A year after high school, when his father had told him he could go to college, Greg nearly flipped out. He had spent most of his childhood believing he was doomed to follow in his father’s burdened footsteps, working one odd job after another until extreme back pain landed him in the hospital or a coworker accidentally dropped a brick on his head. So the news that he could take a different path was an early birthday present. According to his former teachers, college would lead to good jobs that paid for better houses, two things that his father never had.
But when his father explained that he would have to find his own means to pay for it, Greg’s heart sank. Loans were expensive, scholarships went to the smart kids, and living on the street sounded much worse than living in the trailer he called home now.
“Just get a side job,” his father said. “Hard work makes the man and the money. I would’ve done it myself had I any sense when I was your age. Hippie life, you know?”
Greg’s vision blurred. He saw the light coming in through the windows, but everything it touched turned to haze.
“When will I have time to study?”
“Ask one of the other millions of kids who have to work their way through college.”
Greg frowned. He didn’t understand why anyone would want to work and go to college when doing both would leave hardly any free time for himself. The whole point in attending college was to create a life he enjoyed. Why sacrifice fun for work when it would just lead to more work? It sounded stupid to him. He shared his thoughts with his father.
“It’s just how the world works, Greg,” his father said. “If you want a better life than what I’ve given you, then you need to make the money. Don’t you remember what your third grade teacher once told you?”
He remembered. The richest moms are the happiest moms. For those of you with poor moms, please tell her to call me when Daddy’s not home.
“Yeah, I didn’t understand him at the time,” he said. “Now I do.”
Greg’s father put his hand on his shoulder.
“And thank you for not taking his advice. But never forget his subtext. If you want the happier life, you’ll have to earn it. I can’t give that to you.”
Greg nodded. He’d been hearing that mantra since adolescence began.
He spent that evening crying himself to sleep. What he wanted was the nice house and all the trappings that came with becoming a successful adult, but he didn’t want the life that would prevent him from enjoying it.
As he pulled his blankets to his neck, then threw them at his feet, then kicked them to the floor, then dragged them back onto the bed, and repeated the process several times, he realized that pain was inevitable. Either he busted his butt for the next sixty years for the chance at a joyous life, or he relaxed all the way through the misery and spent the rest of his life exactly where he started it. Neither path was ideal. There had to be a third option.
The next morning, he decided he would settle for the happy medium. He would pick the cheapest school with the lowest graduation requirements, so he could leave something on the line for himself. That way, he could still go to college and tee himself up for a prosperous job while not having to work forty hours a week at minimum wage to pay for it all.
When he found the school that best fit his needs, he showed it to his father and smiled. His father skimmed the brochure and nodded.
“This school doesn’t guarantee accreditation,” he said.
“What does that mean?” Greg asked.
“It means you’ll throw away all of your money. No accreditation means no worthwhile job.” His father gave him a sobering look. “It means this school is worthless.”
Greg frowned. He was worried that no accreditation meant no future.
It was settled then. He had no choice. If he wanted the better life, he would have to sweat. There was no way around it now.
“Okay,” he said. “How about this one then?”
The following fall, Greg enrolled in a university two hours from home. Despite what he’d told him months earlier, his father had squirreled away enough money to pay for his first semester, including classes, room and board, and food. Greg thanked him for his generosity.
“Just remember,” his father said, “this is all I’ve got for you. Make it count. Don’t waste it on stupid stuff. I can’t bail you out if you mess it up.”
Greg nodded. He suspected his father could give more, but he would use it to help Greg’s two siblings instead.
“I’ll do my best.”
Greg’s father shook his head.
“Always remember what Sean Connery says to Nicolas Cage about doing his best.”
Greg remembered the lesson. It came from a famous line in a movie called The Rock.
“I’m not a loser,” Greg said.
“I know you’re not.” Greg’s father patted him on the head. “So don’t let college turn you into one. Stay away from politics. Also, avoid women if possible. They’re dangerous. And find a job. You’ll thank me for it.”
That was three years ago. As Greg sat in his apartment thinking about his life since leaving home, he realized it was possible he hadn’t followed his father’s advice.