Finish What You Started

I want to tell you about a young man I once knew. His story takes place many years ago in November of 1986. His name isn’t important, but I have always referred to him as ‘Din’. That was his nickname on the streets where we grew up. It was a short derivative of the song “Din Daa Daa” by George Kranz. On one brisk Fall November morning ‘Din’ woke from his own bed.  Nothing strange about that except this was something he hadn’t done in 33 days. You see, he and Pollyanna, the young lady he had fallen madly in love with and just couldn’t stand to be apart from, had been living together at her parents house that whole time.  Well, just the day before her parents found out they hadn’t been going to school at all during that time and they promptly threw ‘Din’ out of their house. But, as he was getting ready to go back to High School on this specific morning, what he didn’t realize was, like Polly’s parents, the school would also throw him out that day.

This chain of events started when ‘Din’ graduated from Middle School to High School in 1984.  For him, this was starting all over. Bottom of the pile. Low man on the roster. A feeling many children experience.  New place. New faces. New surroundings. During this change, he didn’t know what group would accept him. So he tried to fit in anywhere and everywhere.  ‘Din’ tried all the different cliques. The “druggies”, the “jocks”, the “nerds”. Eventually he settled into a new group that formed – the “Breakdancers”.

Back in the 1980’s the average suburban neighborhoods were being consumed by the new Rap culture.  ‘Din’ grew up the youngest of five children in one such neighborhood. He was raised Christian.  Two parents, dinner at 6:00 p.m, and Church on the weekends. A good part of the whole American dream. 

According to several of his friends I interviewed for this story, he was smart.  Book smart and street smart.  When he was in 6th Grade he was able to perform 9th Grade level mathematical equations but had never been taught how to do them.  His street knowledge was better than average too. Once when confronted by 9 other children on the streets of Detroit, while he was delivering flyers for Amico’s Pizza, the local pizza place, he almost got his butt kicked.  He noticed the kids following him from a house where he had just delivered a flyer.  Inside the house someone had yelled at him to get off of their porch. He put the flyer in the door and left immediately. 

They followed him down the street quietly behind him. He heard the whispers and glanced around to see all of them standing there, but before they could jump him, and without speaking any words, he pulled out a pair of nunchucks hidden in his bag of flyers and began working them.  He swung them around his neck, back and forth in front of himself. Flipping them up and around frantically so all one could hear was the sound of them breaking the wind. After he was finished, he turned around and simply walked away without saying a word. One of the kids yelled to him, “Next time you come to Detroit, don’t bring those!”  

Even growing up in a fairly good environment ‘Din’ still made choices that would take him to bad places.  His breakdancer friends were a wild group of kids. Much like the Hippies of the 1960’s they had their own wants and desires.  Some of which were gang related, based on how the Rap culture was represented. True, the genre participated, but was in no way to blame for the finite event that would unfold at school in the morning that Fall day in 1986.

Now, the Breakdancers were a tight group of friends who hung out all the time.  From 1984 through 1986 they had developed an equal amount of influence on each others lives.  Sometimes good. Sometimes bad. In the 1980’s there were plenty of places for teenagers to spend time.  They had the mall, local recreation centers, and clubs designed for young adults. Unfortunately getting into trouble of various kinds was something this group appeared to have a proclivity for.  And many times they preferred trouble to recreational activities.

In total, two incidents happened.  Both in 1986. One during the spring and the other during the summer.  Each event involved stolen articles. Now what actually happened isn’t important because, in ‘Din’s’ words, he was “innocent, for the most part.”  The actual records say different though; and that’s what matters. In short, ‘Din’ was caught and put on two years probation, with provisions. The first: he had to live at his parents’ house.  The second: he had to stay in and finish high school.

Now having been in trouble, ‘Din’s’ perception was that everyone looked at him differently.  Mainly those in positions of authority like his parents and teachers. It was because of this inner feeling that his attitude toward everything changed.  He became bored with school and stopped going to church. All he wanted to do was hang-out with his friends and party.

Even after school started up for his Senior year, ‘Din’s’ group of friends continued to do a lot of partying.  They caused an immense amount of trouble at school too. This drew the attention of the Assistant Principal, who, too ‘Din’, appeared to hate him for all of the trouble caused, and possibly a few other reasons that were actually justified like drinking at school and destroying school property.  

Now outside of school the one thing the Breakdancers loved to do, was dance.  They would go to local clubs and burn off their destructive energy.  One club in particular was the Grande Ballroom in Westland. This is where ‘Din’ and Pollyanna met, not long after the two incidents.

To ‘Din’, Pollyanna was an Aztec goddess.  She stood 5 feet 4 inches tall and had a perfect athletically slender build.  She had the most amazing raven curly hair cresting over her extremely beautiful face.  Her eyes were the lightest brown with a small fleck of green in them. Her skin was as soft as silk with the most angelic golden hue to it.  On a scale of 1 to 10, she was probably only an 8; although, not in ‘Din’s’ eyes. To him everything about her was as melodic and beautiful to behold as any Mozart composure.  She was the most perfect girl in the world.

And, outside of that she could move her body! This girl could dance, which was huge back in those days! 

‘Din’ and Pollyanna became exclusive and they spent an unprecedented amount of time together.  They were inseparable. Pollyanna had a car so they drove everywhere and did everything they could think of, or afford, to do. They were doing what every kid their age was supposed to be doing.  They went on dates, hung out at parties, and went to dance clubs. There were no issues until…well, let’s just say they began to spend too much time together and had trouble keeping their hands off of each other.

Overall, they were just two kids who had fallen in lust with each other.  But, yes, they loved each other too. The problem was, the only things they thought about were dancing and having sex.  Those two things became problematic.

It wasn’t that they didn’t like school.  School was where their friends were. That was ‘Din’s’ main reason to continue going.  It was ‘Din’s’ lack of enthusiasm with school that created issues. The teachers handed out their assignments.  He did them and handed them back the next day. On occasion he would work weeks ahead and wait until they finally caught up.  School became more of a social function to him and less of an educational one.

Eventually ‘Din’ just stopped doing his school work.  Part of this was due to boredom and another part because of his attitude change from the events of the summer of 1986.  He began to feel trapped.  He only wanted to invest his time in Pollyanna.  All they thought about was each other. So, together, they stopped going to school.  For 33 days straight they stayed at her parents’ home and did other things.  That is, until Pollyanna’s parents found out.  

Now, it wasn’t as if they just threw him out of their house and forbid them from seeing each other. No, they kicked ‘Din’ out of their daughters life.  Or to be more correct, they actually kicked her out of his.  Polly’s parents sent her to live with her grandmother in Texas.  There she would finish her High School career. He had no choice but to go on without her. Obviously he didn’t know it, but it would be decades before they would ever see each other again. 

In 1986, ‘Din’ slept in the basement of his parents’ house, in a room his dad built for him.  His bedroom was always dark and a little cold, much like his heart would quickly become after being separated from Pollyanna.  There was a light above his bed but he never turned it on. He would let his eyes slowly adjust to the tiny sliver of light he allowed to come through the window that looked out into the rest of the basement, which he covered with a blanket.  Thinking this Fall day would be like any other school day he previously experienced he eventually got up. He showered. He got dressed. And he headed off to his first day back to school where he would, once again, see his friends.

Stewart Hardcastle was the Assistant Principal.  Because of the previous trouble ‘Din’ was involved in he didn’t appear to want him in his school.  When he saw ‘Din’ coming up to the school doors he got up from his desk and raced to stop him from coming into the school altogether.  A conversation along these lines ensued: “Where do you think you’re going Mr. ‘Din’?” the Assistant Principal requested. “I’m going to class.” ‘Din’ replied.  “You haven’t attended this school for more than 30 days and are no longer welcome here.” ‘Din’ immediately took the offensive and started yelling at the Mr. Hardcastle.  ‘Din’ told him that he didn’t “need this school” and it would be “a cold day in hell” if he “ever came back to this dump”. A few other words were exchanged between them but eventually they both turned and walked away.

No girlfriend.  No school. Now no friends.  ‘Din’s’ senior year was over before midterms even started.  This boy thought he was bored when he was able to still go to school.  Well, take school away and all that he was left with was a lot of disappointment.  From every angle. Parent’s, teachers, and himself. Now he had nothing but time to think about everything that went wrong and how he got to this point in his life.

For nine months he sat around pondering what type of future a person without a High School diploma has.  Fortunately, he allowed his parents to influence him. A few of his friends that he still hung out with brought him around to see things the right way too.  During that time he spent out of school, he grew to understand what he was missing out on. He also figured out what he would miss out on had he continued down the path he was on.  During this time away from school his friends, like me and of course, his family helped make him understand that he needed school. 

Before Fall 1987 came, ‘Din’ registered for classes, again, at the same High School.  He had even began going back to church.  

I don’t have the specifics on the exact day, but on a drizzly Fall day in September 1987 ‘Din’ started back for the first day of his second Senior year.  On this approach to the school doors the Assistant Principal was, again, ready to greet him. This time, just inside the main lobby.  

This would be the second conversation in just under a year these two would have.  I was there and I recall it went something like: “Where do you think you’re going Mr. ‘Din’?” “I’m here to go to school Mr. Hardcastle.”  Hardcastle took a quick step to his left to block ‘Din’s’ continued entrance. ‘Din’ continued walking toward him and said, “It’s my right to be here Mr. Hardcastle.  And you can’t stop me from getting my education!” ‘Din’ began to circle around the Assistant Principal but at the same time Stewart Hardcastle moved back to his right and let him pass.  No other words were exchanged between the two.

For the most part, ‘Din’s’ Senior year was uneventful, which was a good thing.  ‘Din’ helped paint the Christmas Windows in Senior hall. He rode on the Senior float for the Homecoming game.  He even helped on the Entertainment committee with all of the school dances. No drinking. No drugs. No destruction of property.  No fights. No distractions. Just school.   

It appears after what had happened to ‘Din’, the whole Breakdancing group had settled down a bit.  ‘Din’ worked hard to stay focused and finish his senior year. He didn’t play any sports but he still earned a letter.  He lettered in academics. On graduation day, as ‘Din’ walked across the commencement stage, Mr. Hardcastle grabbed his hand, shook it, and said, in the most sincere and earnest way, “I knew you could do it.”  ‘Din’ smiled at him and continued on his path.

You Never Stop Learning How To Write

If you peruse my blog, you will know that I just finished attending undergraduate school. During my final semester I took a class on writing. It was a very beneficial class and it helped me out quite a bit.

Before I attended JASS 436, Memoir and Travel Writing, I wasn’t sure what benefits it would have for me.  I was a tri-major student with a focus on Business Management.  Where would a course like that fit in? What memories do I have that I could write about?  Do I even want to write? Who would even want to hear my stories? I don’t do a whole lot of traveling.  I hardly ever write anything down. And I read even less.

Those questions and issues were all posed by me before the class opened my mind giving me ideas on how to improve myself as a writer, a thinker, and (dare I say) as a person.  This class proved to be different than other composition classes I previously attended. The class also helped my writing by teaching me how to overcome obstacles, identify areas I (still) need to work on, and it has given me the tools to do all of this with.

I am currently attempting to improve my writing technique.  I recognized several areas requiring my immediate attention though.  One being, to get to the point. I need to shorten my sentences and remove unnecessary words.  Overall, my thought process wasn’t that good. I tried to write too much, without creating some version of a timeline and before figuring out what parts of my stories to tell and when.  This tended to make my first drafts wordy. From the first day of class until now, based on knowledge obtained from activities and discussions in class, as well as instructions given in the book The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, I have been attempting to adjust my thinking regarding what I write about.  I found a need to concentrate on how it develops in my head and how I will process that on paper.

My hope is that the stories within my blog will be interesting, concise, and provide some level of entertainment or knowledge to those who read them. – The additional information below this paragraph is about the class. Feel free to continue reading if you would like to know more about writing and what I went through in the class.

A typical paper, for me, was purely academic.  Here’s what I’m going to tell you, here’s me telling you, and here’s what I told you.  I have been taught this method of essay writing in every other class I’ve ever taken. I still fight with that concept of thinking because it comes naturally.  Much of what I’ve written for this class has started out in this same fashion. Often I have written from the perspective that what’s in my head is relayed in my writing.  Unfortunately, I’ve noticed in my reviews for papers I’ve written, I interjected outside information from my mind to fill blank spots. These experiences were never written into my work.  Obviously I haven’t mastered this yet, but at least I recognize this fault and was taught something that will help me in the future.   

The tool that will help is one of the most amazing activities for writing I have ever been taught.  This activity helps me adjust how I tackle a project; although, it comes after the initial idea is on the page.  The activity is called side-shadowing and has been most useful to me. It is this method of defining, questioning, and suggesting that works really well to help further define, expand, or contract my writing.  I had never heard of this method of revision before and when I first read through the process I wasn’t on board. It appeared quite extensive and time consuming; however, after using this exercise on my first article I found it to be extremely useful.  Someday I hope to write a book, or a slew of articles or blogs, about my life experiences and side-shadowing will help. I have heard people say “you are your best critic”, so I hope there’s truth in that statement.

I enjoyed the writing exercise we performed in class on being descriptive.  Unfortunately, this exercise made me realize I need to use more of my imagination.  Not to make things up, but to describe situations, surroundings, people, places, and everything I write about much clearer than I do.  This, in and of itself, will take a lot of practice for me. In the exercise I wrote about my garage. A place I go into everyday. I gutted the building and rebuilt it inch by inch.  I know how many screws are in each shelving unit, exactly how the units are secured to the walls, where each stud is located behind the OSB and how much insulation is contained within each wall and between each stud.  The problem was, I couldn’t provide a better description than it was dark and smelled like gasoline and oil. I need to take a few lessons from Haruki Murakami and his methods of describing scenes. He described an event in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running where on a run in Greece he encountered a mass of dead animals on the road while he ran.  His descriptions of the road, the animals, and the countryside were very well done, not too graphic, and they helped to bring me into his story.

 I also believe that getting a better handle on describing my stories to people will allow for a little more interest in the story itself, which might make me seem more interesting as a person too.  Haruki Murakami’s book was well written but I feel the most helpful reading from this class was Mary Karr’s book, The Art of Memoir.  

Karr’s book reads as a story and it contains a plethora of viable information.  Her methods will help me on my path to becoming a better writer.  Murakami’s book will help with the display of my words and ideas if I review his examples and consider how he uses his words to describe events and places.  Karr’s book contains an intense amount of valuable information. Karr provides several lists to remember and think about when writing such as: expressing your voice, setting emotional stakes, not using exaggeration, express the inner enemies, verbalizing one’s outer conflict, and more.  To write well one should use her examples and incorporate them into their writing. Her book also mades me realize I have much to overcome on my path to becoming a better writer.

In reviewing other writings of mine, I noted that starting my articles and essays has been difficult for me.  I have found it hard to get the reader on board initially by giving enough cause for investment without revealing too much at the same time.  I recognize the need to write a much better opening as well as the need for bread-crumbing. My trouble is figuring out what people don’t know, and what they need to know, to keep them interested.  I also don’t want it to be too boring or the polar opposite causing an information overload. Working on these challenges has been a good place to start, pun intended.  

Another challenge I face is grammar logistics.  I need to improve this as well as sentence punctuation.  In speaking with the Professor, a good method for me to use came up.  Reading out loud. When I vocalize the article or essay it should flow based on the writing, not on the reading of it.  If I insert a comma or forget one and don’t pause at a certain point the sentence may read incorrectly. A good example of this comes from a journalism class I took in a previous semester where the professor used the sentence, “Stop clubbing, baby seals.”  He indicated that it should have read “Stop clubbing baby seals.” Overall, this class has uncovered viable areas for me to focus on and I hope future students will gain insight as I have.

Along that same line, the most important advice I can give to any future students of this class, is to not feel overwhelmed.  The syllabus indicates quite a few written assignments and a fair amount of reading but it is all manageable. Karr’s book reads like a story and the other two books are good reads as well.  Most importantly, don’t get too caught up with your own personal interests, or even the story itself, when reading the articles or books. Each lesson is just that – a lesson. There is knowledge to be acquired.  Future students should use the knowledge in Karr’s writings to be more analytical with the other assigned books.

The second bit of advice I can give about this class is to read the materials and take notes for discussions.  Simply put, do the work! While in class, I noticed if a student doesn’t do their work, and we form into groups for discussion, they have nothing to offer and are often a hindrance on the group.  Personally I want to remember what I’m being taught and take something away from this. I anticipate mental value from all of the classes I have taken at this University. If someone isn’t doing his part then he can’t expect there to be any value from these lessons for him to take away.

Will I ever be a great writer?  I don’t know. With the challenges I have discovered I realize I have much work to do.  This class is far from over – in the universal sense of that word – over. Joe Bunting, a British television presenter, producer, and writer once said: “No one is born a writer.  You must become a writer. In fact, you never cease to becoming [one], because you never stop learning how to write.” In my case, in order to truly learn, I need to continue practicing what I have been taught long after I complete this class.  But, I will continue to improve – because I won’t stop trying.  

(Not) Without You

At the age of 50 I have finally graduated from University. I wasn’t “smart” enough to go when I graduated from High School. I was too busy having fun. Overall, I’m very glad that I was finally able to complete this milestone of my life. It has to be said that this achievement only came to me because of my wife. She carried me through this journey and if it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish as much as I did.

Going to college is hard enough at any age. Of course, the older one gets the more difficult it becomes to complete because life gets in the way. Work, wife, kids, holidays, family gatherings, and friends. It all piles up on us and before you know it you’re 50 years old and thinking about the AARP and retirement.

Three years ago my wife and I became Foster parents. I was attending school at the time and decided to drop out so that we could acclimate the little 7 month old girl into our home and our lives. I was registered for classes and went to the first few in January but I dropped before the first deadline so that I wouldn’t have to pay for the classes (roughly $2k for each class).

As I mentioned, I didn’t go to college after High School. It took me years before I would go. It was around the time the Trade Center was attacked. Just before actually that I had started. I would complete my Associates degree in Business Management around 2005. I took my credits over to University and accepted whatever they would acknowledge.

At that time I was single and working full-time so I paid cash for the classes I had already taken. I continued that way until my first semester at University was over. I couldn’t afford to do that anymore because the cost was more than double and my workplace wasn’t willing to help pay for school, so I dropped out (seems to be a lot of that in my school history).

Every few years I would try again, but the expense was too much. At that time I wasn’t willing to seek government help because I had heard so many horror stories about student loans and how people ended owing for years and years. So I took, pretty much, a decade off.

I was at my current job when my new G.M. asked me how much I had left to go and he wanted to know why I didn’t finish. At that time my college credits placed me as a Junior. I had 40+ credits I needed to fill to graduate. The G.M. offered to have the company help pay if I would go back. That was 2016. My wife and I had been married for seven years but we didn’t have any children (which is a whole other story). So my wife and I discussed my going back and we worked out how it would go down.

Obviously I would go after work one or two days a week. Then I would need time to study during the week and one day on the weekend. She picked up the slack at the house. Cleaning, washing clothes, cooking meals, and pretty much everything else that needed to be done. I spent most of my time studying because I wanted to get good grades and learn something. I figured that I was paying for it, I might as well take something away from all of it.

Before all of this talk about University even came about we had already been registered to become Foster Parents. Nothing had been happening with that in a few years so I figured that going back to school would only help our status. So I went back in 2016 and did pretty well for that whole year. In January of 2017 we finally heard that there might be a chance that we would receive our first Foster child, so as I mentioned, I stopped going.

In 2018, when I started back up I was told, by the University, that my degree was no longer valid and that I would have to, pretty much, start all over. They wanted to remove all but 40 of the 90 credits I had at that time and set me back to Sophomore status. I wanted to quit altogether but my wife wouldn’t let me. I checked into other colleges and universities but everyone said the same thing…I would have to start all over.

So I “fought” the system. I wrote a letter to the Dean of my college and copied a few other individuals on it. Basically I told them we had just become Foster Parents. I said that it appeared Fostering a child was the worst thing anyone could do for their academic career. I also mentioned, had I known the University would do this, I would have probably sent the little girl packing because apparently Fostering a child doesn’t fall in line with the Universities agenda. I don’t fully recall, but I think I alluded to the fact it might possibly be a good human interest story for local TV.

I received a letter and a phone call asking me to come in and see the Associate Dean of Admissions. The “problem” was quickly resolved and I was admitted, once again, with my full credit standing.

In 2018 I started back. The only issue was cost. The money the company I work for would pay me wouldn’t cover the full cost of this University, so I became a FASFA aficionado. Again, my wife and I discussed this. Being that we had so many more responsibilities with the kid, my going back would leave a VERY large burden on her. She wore the increased burden like a badge.

From 2018 through 2019 I spent an exuberant amount of time studying, writing, and memorizing (where necessary) and in December of 2019 I graduated with High Distinction (Summa Cum Laude) from the University of Michigan. I also received the Honor’s Scholar award, which is an award given to only one recipient in each college of the University for each degree.

If it wasn’t for my wife taking up my slack and encouraging me to do better and to complete what I started I would never have finished. If not for her, none of that would have been possible. When I was graduating I kept looking over at her and, in my head, “my” accomplishment was our accomplishment. I could not have done any of this without her.