The year is now 1994. I was fresh out of high school and ready to head out into the world and conquer it. Warner Brothers, I’m coming at you! My plan was to enroll at the University of Central Oklahoma for two years, then transfer to the University of Oklahoma to finish up my final two years. My freshman year would be spent living in the dorm, and my roommate would be one of my close high school friends. It was going to be awesome!!
I took somewhere around 21 hours that first semester. I had general science, humanities, English comp, college algebra, and art. That’s right, I was finally, FREAKING FINALLY taking my first art class in an actual classroom. I went to the local Hobby Lobby and loaded up on art supplies: Charcoal, pencils, fresh erasers, a gigantic drawing tablet, an even more giant portfolio…I was ready!
I had no idea what to expect out of college life. I’d grown up watching movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Animal House. I wasn’t going to be part of a fraternity, and I knew big parties weren’t going to be taking place in the dorm, but…what was college life like? The day I moved in was weird. The guy across the hall came over and introduced himself and wondered if we’d seen his roommate. Apparently the roommate had dropped off a few odd items and left before anyone spotted him. For days leading up to the start of school, he never showed up. Then, the first day of school arrived, and POOF he arrived out of nowhere!
His name was Patrick. He was full of energy and always creating things. He once strapped a camcorder to an RC car and drove it down the hallway. Two doors down was another really cool guy. His name was Toby. He had kidney failure and, therefore, had to be in a room by the lobby. His room was half full of boxes of medical supplies necessary to keep him healthy enough to attend class. That and lots of urine bags. It was really inspiring to chat with him about his challenges and see the way he pushed through adversity. I loved that about him. That and his snarkiness.
These guys were only part of my life for those two semesters I lived on campus, but we had a lot of fun together. Making friends and making memories are arguably one of the best things about college. And then there’s going to class.
I started working at a bookstore the same month I started college. I began as a part-time cashier in the afternoons and evenings. So that I could work as many hours as possible, I took early classes. Yup, I was that guy taking 7:20am classes. English was easy for me. In fact, I had such good high school English teachers, I found both of my college English classes to be easier than what I’d experienced in high school. Science was okay. I didn’t find it terribly interesting, but I managed to get an A. College Algebra was a nightmare! I studied hard but just couldn’t keep up. I finally dropped the class on the last possible day. I had a failing grade in the class and I didn’t see it getting any better. A couple of semesters later I took college algebra for business, and managed to get a C.
What else was there? Ah yes, humanities. I took that class for granted, and almost got a C. But fortunately I managed to get my grade up to a B by the end of the semester. So that leaves art.
I’ll never forget the moment I walked into that classroom. It was a large room with all types of art decorating the walls and display areas around the perimeter. Each of the drawing stations were positioned in a circle facing the middle of the room. In the middle of the room was a staging area. Throughout the semester the professor would change out the items in the staging area. You’ve probably seen art classes depicted on TV like this. Perhaps you’ve seen art students arranged in a circle around a nude or nearly-nude model with objects cleverly covering the model’s no-no areas to satisfy those pesky TV ratings people. We never did the human model, but we did things like fruit baskets and other objects. We also did self-portraits and 3D perspectives of a room in our house.
As I walked into the room the first time, I was in awe. After all, it was just like what I’d seen on TV! But this was real! And I was doing it! I was REALLY doing it! Now, maybe you’re like me and you have to sit in the back of the room as far away from the door as possible. I don’t like sitting with people behind me and I don’t like being by the door. I’m very introverted in classroom settings and I feel like I can hide when I’m in the back. While I didn’t have to worry about anyone being behind me in this room, I still wanted to be far from the door. So I picked out my station accordingly.
My station happened to be next to a really big muscle-bound guy. Picture a guy that looks like he belongs on the football field and you’d have the right image. In fact, he did play for the football team. I don’t remember the first time I looked over at his work, but I do remember the way it made me feel. He was SOOOOO talented!!! How could a guy that looks like he spends all his time with weights in hands be so good with a pencil in his hand? Not only that but he was good looking AND he was super nice. In fact, he was so nice, that I couldn’t be jealous of the guy even if I wanted to. His work was quite a bit better than mine and yet he would regularly compliment and encourage me. The semester went by really fast, and it was an easy A for me. So at the end of my first semester of college, I’d managed to make 3 new really good friends, keep a part-time job, AND make the dean’s honor roll. All was good, right? Well…no.
Even though my art professor and classmates were very encouraging of my work, something unexpected happened during the course of that semester. When art became an assignment instead of purely a hobby, the fun and pleasure were gone.
Being told what to draw and when to do it somehow took away my passion. Or so I thought. I didn’t have the life experience or the fortitude to realize that the passion was still there. I didn’t have the vision or wisdom to see that this was just a challenging obstacle that was there to make me stronger. I only saw the difficulty. I decided to stop pursuing art. I packed up my supplies, my art table started collecting dust, and two semesters later, I was no longer even enrolled in college.
My dream was dead. There was no one else to blame for it but me. I and I alone was the one guilty of murdering it. And now I had no idea what to do with my life.
No matter how many times I reflect on this moment in my life, I’m struck by two things. First, I’m struck by how quickly I let my dream die. I’d worked so hard to get there and done all I could in high school to grow my talent. How in the world did I give it up so easily? Second, I’m shocked by how I focused only on the negative aspects of my art class experience.
When I was in 7th grade, Mrs. Stingley gave everyone in our class a cup and filled it halfway with water. She then asked us to write down whether it was half empty or half full. I was one of two kids in the class that had a different answer. Instead of writing half full or half empty, we both wrote, “both.” I don’t know exactly when I had the mental shift and became a glass half full person, but it must not have been until some time after my first semester of college.
I wish I could jump in a DeLorean and go visit my old self. I wish I could change that decision. I wish I could have seen all the positive things I experienced in that art class. I wish I’d spoken with someone with more life experience prior to making that decision. I wish I realized that pushing through the challenges were all part of the metamorphosis that would strengthen me for the future.
But time machines only exist in the movies and no matter how much I wish those things, they simply aren’t possible. Fortunately, that bad decision and the regret that it brought with it, has taught me a valuable lesson that I’ve benefited from several times since. Don’t quit at the first struggle. Like knife being scraped across a wet stone, the friction of a struggle can make you weak and dull, or it can make you sharper and stronger. The difference in outcome is often simply our angle or perspective; our attitude. It was a hard lesson to learn as a 19 year old dream killer, but my 45 year old self is eternally grateful I learned that lesson on perspective at a young age. The beauty of this lesson is, we’re never too old to learn it and allow its truth to change our outlook.
I’m Darrell Darnell, and this has been Stuff I Learned Yesterday episode 565, “Death of a Dream.” Next week we continue the journey as it takes me to places I never imagined…including Yemen…sort of. Stuff I Learned Yesterday is part of the Golden Spiral Media podcast network. Join me on Twitter at GSMPodcasts, or Facebook.