Last weekend, Bethany and I accompanied our oldest child Alex to Mizzou’s “Summer Welcome” program, an orientation for incoming freshmen and their families. At various times throughout the two-day event, I was transported back in time to the early 1990s, when I was an undergrad at the University of Missouri. After strolling down memory lane and listening to several informative presentations given by current Mizzou students, faculty, and staff, I was left with an overwhelming mix of emotions, chief among them being Regret and Hope.
Although Summer Welcome was offered to new students in 1990, I missed my chance to attend due to a commitment I’d made to the United States Marine Corps Reserve. Unfortunately, halfway through boot camp, I developed knee problems that prevented me from completing my training and achieving my goal of becoming a Marine.
The disappointment I felt when I returned to my hometown as a civilian destroyed me. My parents had both served in the Corps, and I felt like I had let them down. My girlfriend had waited eight weeks to see me again, but I was too ashamed and angry to treat her with the compassion she deserved, and I broke up with her within a few days of being home.
I had become a pretty heavy drinker during my senior year of high school, and my alcohol consumption only got worse after I reunited with my drinking buddies that summer. By the time I moved into Laws Hall on the MU campus, I was completely out of control. Getting drunk became my top priority in college. Academics were merely an afterthought.
My grades were terrible for my first few semesters of school. I was placed on academic probation on two separate occasions. At one point, my advisor suggested that I reconsider my enrollment at Mizzou. Eventually, things got so bad that I took her advice. I dropped out, before they could kick me out. It was the academic equivalent of, “You can’t fire me—I quit!”
After some time away, I re-enrolled at the University and somehow managed to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy. I even made the dean’s list following my final semester. But for years I harbored a misplaced ill-will towards Mizzou, blaming the monsterously large institution for allowing a struggling student like me to slip through the cracks. Couldn’t they see that I needed help? Had I attended Summer Welcome, I might have been better prepared for the pitfalls of college. I might have been aware of some resources that could have helped me through my difficulties. Who knows?
What I do know now, of course, is that the real issue was my dependency on alcohol. My mother knew I had a problem. She could see what was happening to her son, but she was powerless to stop it. Nevertheless, she always believed in me. She wrote me the following letter in the fall of 1993, a few months before I withdrew from the university at the lowest point in my life:
You know, I really am awfully proud of you. Granted, you haven’t overly dedicated yourself to the academics, but you’ve survived nicely. A lot of your friends have fallen along the way and you’re hanging tough—proving how really special you are.
I wish I could have been more help to you. You’ve really had to do it on your own, but maybe—hopefully—it will mean more to you because you’ve earned it the hard way. You have always proven how capable you are—from playing baseball to excelling with the trombone to getting a college degree, with lots of successes in between.
You are so creative it scares me. Use that to help you find your niche in life… You will be joining the real world sooner than you think. Kind of scary, huh? But you’ll do like you always do, you’ll put yourself in gear and get on with your life… Hopefully, you’ll make better choices than I have. As boring as my job may be, I can’t say I hate it. It’s not how I pictured myself at this point in my life, but I’ll make it work. You, however, have many choices open to you and a lot of wonderful experiences awaiting you. So, go after ‘em, sweet cheeks!
Do come home soon—you’re a kick to be around and I miss ya bunches! Love ya—Mom”
Regret. I mentioned that word earlier because my mom died ten years ago—before I started making those better choices she wrote about, before I used my creativity to find my niche, before I became a writer, before I became a teacher. Before I finally got sober.
Hope. My mom knew there was hope for me. I have hopes and dreams for Alex, too. I’m proud of the young man he has become, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him both at college and after he graduates with a degree from the School of Journalism.
At Summer Welcome, I learned that today’s Mizzou is a more inviting and nurturing community than the one I remember. I’m confident that Alex’s college experience will be much more positive than mine, and I’m hopeful that the time we spent together at Summer Welcome will be the first of many fond memories he will make over the next four years.