“School just isn’t for me,” David said, exasperated. He folded his hands in his lap and stared out of the rain-battered windows of my Honda. We drove through suburban Ohio where we both grew up, the overcast gray sky seeping through the vents and tainting the atmosphere of the car.
In our silence, I tried to remember how many times throughout the past decade we had worked through this conversation, and knew it was impossible to count. We constantly revisited the subject as he bounced from warehouse to warehouse, paycheck to paycheck. He wouldn’t budge and I couldn’t drop it.
Without higher education, I felt certain that my funny, sweet, creative best friend was condemned to the sad life of mediocrity so many of our acquaintances had coffined themselves.
For years, I gaped as the people I grew up with meandered through high school, some barely graduating. To me, the refusal to question the basic environment we lived in was a riptide I needed to swim against constantly. I wanted to save anyone I could on my way out.
I tried to teach David to drive a car. During the day, I brought him to university and classes and at night, to campus parties. I introduced him to professors and fraternity members, drove him to drug tests and job interviews. For weeks on end, he would clean my apartment and feed my cat in exchange for sleeping on my living room floor.
But stability couldn’t stick. I felt helpless, suggesting trade school, the military, anything to allow him to develop a set of skills that could allow for him to explore his passions and lead an independent life. Education equated escape, and nothing was more important to me.
It’s vital to note that this belief isn’t just mine. Education plays a vital role in eradicating poverty. Geography dramatically helps or hinders economic success throughout life. Discounting the importance of education, or failing to properly fund it, is dangerous on a global scale as millions fight against a continuum of inequality.
The reality of culture, of motivation and how difficult it can be for some teenagers to break into the world of higher ed in America is complex, something I haven’t yet been able to wrap my mind around. While I understand that education is a skeleton key to unlocking endless privileges and insights, my experience with David showed me just how frustrating and difficult it can be to steer someone to the doorway, let alone to guide their key into a lock.
Why is it so difficult? Higher education doesn’t fit everyone’s learning style. It also doesn’t fit within everyone’s budget. The process for applying for financial aid can be intimidating and difficult to navigate. There are resources available to help with those tough issues for high school students and graduates who want to pursue various types of trade schools, community colleges and even private universities.
But for some people, going to a college or trade school isn’t their dream. By projecting my dreams onto David, I made a mistake in our friendship that was nearly fatal to it.
That day in the car was one of the last I spent with David before we had a painful and vicious falling out. Weeks passed in bitter silence. I then moved across the country. Months passed and the silence turned agonizing.
More than a year later, I wrote this article with his permission, as we are still attempt to mend wounds inflicted on both sides.
The lesson to extract from this experience is that we should vigilantly support our friends and the ones we love in whatever they do in life. We should push them to be better, but also accept them when they choose their own path.