Monday, November 14, 2005

He's no slacker

A twelfth-year college student in Wisconsin has made the news with a story profiling him in The New York Times.

I can’t help but think that this guy’s potential book deals, the media hype he’s attracted and the very fact that he has a functioning web site make him less than truly slack.

Who am I to question his slack credibility? If you have to ask, you don’t know.

The guy’s story reminds me of a piece I did some time back, which appeared in Pulp. It follows:

He's No Slacker

Today's increasingly sophisticated marketplace has put a premium on diversely educated college students, so much so that students are feeling extra burdens in their course-work. It's no longer acceptable for a college graduate to have had just one major area of study; two majors is the bare minimum for an industrious student, educators warn. This trend, coupled with poorer job prospects in the less-than-robust economy, has led many students to put off entering the job market. And the tendency of students to turn a four-year degree into a five-year jaunt has been replaced by the seven- to 10-year course, creating a new generation of highly educated anti-slackers.

I figured it might be fun to hear what local students have to say about their studies. I wondered if they noticed that more was expected of them or if they were too busy partying or studying to know the difference. So I stopped by a local college to interview a random student and get his thoughts on education.

Arriving on campus, I naturally made my way over to the humanities building, knowing that I'd likely find some talkative types there. I happened to arrive right as some summer classes let out, and serious-looking students walked quickly by me. At the entrance of the humanities building, I found a student who looked like he might have time to talk. The guy was standing atop a stone bench, staring up into the sky, his eyes half-closed and wearing a half-grin. He exuded a Zen-like calm, a feeling of nowhere-to-go, and he didn't notice me until I'd been standing there looking at him for a full minute. I thought maybe he was stoned, and I didn't want to be a buzz-killer, but I could see he wasn't a round-faced freshman and I wanted to interview him.

Finally he snapped out of his reverie.

"Hey, man, what's up?" he said, looking a bit startled.

"I'm looking to interview a student for a newspaper article I'm doing," I said.

He took his hands out of his pockets, shook his dreadlocked head and looked sheepishly at his bare feet.

"Why do you want to interview me?"

"You're a student, right?" I asked.

He reluctantly agreed.

"What's your major?" I began.

He smiled, half shrugged and chuckled lowly. "Well, I started out studying engineering, but after two years I got out of that and got into information systems, which might not have been the best idea, given the dot-com bust and all."

"But that ought to give you a good entree into this high-tech business world," I said.

"Well, yes, but since I quit engineering, I was down to just one major, and you can't have that."

"Of course not," I said. "What else did you take up?"

"I started in sociology, but after a year I transferred to psychology. But that started to mess with my mind, so I transferred to applied history."

"So you'll be graduating soon?"

"After I finish up my communications degree."

"Sounds like in a year or so you'll be one well rounded graduate."

"Actually it's two-and-a-half years, including the computer core classes that I've blown off until now."

"All this education must be costing you a fortune," I said.

"A full $117,000, not counting student loans, according to my dad. He says he may have to quit retirement and go back to work." He frowned. "Of course that doesn't count rent and party money, and cash to take out girls, all of which I now pay for myself after my dad cut me off last year."

"Did you ever think of just chucking it all and getting a job?"

"I have thought of it, and it's very tempting sometimes. But if I did get a job, I'd have to give up the deferment status that I have on my student loans. And even if I got an excellent job, the monthly payments on those loans wouldn't leave me enough to live on."

"It seems you're in a Catch-22. It must be tough on you."

"It's not all books and babes, you know," he said.

I looked into his face and I saw, under a fresh layer of city grime, that he had crow's feet. The guy started to look very familiar to me. Then it came to me -- it was Soupbone McDowell, a fraternity guy I remembered from my college days, who even back then was much older than the rest of us.

"Soupbone, is that you?" I said, astonished to see him after all these years.


"You look great," I said, slapping him on the shoulder. "But I've got to ask: How old are you now?"

"I'm 42," he said with a simple grin, "but I feel 24."

"So you'll be hitting the workaday world soon?"

"Hopefully. I'll have my master's degree," he said with a shrug. "But the way the economy's going, I may have to go to graduate school and get my Ph.D."

With apologies to Art Buchwald.

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