by Hugh Gilmore
With the change of seasons and the return to school days, I always think of the unlikely coincidences that led to my going to college. The biggest influence came from my high school girlfriend, Connie (not her real name). And it came in both a direct and an indirect way.
My girlfriend, Connie, believed very strongly that a girl should not let herself be touched sexually by anyone other than her future husband. I met her at a parish dance early in my junior year of high school. She was 15 and I, 16. We were both virgins. Her ideas about sex seemed based partly on romantic ideals, partly on Catholic beliefs and partly on a sharp assessment of her market value to a future marriage partner.
In the end I was lucky we never went far in our physical relationship. According to the standards of the day, if we had slept together, she would have felt “ruined,” and I would have had to marry her, especially if she became pregnant.
The reason I feel lucky is that Connie’s post-marital fantasies were figured down to the level of silverware. Even in high school, she knew where she wanted us to live and how she wanted me to dress. And so, if she hadn’t compelled us to keep our collective virginity, I would not have been free to leave her when the time came for me to move on. The closer she got to planning our middle-class nirvana, the farther lost in Kerouac-land I would become.
There was a second way in which Connie saved my life. It happened in February of my senior year of high school. She was a year behind me in school but had already picked out her college. She told me one day, “When I go to college, I just want you to know that college girls only date college guys.”
I was shocked. I couldn’t wait to graduate from high school so I could become an electrical construction worker, like my Dad, uncles and grandfather.
Her words set a barrier between us. I said, “What’s it matter how much schooling you’ve had? Electricians have a five-year apprenticeship. That’s schooling isn’t it? And they make good money too.” I felt insulted.
But she was my girlfriend, and I still really liked her. And she knew about places beyond my small town of Colwyn, Pa. I could never have said I was happy with Colwyn. People there took a small view of the world. But what choice had I? I’d never even considered living outside my working class world. I had no idea how one would do that. Or what the benefits might be. Besides, my family couldn’t afford college.
And then, a week later, a recruiter from La Salle College came to visit our high school English class. A year at La Salle, he said, would cost $640. Well, that was more money than we Gilmores had ever seen at once, except for when our bungalow burned a few years ago. So, that was out. Wait, the recruiter said, “You can pay by the month for 10 months. Just think of it, boys: It breaks down to $64 a month – that’s $16 a week.”
He leaned forward and looked me in the eye, and said, “You can make that much bagging groceries every week at the supermarket, can’t you?”
I could, yes, but Mom would need every penny of it. But then I could get a second job and maybe keep 16 a week. And keep my girlfriend. I talked to my mom about it. She said I should try. She’d always wished she had gone to college.
Where would I go though?
Why, La Salle, of course. I had the application the recruiter gave me. I didn’t know how to get an application for any of the other schools.
Because of a mistake I made in filling out La Salle’s application form in February, I received a letter in March accepting me to its pre-med program. I wasn’t qualified to study medicine. I lacked advanced math skills and I was seriously deficient in chemistry. Worse yet, I was not the studying kind. If I liked a subject I’d read about it non-stop. If I didn’t, I’d learn a bit in class and cram before the test. I considered changing my mistakenly chosen major.
But two things knocked my hand from the common-sense tiller. First, I’d recently read Sinclair Lewis’ “Arrowsmith,” the story of Martin Arrowsmith, an idealistic young doctor who joins a research institute and dedicates his life to eradicating human suffering. That image really appealed to me.
Second, my father’s cousin Tom, visited our house that week, and when he heard my news he said, “Hey, that’s swell. It’ll be great to have a doctor in the family.”
And with that, my sense of self and my life’s mission immediately inflated. I’d gone from being a poor boy who worked his hands hard and dirty, to being a future doctor.
Those small things – my girlfriend’s attitude and the timely appearance of the La Salle recruiter – changed the direction of my life. If not for them, I would have gone into the union and become an electrician, possibly for the rest of my working life. I would have married and, if blessed, had children.
Whether I’d have been much of a reader, or come to love the arts, or become a writer, I have no idea. I imagine I’d have been running electrical wires through conduit while daydreaming about what else I might have done with my life.
My brother Paul worked construction as long as he had to and then went off to learn to be an oil painter. He’s a good one, and he’s never looked back on what was supposed to be his destiny. Maybe I’d have done something similar. But I’ll never have to know, because I had the good luck of having a girlfriend and a college recruiter nudge me in the same week.
College it became, then, even though my education expanded my world to the point that Connie and I were no longer right together.
Hugh Gilmore is the author of the noir bibliomystery “Malcolm’s Wine,” and the recently finished memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.”