“Out there” without a degree? How terrifying.

I packed up, kneeling in front of may bag on the grass.  I had moved our class outside on the library lawn in the middle of campus because it was November in SW Florida, 75 degrees, sunny, and breezy.  I wanted to get them out of the four walls of our classroom.  I was sick of the rows of desks, the beige walls, and the lack of possibility.

I lifted my head towards the palm trees that lined the lawn; I could hear the fronds crackle against each other in the breeze. I breathed in deep, happy with the way the class went.

We had just finished up an outside activity on structural inequality. I had all my students stand on a line – all 30 of them stretched out on the grass. Then I gave a series of circumstances where they either stepped forward or stepped back: If you had more than 20 books in your house at a time growing up, step forward; if you lived in a neighborhood where illegal activity took place, step back; If you took trips to the museum as a child, step forward; if your parents didn’t graduate high school, step back. In the end there were 50 + statements and students were scattered all over the lawn. They learned that even though they started on the same line, because of life experiences, they ended up in different positions.

Several students came up to me after to tell me they loved the activity, which made my day and was probably why I was breathing in the air and noticing the palm trees. I thought everyone had left when I heard, “Professor Jasper?” from across the lawn.

“Yes,” I smiled and said looking up super excited to be a professor and still getting used to the shift from k-12 education to the university setting. I teach Intro to Teaching.  It’s an undergraduate course filled with students who were very much like the high school students I used to teach. Most were only one year out of high school and still in their teens.  I often referred to them as kids, which they didn’t like. They’re future teachers. Well, some of them are. The others are in the program by default. They had to pick a major so they did.

“I don’t know what to do about the final,” he declared walking across the lawn.

The final was simple: Either write a paper or conduct a presentation showing learning from the semester. Use the topics we discussed, readings we conducted and anything else that applies. It was a little open-ended and it freaked some of them out. Students kept asking me questions like, “What exactly do you want us to do?” and, “How many pages does it have to be?” and, “Which topics do you want us to write about?”

They were so afraid to do anything they could possibly screw up or fail. That’s what k-12 education did to students. Students were used to filling in bubbles and terrified to fail. I kept telling them they must fail all over the place and then fail better. They don’t like that.

“You want to be a high school social studies teacher, right?” I asked, hoping to find a connection between what he wanted to teach and the final.

“I mean, I guess I want to teach social studies,” he said as he shrugged his shoulders, holding his skateboard in one hand and his water bottle in the other.

“What do you mean, you guess?” I said sternly. “Listen, teaching is hard enough when you absolutely love it. It’s going to be unbearably hard if it isn’t what you want. You’ll suffer and so will your students.”

“I know,” he said as he exhaled. “I just need a degree in something. This seemed like a solid thing to pursue.”

I shook my head. “Ok let’s be clear; you don’t need a degree in something,” I declared. I was so disheartened by this phrase I heard daily on campus: I need a degree in something, then I can do what I want.

He protested, “If I don’t get a degree in something, “ pausing, “my parents will be pissed and probably cut me off.”

“I don’t know your parents so you may, be right. But I can assure you, wasting 4 years in college and then entering a career in education you aren’t sure you even want is a HUGE mistake, kid.” Oops, I did it again. He didn’t seem to mind. It was apparent he needed a little teacher to student pep talk.

“If I don’t get a degree then I won’t be able to make it out there.”

Out there – a hypothetical place where only people buried in college debt have a future. I lifted my head back and laughed at the thought.

This was a classic fear-based story we tell most kids so they will go to college – the terrifying story of out there without a degree. We tell this story over and over so our kids will get good grades and go to college so that we, the parents, feel better about ourselves. Not the other way around. It’s so we can say we did it. We got them up every morning for school; we made them do their homework at night, we got them through 12 years of academics and got them accepted to a four-year university. They were going to college, damn it! We have to check that box. Done and done!

“What do you want to do?” I asked. “If your parents didn’t care and you had no ties to anything, what would it be?”

He looked at me sideways as if to say, you’re going to think I’m an idiot if I tell you. Then he blurted out, “I want to play music and fix up old cars.” His head down because the idea was just too ridiculous.

I smiled and said, “then that’s what you should do.”

“There’s no way,” he said smiling like it was totally out of the question. “How can I?”

“Take a break from college. Go get a job at a mechanic shop and learn how to fix cars. Then play music at night and on the weekends. You may find you love it or you may find it isn’t your thing. Then you can come back to college. These buildings will be here, I assure you. You’re 19; you’ve gotta try. Are you in a band?

“No. But I practice every night and my friends say I’m really good.”

I smirked, “Are you good or do you just think you’re good?”

He chuckled, “no I’m good…honestly.”

“Do you get out there and play, like with other people?”

“No, not really.”

“Well that’s a problem, especially if you want to play music. You need to make a band, kid, and get out there and play.” Oops, I did it again.

“Yeah I know, I am just so busy with school,” he said trying to dodge his responsibility in charting his own musical path.

“I’m not interested in excuses, “ the assistant principal in me will never die. “Your final will be to play music as your presentation on the last day of finals.”

“I need a signer. I suck at singing.”

“Knowing your limitations is a very good quality.” I smiled and went on, “And you’re lucky because Taylor and Amy, the girls who sit behind you, are talented singers, and they would also rather sing than go to college.” This place was crawling with students who wanted to do something else with their lives but couldn’t muster the courage to tell their parents.

“Seriously? You’ll let me play music with Taylor and Amy as my final?” He was doubtful. Most of my students are a bit skeptical of me and often look at me like I’ve completely lost my mind. I’ve been rebellious these days after my exit from the public education system, telling them, among other things, grades are a farce and don’t matter. They all pretty much think I’m a loose cannon. And they aren’t totally wrong.

“Yes, seriously. If you want to play music, then that’s what you’ll do. And your assignment is to watch Dave Grohl’s new documentary series Sonic Highways. Dave Grohl was in a band called Nirvana,” I said a little condescendingly.

“I know Nirvana, Ms. Jasper,” he said as if I was insulting his musical intelligence.

“Good. His documentary series is all about musicians all over the country charting their own path, making their own records, writing their own rules, and doing what they love no matter what. If you want to play music, you must watch that series. And then of course, you must actually play music. You need to hit the bars and start playing in front of people.”

“Uh, ok. So that’s it? I’m watching Sonic Highways and playing a set with Taylor and Amy in front of the class as my final?” He asked before I could change my mind.

“Yes, and you have to give serious thought as to why you should stay in college. If you’re doing this for your parents, you’re wasting your time. If you’re here because you’re afraid of “out there without a degree”, you’re basically squandering your life away.” I like to get dramatic with the kids. It’s usually lost on them though.

I paused and thought back to my life choices.  Nineteen, I thought shaking my head remembering the time I took my financial aid money and moved to Cost Rica. “Go do what you want, for the love of God!” I pleaded with him, remembering my little shack on the Costa Rican beach, and my surfer boyfriend – Rafael.

“Ok,” he smiled. “Thanks, Jasper.” He turned, dropped his skateboard on the sidewalk and pushed off towards the Union.

I yelled after him, “And when you decide to tell your parents you’re dropping out of college, leave my name out of it, please. I’m in enough trouble around here.”




3 Responses

  1. bagua

    I love that you encouraged them to incorporate their talents and personal
    interests with what they learned in your class. I love that you assessed them for their effort and not for what they could write on a paper. I love that you
    encouraged this young man to go after what he loves.

    However, I don’t agree with you encouraging him to drop out of college. Yes, those four walls will be there if he chooses to come back, but it is always harder to come back later in life when he might have a family to support, more bills to pay, less time to study, and most likely won’t have the benefit of his parents supporting his education anymore.

    It does sound that he is in the wrong career path, but he does not need to quit college to pursuit what he loves. Not everyone has the opportunity to obtain a
    college education and this young man does. Encourage him to use it to develop his talent for music or auto-mechanic interests –there are many college degrees on both areas.

    The truth is that, at least for most people, it is hard out there without a degree.

  2. Mom of 2

    As a musician and college graduate (undergrad & grad schools), I so appreciate what you did for these students. First off, Logan needs to properly tune his guitar! I’d like to also mention these students (all, actually) need to decide what to do with their lives. I’ve found (in FL) a college degree is nothing more than an expensive piece of paper many times. The jobs here requiring advanced education are far outnumbered by those that need just a HS diploma or GED. FL companies pay in sunshine … that doesn’t help knock out student loans & getting out of Mom & Pop’s house.


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