Why Finish College?

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“Jesus said to him, No one who puts his hand to the plow
and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)

Why Finish College?

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

During my sophomore year in college (1973) I held some interesting jobs and it was not altogether clear that I would continue my studies as I explored quitting school to take full-time work.

In my work with the Indiana Public Interest Research Group (INPIRG), I worked as a community organizer attending local groups in the western side of Bloomington—on the other side of the railroad tracks—which did not get a lot of attention from local politicians.

The example of this work that stands out in my mind was a house that burned down in a neighborhood which stood just over the city limits. The structure was left in the condition that remained after fire-fighters put out the blaze—the basement was flooded and local kids were using the place as a informal pool, floating inner-tubes in the debris and generally using the property as a playground. I took photographs of the place down to city hall and spoke with officials about it one day. Hiding a tape-recorder under my jacket, I recorded a city attorney who said nothing could be done because the place had been abandoned by the owners and was in any case outside the city limits; he then proceeded to lecture me about the need for better childcare among concerned parents. I later led a community demonstration in front of city hall and brought a delegation to testify before the next city counsel meeting.

My life as a community organizer came to an end later when I interviewed unsuccessfully for a position as a local community organizer.

Another attempt that I made to find work brought me to respond to an ad in the paper for a job as a telemarketer for a local police organization. The job involved sitting in a room at a table with a bunch of telephones and calling everyone in the telephone book, one after another. With each call, we were instructed to ask for the man of the house, perhaps, with the logic that men would be more inclined to offer donations to the policy organization. However, this instruction proved to be difficult to implement because many men over the years had died in accidents working in local rock quarries. When you would ask for the man of the house, the man’s widow would just break out in tears right there on the phone. After about a week of tearful phone calls, I quit.

At the end of my sophomore year, I returned to Virginia to work in construction for a month to earn money to attend summer school and, after my attempt to transfer to William and Mary College did not work out, I returned to construction work while I waited for Iowa State University’s winter quarter to begin in December. During the months of September, October, and November I worked in at a number of sites—I helped lay pipe in the McLean House (McLean, Virginia), I did general labor build the Mitre Building (torn down a couple years back to build the Capital One building) in Tyson’s Corner, I picked apples for a couple weeks in Vermont, and I worked both as a helper to a finishing carpenter and a painter, also in McLean.

At most construction sites in McLean during this period, my co-workers were mostly colorful transplants from West Virginia. My boss at the Mitre job, for example, played poker on Fridays until all the paychecks of those foolish enough to play with him disappeared—I am sure that he provided the beer! One weekend he ended up in jail for having shot up a trailer. His idea of having fun was passing rumors about me with some of the young toughs just to see what might happen, which certainly freaked me out. Still, he had a heart and after the job was done he advised me on how to find a better job, which I did that same day. In this way, I graduated from day labor to become a carpenter’s helper.

The only co-workers that I had who were not from West Virginia were two African American guys from Washington DC—one was noisy and the other quiet. The noisy one used to brag loudly about being a kind of Leroy Brown—I thought that his performance was a hoot and I teased him to the point where he would pull out a razor and chase me around the room. The quiet one never said anything, but one morning we came to work and the police had surrounded the entire building—apparently he had robbed a bank overnight at gunpoint and the police came by to pick him up.

Violence was always a veiled presence on these construction sites. When I worked as a painter, for example, my co-worker was a young fellow from West Virginia who refused to horse around with me. When I asked him why he treated me with such deference—because he routinely horsed around with other guys—he said that it was okay to fool around with the drop-outs, but the college guys (like me) were too quick to escalate into gun violence when a real misunderstanding would arise. By contrast, our boss was more cunning in his gun talk—he always brought a pistol to work on paydays. After he cheated me out of 50 cents an hour one week, I figured out why.

By November of that year, I had earned enough pay working construction that I was able to buy my first car—a baby blue, 1967 Volkwagen beetle. In December, I packed that beetle full of clothes and drove to Iowa State University where I began studying economics like my dad. After my work experiences the prior year, I never again gave any serious thought to dropping out.

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