to say “I screwed, up, but I can still make things better” and have that mean something is quintessentially American.
It makes sense, in a way. So many people originally came to America because they were looking for a second chance. For one reason or another things weren’t working for them “back home” so they came here for a new start in a new home. Maybe they were looking for wealth in a new land. Maybe they were looking for religious isolation. Maybe they wanted to build their own farm in the wilderness where they wouldn’t be beholden to anyone. For whatever reasons, they left what they had behind for a new try in the “new world.”
There’s this “demonstration” that’s supposed to be an illustration of the concept of “privilege.” The demonstrator puts some money out that’s the prize for the first person to reach it. Then the demonstrator has people take head starts based on various things that he considers “privilege.” His intent is to show that the world isn’t fair and it just sucks for those lacking in privilege. However, the whole thing fails because it makes some pretty big false assumptions. It assumes that there’s only one “prize.” It assumes that everybody is striving for the same prize. You can combine those into an assumption that one can “win” only if someone else loses. It assumes that the “prize” is all or nothing. But the big one is, it assumes that people only have one chance at the prize. They can’t try again for a different prize.
Yet this whole “try again” attitude permeates American culture. It did, anyway. Lately it seems to be falling by the wayside.
My own life has been driven by a series of bad choices made on my part and new chances to make better choices.
In High School I never learned to study. I didn’t need to to “get by” and simple unstructured reading in subjects that interested me was enough to get me “good enough” grades in most of my classes. But I never learned the discipline of sitting down and studying a particular subject, especially any that didn’t particularly interest me at the time, until I’d mastered it. Bad choice on my part. Also in High School I never took the time to seriously look for work. Whether I found it or not, I needed to be looking for it.. This resulted in my having very poor work habits by the time I graduated from school.
But the real bad choice I made in that era was only applying for one college. It was a religious school, run by the religion I was practicing at the time. When the local clerical leader essentially vetoed my application (because I wore my hair too long–it touched my ears and yes they were that strict) I had nowhere else to go.
So I went with “second chance” number one. I joined the military. Here I made yet another bad decision. I originally planned to go into electronics, take whichever job had the longest school (thereby getting as much electronics training as possible), and parlay that into college afterwards. I let the recruiter talk me into switching to another field. I would prove remarkably unsuited to that field (thus making a military career out of the question) and it was also almost completely devoid of civilian application so I couldn’t turn military training into a decent civilian job.
I have, in the past, described switching military fields as not the worst mistake I have ever made but possibly in the top ten, certainly the top twenty. On reflection, I have revised my opinion. It definitely was the worst mistake I ever made.
Still, I could have put my time in the military to good use. The military was willing to pay 75% of tuition costs in accredited colleges while served. Also, the “GI Bill” of the day was voluntary—save up to $2700 for college and the government would match it 2:1. Bad decision on my part was to not take advantage of either of these. The only “college” I got from my military tour was from my technical training itself.
So, as the end of my enlistment neared, I got to “second chance” number two. I applied to college again, several colleges this time. Each of these colleges, however, required recommendations from high school teachers. I sent the proper forms back home, to my mother, with lists of teachers to contact. Once again I made the bad decision of putting my future in the hands of one person . . . who failed me. She never forwarded the forms.
On returning from the military with no job prospects and no college, oh, and a broken collar bone because I was hit by a car shortly before separating from the military, I ended up in some menial jobs–bussing tables, washing dishes, that sort of thing–and I got to second chance number three. I tried again to get into college. Money was tight even for application fees so I applied to only one college, the state university. I hand carried the forms to the college, met with various people at the college, and got accepted. The proposed financial aid package would cover my need and all would be well except . . . bad decision: I had been spending my money, even at the menial job, as fast as it had been coming in. I had been working at a resort in Virginia at the time (my State of Residence was Ohio). The job came with a room and cheap meals. If I had sucked it in for just one summer–banked my paychecks and lived extra frugally for just one summer all would have been well. But I didn’t think I needed to. I had the financial aid package that would cover college, including room and board, so I thought everything would be fine and did not plan for the unexpected. Naturally, something unexpected happened. I would not receive part of the financial aid until halfway through the semester. However, the housing arrangements required payment up front. No one would grant me a short term loan to cover the gap between needing the money and getting the money. So no college for me that year.
So I went back to menial work yet again, falling deeper into depression. That’s when I took second chance number four. My mother had returned to school in Akron and, when the resort job had ended (they closed for the winter) I moved back there. I was unemployed, selling plasma for cash, and was walking with a cane because of problems with my knees (since improved). The knee problem, which meant I couldn’t stand on my feet for long at a time, even prevented me from taking most menial jobs. I was so depressed that I had largely stopped trying, but my mother (whose financial situation as a college student was little better than mine) said she would front the application fee if I would just apply at the local university. I did. This time I was accepted. I found housing I could afford based on the financial aid I would actually be receiving. I entered the University of Akron majoring in physics.
While I was at school, I learned to study. I learned to talk to people who actually worked in industry about what I needed to be able to get a job and to act on what they said so that when I graduated I would be able to get a good job. I then acted on that and got the job. Once I had the job, I got married. Once I’d been stably employed for a couple of years I then went looking for a house, one I could afford (even though lenders were urging me to take more based on the “ratios” I had at the time) and would be able to continue paying for even if things took a “downturn” down the road.
I’d like to say that I’ve stopped making bad decisions but it would be a lie. I still make them. But when I make them, I have to realize that they are my decisions and it’s up to me to make them right. I cannot rely on other people to make them for me. They have their own interests at heart and if they also have mine it’s happy chance, not something on which to count. My choices are my responsibility. I can take advice or leave it but in the end it’s my choice.
And so I continue to be employed. I have a wonderful daughter. I have a house that is not in imminent danger of foreclosure. And I did it despite the very many bad decisions I made along the way. And I did it by recognizing that the bad decisions were bad decisions, that they were my bad decisions not anyone else’s, and that I needed to make better decisions if I wanted to move ahead.