college

What I wanted to be when I grew up

jwalsh_I_want_to_be_002_RW2

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 21, 2017.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 1.9 million students in the United States will graduate from college this year. By now, a certain question is as familiar to most of them as the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance”:

“So what are you going to do?”

Answers inevitably range from the vague to the speculative to the definitive. In my case, decades ago, it was a mash-up of all three.

After receiving my degree from Brown, I vaguely talked about getting a job as a writer. I speculated there might be an opportunity at the ad agency where I had done an internship. As for immediate employment, I was definitive: I would continue to bus tables at the Turks Head Club downtown.

Sixteen years earlier, Miss Carlone, my kindergarten teacher at Nelson Street School in Providence, had posed a similar question to my classmates and me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

With her soft, fleshy arms and sweet voice, Miss Carlone reminded me of Mama, my beloved grandmother who lived upstairs from my family and sometimes took care of me. In September, my teacher’s maternal warmth had made my first-day-of-school jitters melt away.

Several hands shot in the air in response to Miss Carlone’s question. One kid said he wanted to be a fireman. Another was going to be a football player. A girl announced she’d like to become a teacher, which brought an approving nod from Miss Carlone.

And then it was my turn.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a bachelor,” I declared.

My classmates looked puzzled, and so did Miss Carlone – for a moment. Then she threw back her head and howled. Now I was puzzled. What was so funny?

“Tell us what a bachelor is, John,” Miss Carlone said kindly as she slid a finger beneath one of her moistened eyes.

That was easy – I just told everyone about my uncle. He lived with my other grandmother and had the upstairs of Nana’s bungalow all to himself. Once he set up two TVs in the living room so he could watch two basketball games at the same time. He sat back in his big leather recliner, eating peanuts and following the scores, until he fell asleep. What a life!

Most of my classmates continued to stare blankly at me while Miss Carlone fished a tissue out of the sleeve of her dress.

At dismissal time, Miss Durgan, the principal, appeared in our classroom door – usually a sign that something was wrong. But Miss Carlone simply asked me to reveal my life’s ambition again, after which the two educators laughed with abandon, like my aunts at a family party. I was still puzzled, but at least I wasn’t in trouble.

The following year, apparently, my career plans evolved. Thanks to my mother, a lined yellow paper of mine from first grade still survives. Titled “My Wish,” it reads: “If I had one wish, I would want to be a writer. And I would write stories for all the children.” There is no mention of my marital intentions.

My wish came true – sort of. Three months after graduating from Brown, I indeed landed a copywriting job at the ad agency where I had interned. I would eventually meet my wife there, too.

But at the Brown commencement in 1982, my future was as unclear as the dreary Providence weather that first Monday in June. The only thing I knew for sure was I now had an English degree.

Miss Carlone would have been amused to know it was a bachelor’s degree.

The last first day of school

emme_typewriterAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, September 18, 2016.

My daughter sat in our driveway behind the wheel of a charcoal gray SUV, eager to set off for her senior year at Syracuse. She had borrowed the Highlander from her girlfriend because neither of our family’s two cars was big enough to transport all her stuff.

“Roles reversed, Pops,” Juliana said playfully as I joined her in the front seat. It was true. For three years, I had always been the pilot on our excursions to and from upstate New York. This would be the first time my wife, Deb — nestled in the back seat amid duffel bags and pillows — and I would make the five-hour trek with our 21-year-old at the helm.

Julie is the youngest of our three children. For two decades, at the end of each summer, we have been stepping up to the academic starting line. With Julie’s graduation in May 2017, the marathon, in all likelihood, will be over.

Deb will never forget our son Peter’s first day of elementary school. In late August 1996, the two of them stood on our front porch looking up Peirce Street for the bus that would take Pete to kindergarten at Frenchtown School. They waited … and waited … and waited. The offices of the East Greenwich School Department are directly across the street from our house, and on that momentous morning, the superintendent eventually came out of the building.

“There’s been a mix-up,” he called out. “Can you drive him?”

Deb looked at Pete for signs of distress, but he just turned to her and smiled. “It’s OK, Mommy,” he said. “I like driving with you.” His disposition remains as even-keeled to this day.

Our son Evan’s temperament was more individualistic; conformity was never his thing. He rebelled against the training wheels on his bike and the bumpers at the bowling alley. And when I suggested over breakfast one morning that he’d have fun at preschool because it was his birthday, he was unconvinced.

“It’s a day like any other day,” he said, eyes fixed on his Fruit Loops. “They just give you a stupid hat.”

As the start of kindergarten neared for Evan, Deb and I worried about his willingness to even get on the bus. Transitions could be agonizing for him. On more than one occasion during preschool drop-offs, he had clung to Deb’s leg, prompting her to nickname him “The Human Barnacle.”

And yet, when the bus pulled up the first time, he jumped on with his friends Aidan and Wil, and never looked back. It was unforgettable because it was so uneventful.

Juliana couldn’t wait to go to kindergarten. At an orientation for families the week before classes began, she stood right up when the Frenchtown principal invited the children to take a practice ride on their school bus.

“Parents, feel free to join your child if you’d like,” the principal added.

Julie held up her hand to Deb, a 5-year-old traffic cop.

“Don’t move — I can do it myself,” she said, displaying a self-confidence that would only deepen in the years ahead.

Now, as Julie navigated the Highlander through Albany, Robert DeLong surfaced on her Spotify playlist, singing about how “a few years make a difference.”

“Appropriate,” she said, turning up the volume with a smile.

In Syracuse, we hauled Julie’s stuff up three flights to her sorority room and then said our good-byes, mother and daughter sounding their familiar refrain:

“Love you!”

“Love you more!”

In the driver’s seat again, I pulled onto the New York State Thruway with mixed feelings. I was relieved to have only one more tuition check to write, but reluctant just yet to put another family milestone in the rearview mirror.

Crossing the Hudson, Deb and I reminisced about no-show school buses, “stupid” birthday hats, and a little girl who once told us “I can do it myself” — a succession of family videos never taken, growing more vivid with each passing mile.

My Op-Ed draws Syracuse grad’s wisdom

IMG_1524

After my Op-Ed, “Choosing college more art than science,” appeared in the Providence Journal on April 19, 2015, I received the following email from Bob Benchley, an alumnus of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. I’m grateful to Bob for allowing me to share his wisdom with you.

John:

It was nearly 50 years ago that I decided to go to Syracuse. I had grown up in a Boston suburb (Wellesley), was on the school paper, loved writing stories, and I wanted to be a journalist. Kids are so much smarter now about schools than I was back then, and the admissions engines run so much hotter and faster. I just had a guidance counselor, a few catalogs, modest grades and some attitudes that were mostly instilled by others. I flew out to Syracuse for a weekend with an older friend who had gone there after working with me on the high school paper. I stayed in his dorm, drank beer (18 was legal then in New York), went to a concert, had an interview and figured it might be cool to go there.

So Syracuse it was. Newhouse was just one building then, print was everything, and you did your assignments on manual typewriters, on which you also had to pass a speed and accuracy test to graduate. I was a magazine major, and the guy running the department was fairly fresh out of Newsweek. When he talked to us in class, it was always “when” you go to New York, not “if.” And I did, working there 15 years before heading back to Boston for another 10 years, then here to Miami in 2000.

In retrospect, I should have gone someplace farther away and very different from Boston. It would have exposed me to so much that was new culturally, geographically, yet I don’t know what my life would be without Syracuse. It’s sort of like what if you hadn’t had one of your kids, but a different one instead. You can’t imagine the tradeoff.

I wish your daughter well. Tell her that her degree will always stand her in good stead. They say that your college degree gets you your first job, and your first job gets you your second job. That’s true; at some point you’re a professional, not a former student. But if she picks and stays with a career in some form of communications, there will be dozens or hundreds of times that someone also in the biz will ask where you went. When you say “Newhouse,” there will be a quiet little nod of recognition, and you will be elevated a notch in the respect of the person you are speaking with.

You have “adv” in your email address, so I suppose the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. This stranger from far away sends best wishes to both of you. It is a joy to be able to turn information and ideas into consumable visual imagery (that doesn’t sound very sexy, but you know what I mean); to spend a life being paid for it is even better.

Bob Benchley

Choosing college more art than science

IMG_0922

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, April 19, 2015.

My daughter and I arrived at the University of Miami winter-weary and sun-deprived. It was mid-April – two weeks before Julie had to decide which college she would attend. Coral Gables blew us a tropical kiss – palm trees swayed and skateboarders in shorts breezed by. We strode past the double Olympic-size outdoor pool in the middle of the campus, and Julie said, “I could get used to this.”

The University of Miami gets high marks for its School of Communication, and that is why we were there. Julie already knew she wanted to study graphic design. From an early age, she regarded just about everything as a canvas for artistic expression – the walls of her bedroom, the pages of her assignment books, the rubber toes of her Chuck Taylors. Now she was ready to sharpen her creative skills in college, and that had put us in the crosshairs of higher education’s potent marketing machine.

Schools lure families with rankings from U.S. News & World Report and amenities worthy of exclusive resorts, while burying astronomical tuition fees deep in their web content. And people get hooked. They travel to campuses in search of the “right” school – an academic silver bullet that will guarantee success. Teens submit applications by the dozen and wait to hear back, fingers crossed.

Our trip was living proof of all that.

In his New York Times bestseller, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Frank Bruni writes that there are many educational paths to success and personal fulfillment – private schools, public schools, schools you’ve never heard of. More important, Bruni believes that the student is at the center of his or her success, not the school. He suggests that, for some, college may not even be part of the success equation: “Education happens across a spectrum of settings and in infinite ways, and college has no monopoly on the ingredients for professional achievement or a life well lived.”

Thank you, Frank. I recall the mounting pressure Julie felt as she filled out applications in our kitchen. To counter the frenzy, I told her she would become a graphic designer no matter which college she attended. “The school doesn’t make you,” I said. “You make you, with the school’s help.” Julie remained glued to her laptop, typing at a feverish pace.

My own experience of education informed my view of what college could and couldn’t deliver. I went to Brown and my degree, along with a spec portfolio and the kindness of a family friend who headed up a well-known Rhode Island ad agency, helped me land my first job as a copywriter – though initially, it was more an audition than a job. The firm agreed to pay me “enough to live” for three months, at which point the creative director would decide whether or not I was hired.

I majored in English and American literature at Brown. Studying advertising hadn’t even been an option. On my first day at the agency, I felt badly outmatched by the writers and designers around me. I watched Tony, the associate creative director, present one clever headline after another with an assuredness I could only wish for. I had twelve weeks to learn how to produce good copy – or else.

For Julie, the decision came down to Miami or a school at the opposite end of the thermometer. When we visited Syracuse University, my daughter quickly warmed to the campus vibe, weather notwithstanding. Following an information session at the Newhouse School of Public Communications, she announced, “This is the place for me.”

I don’t know that Miami was the wrong place for Julie. And the same goes for the other schools she applied to. What I do know is she’s thriving at Syracuse – and has never looked back. I suspect the anxieties she felt during the admissions process are mere footnotes in her story now, if they’re part of it at all.

Choosing a college is more art than science. There’s no single right answer. While a school may mold our kids, it won’t make them. That’s in their hands, no matter where they go.

From McCoy Stadium to the Carrier Dome: A Father-Daughter Journey

 

DSCN5277_MyCoy04v2

As published in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com, March 31, 2014.

We’re at McCoy Stadium, in 1999, with the Pawtucket Red Sox playing the Toledo Mud Hens. It’s the first time my daughter, Juliana, and I are at a game together. We’re celebrating her fourth birthday.

Julie eats popcorn and ice cream. She has her picture taken with Paws, the mascot for the minor-league Red Sox team. When the crowd starts doing the wave, she laughs and throws her hands in the air. By the sixth inning, she is yawning. And before we make it out of the parking lot, she’s fast asleep.

What was born in Julie that day, and reaffirmed in me, was a love of games. Every August, for fourteen years now, we have returned to McCoy Stadium to celebrate her birthday. We have gone to many other athletic contests, as well – from CYO basketball and high school football to college hoops and Major League Baseball.

At first, I took Julie to games because that’s what my father did with me. Eventually, I did it because being with Julie in the stands brought out an ease in me that I rarely felt elsewhere. The games suspended thoughts of work and money and house projects and everything else on the to-do list. The games gave us each other.

When Julie was looking at colleges, good teams and great school spirit were among her must-haves. I was thrilled when she was accepted at Syracuse University. Yes, it was exciting that she got into the Newhouse School of Public Communications. But my mind went right to the Carrier Dome – now we could go see Syracuse basketball!

I bought two tickets to the North Carolina State game, slated for February 15th. As I drove up the Massachusetts Turnpike on the morning of the game, Julie called to let me know that the start time had been moved from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. – North Carolina State had travel issues because of a snowstorm.

At the Syracuse Sheraton check-in counter, I mentioned the game time change to the receptionist and she pounced. “I hope it messes those kids up,” she said, referring to members of the North Carolina State team. “They didn’t get here until a few minutes ago. I’ll take any advantage we can get.” Her face softened as she handed me my room key: “Enjoy your stay!”

The receptionist’s gamesmanship didn’t surprise me. This was Syracuse, after all. While Julie and I were having lunch, I saw a guy in a shirt that read REAL MEN WEAR ORANGE. It could have also included REAL WOMEN, REAL BOYS, REAL GIRLS, and REAL PETS, for that matter. EVERYONE was rocking Syracuse orange that day, of course – everyone except me. I was wearing a Berklee College of Music pullover. Technical foul.

I mentioned my faux pas to Julie and we concluded that it was a minor transgression. Berklee was not threatening to crack the AP Top 25 Poll anytime soon.

At 6:15, Julie and I made our way to the Carrier Dome. The seats I had bought weren’t great. As we climbed up and up and up to Section 318, Row V, Seats 3 and 4, I thought of Felix Baumgartner’s dive from space. Once seated, we were looking down on what would qualify as nosebleed seats in a smaller venue. And as I watched others make the ascent, some stopping to catch their breath, I wondered if there was a Crouse Hospital medical station nearby.

But when the game began, I was struck by how intimate the Dome felt. Perhaps that’s what happens when 35,000+ disciples react as one – to bad calls (against the Orange), to good calls (for the Orange), to the guy who sank a shot from a recliner during a TV time-out.

It was an ugly game – and close from start to finish. As the clock wound down in the second half, it looked like Syracuse might, after 24 straight wins, lose its first game all season. That cursed Berklee sweatshirt – I was the jinx!

The basketball gods – and two key turnovers by North Carolina State – saved me from such ignominy. Syracuse won 56-55 on a C.J. Fair layup with six seconds left. (Alas, the streak would end four days later with a loss to Boston College.)

After the game, over dinner, Julie told me how much she loved Syracuse – the new friends she had made, the courses she was taking, the sorority she hoped to get into. “I feel like I’m becoming the person I want to be,” she said. That was clear to me – and I marveled at her nascent transformation.

Our first PawSox game seemed far away.

As we left the restaurant, I told Julie I’d walk her back to her dorm. “You don’t have to,” she said, but I insisted – always the dad.

The air was dry and cold outside. My ears stung – I had left my hat in the hotel room. When we reached the corner below the majestic Crouse College building, Julie said she could go the rest of the way on her own. We hugged and I watched, motionless, as she walked into the cold night. When she looked back and saw me standing there, she called out, “Dad, do you know where you are?”

“All set!” I yelled back, lost in thought.

The street signs said I was at the corner of University Place and South Crouse Avenue. But I knew better.

On that night, in that moment, I knew I was somewhere between Holding On and Letting Go.

Photo by Rob Walsh • http://www.robwalshphotoshop.com

As appeared in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com on March 31, 2014.

On Fences And Letting Go

04b6eef6792011e2a52022000a1f9e5e_6

Good fences make good neighbors. Those words from Mending Wall by Robert Frost came to me seventeen years ago when we had a fence put up around the perimeter of our backyard at 112 Peirce Street. But the fence was less about neighbors and more about children. We had two young boys, and a third child was on the way. We needed to make sure the kids didn’t wander down to Main Street when they went out back. Good fences make good barricades.

Putting up the fence wasn’t easy. Our lot sits on a hill and our backyard slopes precipitously. The two side runs of the fence had to be stepped down before connecting with the long run of sections across the back. But when it was done, the fence was a thing of beauty. It gathered the boys in a cedar embrace.

The fence marked time with its color, going from toddler blond to adolescent brown. Within its walls, the kids ran through sprinklers and built snow forts, played with our dog and tossed Wiffle balls. At the same time, squirrels gnawed at the posts and moss crept up the flat boards. Wisteria strangled the arbor, lifting its posts from the ground. In random places, the fence lurched from frost heaves below.

As the kids grew older, the backyard gave way to the front door. Out they bounded to music lessons, basketball games, play rehearsals, or to just hang with friends. The fence’s containment services were no longer needed.

The first break came in August 2011. As Hurricane Irene whipped through Rhode Island, two sections of the back run listed awkwardly, wooden sails in the storm. I rushed down to secure them by wrapping a rope around the post they shared and tethering it to a nearby tree trunk. No luck. Afraid they would hurtle onto the cars parked nearby, I laid the breakaway sections on the ground, weighing them down with cobblestones.

After the storm, the back run – minus the two fallen sections – wobbled from end to end. I called the guys who had done the original installation. When they told me the price to replace the run, I hired them for a fraction of the cost to simply take it away.

The two side runs remained… until last October and Hurricane Sandy. More sections fell, and those that didn’t were now more vulnerable – even storms without names posed a threat.

It’s early Saturday morning. Sipping coffee, I look out my kitchen window and notice a new gap in the fence – another section breaking ranks. I grab my drill and head outside. I pull the straying section back in line with its post-mate; a fifty-cent brace from Benny’s will reunite them. But when I lean into my churning drill, I push the screw right through the rotted wood. Grabbing nothing, it falls to the ground and the fence resumes its tilting.

As I search for the screw in the snow-covered leaves, I think of my children. Peter is in Los Angeles, chasing big music dreams. Evan is on a train to New York, trying to kick-start a business career. Juliana sleeps upstairs, perhaps having REM visions of a college far away from the backyard of her childhood. Soon she will leave, the last one.

Frost speaks to me once more, seventeen years after the fence first went up. It’s the same poem that I remember, but now a different line resonates: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.

I abandon my mending and go back inside.

%d bloggers like this: