Some lessons aren't learned in a classroom

Some lessons aren't learned in a classroom

This much I know to be true.

The first time my mother and I walked around the Notre Dame campus, she couldn’t hold back her tears.

“It’s all so beautiful here,” she said in fall 1973 when autumn was working its magic once again. “I can’t imagine how you find time to study with all this around you every day.”

That’s when I knew I had to give her a bracing jolt of reality.

“Mom,” I said, referring to the Grotto and Touchdown Jesus and the Sacred Heart Basilica and the Stadium and the Golden Dome, “this isn’t a museum. It’s just another college, a place to learn.”

“You surprise me; you really do,” Mom said. “You know this place is special. You’ve known that since you were a child.”

“Well, sure," I said, bargaining for time, knowing I couldn’t shake her from her own memories or disavow my own, “but you wouldn’t believe how much starch the laundry puts in my shirts.”

Looking back on that conversation, it probably wasn’t my strongest card to play, knowing that of every thousand applications ND received annually, about 50% were kicked to the curb without even the slightest consideration. Or that of those who were accepted, nearly a third would fail/bail after one semester.

Back then it actually meant something to get in, but staying there was another thing altogether, one much more difficult and testing.

This I also know to be true.

I came so very close to giving up, owing to a combination of factors, not the least of which was that my roommates hated me.

Freshman year at Notre Dame is always difficult. It says so right in the literature you receive upon notice of your acceptance.

“OK, so you may have been a big f-----g deal in high school, but get over that, s--- h---, because you’re nothing here until you prove it. Our advice? Drop your hometown honey, ditch your stereo and your records, get a haircut, and prepare for the hardest semester of your life. Oh, and make sure you’re ready to transfer elsewhere.

“Ain’t gonna be no ticker-tape parades down ND Ave. just because you’ve made it this far,” the letter of acceptance continued, “and you better d---n well remember your way out of South Bend.”

Well, I exaggerate for emphasis, but you get the point.

So it was vital I make a favorable impression on the three guys also assigned to the two-room suite we’d share until the spring. Two of them had gone to high school together, which placed me behind the Eight Ball already. Because once they drew a third into their orbit, the other would be on his own.

The fact I was the one on the outside may or may not have had something to do with their breaking all kinds of dorm rules including those regarding weed, but I wasn’t ready for any kind of awkward confrontation, being able to do simple freshman math.

So I spent a lot of time alone, walking around St. Mary’s Lake, or in the library, knowing I wasn’t exactly welcome back at the dorm after I’d ratted them out to the rector.

I saw it as a clear zero-sum decision: Either I told the truth to someone in a position of authority or I’d be guilty by association.

And I didn’t want to get kicked out of Notre Dame. Who would?

There was, of course, a middle road I could have taken when that particular fork presented itself, but I knew this to be true: I’d never been exposed to drugs, and it was scary to have to deal with them.

So I spent very little time with my roommates. The three of them said nothing to me, and I understood their hatred of me. I hung out with a group of guys down the hall, watching the Mets-A’s World Series on their TV, seeing Agnew resign as Watergate crested and supplying a few cases of Ballantine’s or a fifth or two of tequila.

Back then Indiana was a 21 state, but Michigan, a mere 6 miles up Highway 31, was 18 heaven. So I hitched a few rides north.

In the meantime, mid-semester grades had come out, and, of all courses, I found myself with a D in American history. I knew Mom and Dad had received a copy of that pernicious pink slip, and I worried they’d lose confidence in their first-born son.

But when I got off the plane after a 30-minute hopscotch flight to Cleveland Hopkins, Dad only wanted to talk about Notre Dame’s victory over Southern Cal, the one that had made the Irish No. 1.

And since I’d been there and rushed the field with most of the rest of the student body, I told him what it was like and how it felt.

Neither he nor my mother even mentioned my scarlet letter grade.

They already knew how tough a time I’d had that first semester and were probably grateful I was passing my other courses, even if a low A and three weak B’s didn’t really count in the face of that D.

“I think I’m going to try and get a new room in January,” I said.

Mom nodded and imagined a version of the Island of Misfit Toys.

You remember them: a train with square wheels, a squirt gun that shoots jelly, a boat that can’t float and a Charlie in the Box.

“Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer,” which debuted in 1964, would become, 10 years later, my salvation.

But it came with a cost.

Sure, I was able to move from one dorm room to another, but that meant admitting to myself I was fundamentally flawed when it came to differentiating between what battles were meant to be fought and which were just best ignored.

This, I learned, was pretty much what growing up was all about.

As a Misfit Toy, I was assigned with two other rejects. All that was left to us was a single room, which meant stacking the beds three high, necessitating I sleep with my nose scraping the ceiling.

But that was OK. At least I wouldn’t get expelled, though I might snap my spine taking a wrong step and plummeting to the floor.

Those two guys and I never became close friends but shared a bond, nonetheless. We knew no one else wanted us around.

That was the key ingredient missing when I gave Mom her walking tour of the campus that afternoon in 1973 when fall was in the air and the sky was piercingly azure and the trees were shedding their leaves gracefully, gold and orange and crimson.

There was a hard winter coming on fast, one that could make or break me as a student, walking to class in her favorite snow globe.

This much I knew to be true: Like a spotted elephant, I was home.

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