College is meant not only to educate us, but also to open doors to things that we may normally have never been exposed to. It’s probably why, for the majority of people, the college years serve as an epilogue for childhood, and a prologue to the inevitable drubbing the real world is waiting to give you like a bully to his prey in a post-3PM schoolyard.
Still, even old dogs can learn new tricks, and for me, these college years are coming for me as I approach my 40th birthday. I’m so old that my two oldest daughters actually attend the same community college as I do. Believe me, they’re thrilled.
At this age, college is simply a means to an end for me. It’s something I’m doing to give myself options in life, so that, if I don’t feel like braving the elements and backbreaking labor that come with my union construction job into my 50’s, or, God forbid, my 60’s, I’m qualified to try something else. Or, at least, that is what I have been telling myself.
About 10 years ago, I rediscovered my love for writing. With social media and blogs, it became easy to write stuff, share it, and get feedback. As a sports fan, it was even easier, as any sports fan knows that there is never enough opinions out there. Shit, the entire industry of sports talk radio is built on that premise. It was fun, I was good at it, and people, even people I didn’t know, responded positively to the things I wrote.
Writing was fun, until it wasn’t. The minute it felt like work, I would take a sabbatical or create a new blog, or take a dump, or, well, anything as long as it didn’t feel like work. I was often asked about pursuing writing as a type of career switch, but I usually paid little mind to it. Writing was a hobby, and that was it. I wasn’t particularly fond of the job I had, so the last thing I wanted was another set of stressful deadlines and bosses that pissed me off. Besides, how many guy do you know who have gone from blue-collar hump to the next Ernest Hemingway?
As the years went on, and my kids got older, and the layoffs, ridiculously early mornings, long hours, and long commutes began to take a toll on me, I started to consider what making a living writing would be like. When things like an economic downturn, or medical emergency would require time off that I wouldn’t be paid for, I thought about returning to college, simply to have a back-up plan. All I have known is heavy construction, specifically, pile driving. I have no skills, formal education, or experience that could suggest to a prospective employer that I am capable of doing anything else. Nobody n
So I went back to school briefly in 2013, then stopped, and then returned this past January. I’m a communications/journalism major. Still, for as many “atta boys” I get from people, I also get as many people asking “why now?” and even more, “what are you going to do? You already have a good paying union job.” All of those questions were so hard to answer, that i used my “something to fall back on” excuse so much that I started to believe it.
I mean, how do you tell someone who earns half of what you do, that you dread you job? What type of ungrateful prick complains that he wants to do something else, when the majority of people you know are paying out of pocket for health insurance, for a fraction of the coverage that you do? How do you not offend a coworker who is so quick to brag about the fact that he “builds America”, by telling him that you feel like you were meant for more than this? The answer is, you can’t, and even when just say it’s for self fulfillment, you’re either told it’s a waste of time and money, or just ridiculed because the thought of a pile driver turned writer is just, well, ridiculous.
Based on numbers alone, I assumed there was someone like me out there, but I had yet to meet them. I just plugged away at my school work, wondering if this was just a waste of time and money, and wondering if, by the time I graduated, undoubtedly in my mid-late 40’s (if I were lucky), would I even be in a position to change careers. Hell, would I still even want to change careers? I stayed telling myself this was going to be my back-up plan, so that the fact that I was probably never going to be more than a pile driver didn’t make me quit.
Then, I was introduced to Ben Hamper.
As part of the course study for a humanities elective I’m taking was to read the book Rivethead. The book is written by the aforementioned Hamper, and while at fist I began reading the book with little interest other than passing the assignment, it quickly became a book I did not want to put down. The more I read, the more I related to stories in the book. The more I related, the more I began to realize, that someone like me not only existed, but had already accomplished what I set out to do by returning to school.
Ben Hamper was not a writer, not at first, at least. He was a blue-collar guy who worked in a GM plant in Flint, Michigan. Everything about his experience was relatable. He barely made it out of high school due to his own lack of effort. He hated his job, and ridiculed those who felt the work they did was more important than it was. He was stuck, with no other options. Most importantly, he wrote, as a hobby at first, but eventually, he became a published columnist and best-selling author.
Just like me, Hamper had found it difficult to call himself a writer, even as he was being paid to write. In a 1986 Today Show appearance, Hamper still referred to himself as an autoworker, despite being featured on the cover of Mother Jones magazine, and the New York Times. It been quite some time since I admired someone I didn’t know. Not since Darryl Strawberry was belting coked-up homers into the Queens night had I really wanted to pattern myself after another human being. Ok, maybe he’s no Darryl Strawberry, but if nothing else, Ben Hamper’s experience offers a glimmer of hope that I may not be so crazy after all.
Then again, if Hamper were to read this, and knew that he offered some aging construction worker from the Garden State inspiration, he’d probably beg to differ.