Our oldest son will be graduating from high school in a few days. Unless, of course, he doesn’t dress for gym again, which will cause him to fail that REQUIRED class. Or unless he gets into an argument with a certain teacher he has problems with, and crosses the line with her. Or unless he cuts school to hang out with his knucklehead friends, and the administration wants to make examples of them. Yeah, he keeps things interesting, that’s for sure. It’ll be touch and go until he has the diploma in his hand.
And then he’ll officially begin what I’m convinced is the most important decade in every person’s life: ages 18 to 28. Who’s with me on that one?
During those years we’re forced to make monumental decisions that set the course for the rest of our days. We have to decide what we want to do, career-wise, and the best path for getting there. It’s terrifying. There’s a lot of discipline required, and often more schooling — which costs big bucks, and adds yet another layer of pressure.
It’s a lot to take on, at an age when many people are still deep in the throes of teenage dumbassery. So, they just shut down, and put everything off until some undefined day in the future. Right when it matters the most, a lot of people simply take a pass. Hand me another Rolling Rock!
Our son is smart, and also kind and personable. So, he’s ahead of me on those last two things… I’m sure he’ll be fine. But I worry. He has a lot of my DNA, after all. I don’t want him to botch the Most Important Decade, and still be trying to recover in his early 50s, like his father.
I’ve tried to talk with him about it, and let him know how key the next ten years are going to be. But I can tell he’s not really listening. Hell, I didn’t listen to anyone, either. Except Elvis Costello, David Letterman, and Marty Brennaman. It’s a little frustrating, because this is important stuff. Maybe some of it is sinking is? I hope so.
How’d you do in your 20s? Some folks breeze on through, like my friend Steve. I could be wrong, but I don’t think he’s ever experienced the panicked feeling of being lost, and adrift. He’s always had his shit together. And I’m frantically patching up metaphorical poopballs over here, with duct tape and paper clips. I’m supremely jealous of folks like Steve. Not to take anything away from him, of course. He’s worked hard and made all the right choices.
Oh sure, some people recover after wasting those pivotal years, but most don’t. By age 28 patterns are in place, and the tone has been set. There’s anecdotal evidence against almost any theory, but I’m talking generalities. If a person is still floundering at 28, there’s a very good chance they’ll be floundering for the rest of their lives.
Here’s a quick rundown of two major things I regret from that decade, and one item I got right, somehow. Then I’ll turn it over to you guys.
After high school I went to West Virginia State, and declared my major to be Business Administration. Which, of course, is a catch-all for dipshits without a clue in this world. I was living at home, still working the same grocery store job, and it felt like 13th grade.
I made it a year, and dropped out. My heart wasn’t in it from the beginning. Many days I’d leave for school, and end up spending several hours at Budget Tapes and Records instead, flipping through the album stacks and bullshitting with the employees.
So, I don’t consider that experiment to be salvageable. When I think back on it, the whole thing feels fatally flawed.
However… a few years later I started taking classes at Marshall University, and everything was different. I liked it, and was doing well. I remember a speech class, in which I was basically doing standup comedy. I spent a lot of time writing my “speeches,” and every one of them – regardless of the subject – was designed for laughs. They went over well, and I was having a great time. I exasperated the professor, but he was a good sport about the whole thing.
Then my girlfriend broke up with me, and I abruptly dropped out of school (again). I also quit my job, and started selling meat door-to-door. I was a goddamn mess. I was selling meat door to door!
I never returned to school, and it’s my biggest regret. My wife puts some of the blame on my parents, for not offering better guidance, but it was ultimately up to me. I haven’t seen that girl in almost 30 years, but am still living with the consequences of my overreaction to our breakup, back when Reagan was president. It was some high-idiocy with deep roots.
When I was 20 or 21 I answered an ad in the newspaper, and before I really knew what was going on… the FBI(!) made me an interesting proposition.
They were going to put me through college in Washington D.C., cover my housing costs, pay me a thousand dollars per month walking-around money, and start me on the road to becoming an agent. I still can’t believe it, as I’m typing this.
They’d talked to random people in our neighborhood about me, a couple of my old teachers, and even a friend who was now in the army, stationed in Colorado. I’d also undergone a load of IQ tests, etc., and was apparently exactly what they were looking for. Wow!
When they called me with their offer, the floor of my ass nearly fell out. I was not emotionally ready for such a move, and a couple of days later… turned it down.
I think about it often. My entire life would be different, if I’d accepted their offer. It might not have been better (my head might’ve long ago been blowed off), but I would have entered and lived in a completely different universe.
The main reason I regret the decision: it was made out of fear. It might’ve been the RIGHT decision, in the end, but I’m not proud of the way I made it. I was simply afraid.
Leaving West Virginia
This one I got right, but… it wasn’t some well-thought-out plan. It’s not like I diagrammed it on a whiteboard, and came to a reasoned decision on the matter.
No, I was working at a convenience store for minimum wage, with no better prospects on the horizon. And my girlfriend was nearing college graduation, which scared me. I was going nowhere, and she was doing well. So, I moved to Greensboro, NC, out of desperation. It was a Hail Mary pass, a demonstration of the lengths I was willing to go, to make it work.
So, that decision was also born of fear. But it turned out to be a good one. I didn’t start to get my head screwed on straight until I got away from my comfortable childhood bedroom and all the old patterns. I had to work two jobs to pay my bills in North Carolina, and was forced to make new friends, and build an entirely new life. It took a few years to realize it, but that process ended up paying big dividends.
And so, we’ve kinda “guided” our son to go away to college. It’s scary, not to mention expensive. But I think it’ll be good for him, and will give him a much better chance at not screwing up his Most Important Decade. We’ll see how it goes.
Any thoughts on this? Have I correctly pinpointed the most pivotal decade in most peoples’ lives? And how did you do during those years? Did you take a pass, like me? Or are you one of those folks who had it together? It’s bizarre to me, but I know it happens. Please leave your comments below.
And I’ll see you guys again on Thursday.
Thanks for reading!
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