About a month ago I met with a professor to arrange to be registered for the capstone course for my degree.
Capstone, baby. Like, the last one. The one you take in your FINAL SEMESTER.
I'm in, by the way. My transcript is a hot mess, with credits from two universities and three different degrees programs. I like to think of myself as well rounded. A renaissance learner, if you will. The university likes to look at it as "Please graduate, already. Srsly." They send me frequent emails reminding me. Nonetheless, the professor and I waded through my many pages of transcripts and determined that yes, I was within spitting distance of graduation, and just like that, welcome to the capstone course.
I walked out of her office clutching my fistfuls of paper, barely touching the ground. CAPSTONE. I am going to ACTUALLY GRADUATE.
In the hall I met a young man. We had a class together last semester, and I recognized both him and the nervous shuffle of paper in his hands.
"Andre! Are you taking the capstone in the fall?"
"Yeah," he looked nervously professor-ward, "I hope so. I'm finally going to finish."
Finally. I looked at his worried, shining young face. Finally.
The first time I went to college, I was in the marching band. It was amazing and so much fun. I played percussion in the pit. I loved it, but I was also dead intimidated by the caliber of the musicians around me. I drove the percussion instructor insane, because I played so softly no one could ever accuse me of an error. Or of existing.
"If you are going to make a mistake, PLEASE," he would bellow at me, "PLEASE MAKE IT LOUD!"
I nodded a sheepish okay, sure thing, by which I meant, hellz no. I patted gently at my instrument that whole first season.
Next year I came back, though, with a new determination. I played. I played loud. And I practiced my behind off, so my mistakes were audible, but they also were less. One day I spent hours locked in the percussion studio, working on a solo. When I came out, my hair was damp and my shoulders ached, and the hall was lined with the hotshot percussionists who (although irritated at the wait), nodded at me with grudging respect. It was like a movie. I was the one with MOXIE.
I really have always wanted to be the one with moxie in a movie.
Anyhow, at the end of that season, at the banquet, I was given an award for "most improved" in the percussion section. I felt pretty good about this, grinning at my self and just generally enjoying my moxie. After the banquet a friend of mine (low brass. I should have been on guard) came up to me and shook his head.
"Wow," he said, "you must be pretty pissed about that award. I mean, most improved? Your second year? What an ass that guy is. What was he saying, that you sucked last year?"
And just like that, all my delight in it deflated. From something light and glossy it shriveled into something dull and embarrassing. I closed my mouth and never mentioned the silly award again.
I thought about that award, standing there in the hall outside the professor's office. I thought about being so ready to accept embarrassment instead of delight because I hadn't arrived at improved sooner. I thought about a conversation I had a few months ago with a friend (who is himself a college instructor, actually). He was telling me how great he thought it was that I'd gone back to school, and I confessed that I usually felt pretty darn snazzy about the whole thing. But then, sometimes, I would look around and realize that I was accomplishing something normally done by 20 year olds, and I would feel kind of dumb. He shook his head at me.
"Competition," he said sternly, "has absolutely no place in learning."
He's right, you know. If I get there first, if I get there last, does it matter? I will get there. Hopefully in December, twenty seven and a half years after beginning my degree, I am going to finish it.
Twenty five years ago I was the most improved percussionist, too. Just so you know.