I used to be ashamed that it took me 11 years to graduate from UW-Madison. At parties and picnics, during beers and breezy banter, I dreaded the question, "When did you go to school here?" Luckily, since my answer spanned a decade, no one took me seriously. "Ha!" people laughed. "No, really!"
I became a master at blowing conversational smoke at the topic of college, ingeniously derailing the subject the way my mother used to avoid revealing her age.
The story of why it took me so long to graduate isn't nearly as worthy as how I finally finished. A turning point in life isn't a product of an event so much as the presence of a key person. In the matter of getting over my undergraduate hump, that person was former Dean of Students Paul Ginsberg.
The path I traveled to Dean Paul's door had many stops and starts. The ingredients in a soufflé don't matter if it collapses in the oven, so I won't drag you through the whole ordeal.
Suffice it to say, I logged more time on probation than the entire population of Animal House. I began to wear my academic crashes like badges of dishonor, gaining a rebel reputation among my fellow drinkers at the Plaza Tavern, who were, I started to notice, getting younger by the minute.
My self-respect bottomed out one frigid afternoon in South Hall. There I sat at the head of a long, gleaming conference table in what was surely going to be my last hearing as a UW student. At the other end of the table, a block away, sat a kind, serious man. An assistant dean. Dean Martin.
And I tell you as a factual measure of just how hard I threw in the towel that day that when he wondered at the end of our conversation if I had questions for him, I asked, "Will you be making any more pictures with Jerry Lewis?"
That comment ended what we now refer to as my "Missing Years." Other than swimming, which paid for the first four years of my college, pretending to be a student was almost all I knew how to do. Fortunately, I had one other skill: flirting with girls, a knack that led me to the other key person in this story. A lanky girl from Mequon named Peggy.
Love, like one too many beers, blinds you to a person's imperfections. That's why when Peggy looked at me, she saw a clever, sensitive, good-time guy instead of a lazy, manipulating loser with no life goals.
It was only a matter of time.
You can go through the motions in school. You can laze your way through a job. But love? Love is the consummate taskmaster. It's the only career worth having that comes with never-ending accountability.
Peggy's love took the ratty, tangled pile of rope that was my life and laid it out straight. From where we stood together, that length of life didn't look too bad. Even doable. And I knew that without the fire she ignited within me, it would twist back up like a gnarled strand of Christmas lights.
For all her gifts, Peggy had only one request of me: Finish college. "I don't care if you use your degree," she said, her eyes saying the rest - we'll have another diploma if we need it. This meant, for one last time, I had to hike up Bascom Hill to try to get back in school.
Paul Ginsberg's office was on the first floor of Bascom Hall. His high windows opened to a brochure view down the groomed, grassy hill to Library Mall. Pipe smoke filled the room. Blue curtains of it. The smoke held fast to the sunlight coming through the windows and fixed a neon sheen upon the space.
Portly and serene, Paul sat Buddha-like behind a paper-fouled desk. My student file, fat and corner-torn as an old phone book, sat over to the left. Paul's eyes were heavy-lidded, nearly shut. He turned toward me and opened his palm to an empty chair.
"Please sit down," he said, then reached for his pipe. He took his time, like he had all the time in the world. In my anxious state of mind, watching him slowly, silently dispatch his tobacco tools was almost unbearable.
He devoted complete concentration to this work, lost in it, loading and tamping, sweeping spare flecks of leaf tobacco from his desk, hissing in the chimney smoke when the fire touched the bowl. I was certain he'd forgotten I was in the room.
As I soon learned, this was merely Paul's way. The most important thing in the world to him was the thing at hand. And after he completely serviced his pipe, he fixed his sleepy eyes upon me and, like magic, I became the center of his universe.
"Tell me why you're here," he instructed in a soft, barely audible rasp.
I gave it all to him. I had nothing to lose. An academic confessional. My indiscretions, my irresponsibilities, my self-delusions and wasting of other people's money and time.
It poured from me in a single, 30-minute breath. And it felt so good in the doing, so liberating as it all emptied out that, by the time I got to the Peggy part, I'd made up my mind the visit was worthwhile even if I didn't get back into school.
Paul never interrupted. He listened to much of it with his eyes closed. And when I finished, my words clinging to the smoke that enveloped us, he said, "Bring Peggy here next week." And we were done. Or, I should say, beginning.
Paul met with Peggy and me the next week. I was re-admitted that fall. Paul continued to treat us as a team. I met with him regularly that semester, and Paul spent as much time asking about how we were doing as people as he did asking me about my studies. He so honored my potential that I had no choice but to repay him with success.
I think a lot about my friend Paul lately. He's 81, and bravely shouldering the indignities of surgery and recovery. We still get together for lunch from time to time. The focus of our conversation has now shifted to another student.
In June Peggy's and my 18-year-old, Tucker, graduates from East High. He's enrolled at UW-LaCrosse for the fall. Suddenly my 11-year odyssey to finish college is an embarrassment again, and even as my apple-from-the-tree worries grow deeper roots each day, I realize I've been concerned about all the wrong things for the last year.
The whole college-search thing, all the hand-wringing, online screening, the course comparisons, the campus visits, the obsession over facilities, all of that. It temporarily obscured the lesson I learned from Paul.
There's just one thing that will make a difference for our son in college and beyond. People. People like Paul who will treat Tucker's potential as a holy thing, who will take him by the shoulders and turn him in the direction of his own gifts.