In just a few weeks, daughter Jess will head off to college. She’ll be about three hours up the road—close enough to get home in a hurry, but distant enough so wife Brenda and I won’t be able to hear her footsteps. If it were left up to me, I’d build a little cottage in the far corner of the backyard and keep the kid there, just 80 feet from the back door of the house. Hollering distance.
But kids these days, they’ve just got to have their college. They don’t feel quite right without it. Jess doesn’t know anybody who isn’t going to college, and knows only a few kids who are disappointed because they have to go to their second-choice colleges.
Lately, I’ve found myself comparing and contrasting my pre-college days with Jess’ anxious pre-college summer. When I was 18, I was the sole occupant and master of the Jowers family house. I kept the lights, gas and water on by working at a local music store and playing in rock ’n’ roll bands. And, to tell the truth, I pirated just a little bit of electricity, gas and water by modifying the utility companies’ delivery systems. By the time I turned 18, the Jowers house had shed both mother Susie and daddy Jabo, half-brother Geames, first stepmother Arlene and the evil, snake-faced second stepmother Montine. Of this group, Montine was the only one to get out of the house alive. My sister Ann, who married at age 18, had been out of the house for 10 years.
There was no air conditioning at my house, just a Hunter Zephair fan mounted in the kitchen window. When I opened all the other windows in the house just a crack and turned the mighty Zephair on in suck mode, it would pull air in under the bottom sash of the windows and shrink my raindrop-sized sweat down to dewdrop size.
The Jowers television got its signal through rabbit ears wrapped with tinfoil. There was no cable, nor any hope of cable. There was no remote control. There were three television channels—6, 12 and the newcomer, 26. The TV stations went off the air at midnight or 1 a.m., followed by nothing but the test-pattern Indian.
Compare that to today, when Jess and I left our air-conditioned house, went over to Electronic Express and picked out a little tabletop HDTV monitor for her dorm room. The room is already wired for cable, and students have a choice of a basic cable package, the cost of which is rolled into tuition and fees, or they can upgrade to a near-infinite cable package, which includes a large menu of movie and lifestyle channels.
At the top of Jess’ list of college concerns is digital video recording (DVR). She’s worried that she won’t be able to record Late Night With Conan O’Brien at 12:30 a.m. and play it back at 5 p.m. “I’ve got to have my Conesie,” she says.
And then there are the textbooks. These days, a college kid’s books cost hundreds of dollars. I didn’t buy my books in college. Sure, I got a little book-money grant, but I needed that money to keep the lights on at the house. Before I set off for college, eight miles up the road, the main source of my education was the newsletter from the Technological American Party, which taught me how to liberate methane, water and electrons from the utility companies. When I was 18, The Man was doing his best to keep me down and I had to fight back. So I just went to the college library and read all the textbooks for free. I’m amazed that more kids don’t do that now. College kids, listen to me: you don’t need to own all those heavy, boring books. You just need to learn what’s in them and remember it for half a year.
Of course, the biggest difference between my college era and today is the tuition. I have spent the last year studying tuition costs. For all you parents who haven’t looked down the barrel of the tuition shotgun: a year at any college—big or small, good or bad, public or private—is going to cost you at least as much as a tricked-out minivan.
A year of school cost me about $700. My whole college career cost about $2,000—after two-and-a-half years, I dropped out. That was because a few pretty knowledgeable college professors told me I’d that I’d probably end up writing for a living. It was crazy for me to pay schoolteachers to make me write about John Milton.
Now, all these years later, daughter Jess will head off to college packing an HDTV monitor, a notebook computer and a bunch of stories about her peculiar family stuck in her head. Some wise high school teachers tell me that Jess is really good at writing stories. Looks like next time I hear her footsteps, they’ll be gaining on me.
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