Going to college – again

This year will be my 20th college reunion.

I almost didn’t go – to college, that is — in the first place.

I can’t imagine how my life might have been different. I suspect it would have changed everything.

In high school, I started working as soon as I got a chance. The day I turned old enough to get a work permit, I applied to be a stocker at a grocery store not far from my house. I was a sophomore at the time.

The pay was $3.35 an hour. I would get off the school bus at the store and work until 10 p.m. a few nights a week, when one of my parents would pick me up.

While the work was difficult and there was plenty of hazing and harassment for a kid working with adults and near-adults, the overall experience was positive.

I continued to work right through graduation, along with a few of my friends. Through the years, as we built skills and trust, we moved up through the ranks and pulled shifts in the meat department, running a cash register, managing the stock in the backroom, closing up at night.

I even learned how to drive a forklift, poorly. Unlike one of my buddies, I never managed to crash into a wall lined with peanut butter, jelly and other assorted food items waiting to go on the store’s shelves.

And come graduation, I had an offer. There was a chance to enter the store’s management training program, become an assistant manager and then continue to work my way up through the growing regional supermarket chain.

It was tempting.

It was big money at the time. The chance for a cool car, an adult life. At least one of my high school friends took the chance. The last time I saw him – it’s been several years – he was still rising through the ranks and appeared to have a good and happy life.

The store is still family-owned, and they always treated me fairly and with great respect even though I was just a kid. I remember getting to ride in a Winston Cup race car (now the Spring Cup) that the store sponsored and helping to move the owner’s collection of classic cars, including a 1967 Corvette Stingray soft top. If I live to be 1,000 years old, I’ll never forget that car.

Other friends kept working, with a promise to continue their education at night. They had mixed results. One landed a coveted gig with UPS, a really good union job with a chance to advance.

With some subtle persuasion work by my mother, I eventually decided to seek a four-year degree from Emory & Henry College, a small Methodist school in southwest Virginia. I graduated 20 years ago this year.

It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Though I continued to work at the store during breaks and on vacations from college, and split time with the local newspaper where I covered sports and local government, after that temptation during my senior year I never really considered going back full-time to the grocery business.

College made the world seem like a much larger place. The possibilities shifted, and anything seemed possible.

It’s a silly game to play to look back at turning points like the decision to go to college and wonder “what if.” There are no answers. I don’t know what life would have been like.

But I do know it would have been different.

From the friends I made to the arguments I lost and the lessons I learned, college set me on a course that took me away from Abingdon, Va., toward Washington, D.C., and eventually Portland, Maine.

Through my work in public policy, I often hear parents lament the fact that their kids don’t have the opportunities to stay at home, that they are forced to leave to find a good job or get an education.

It’s particularly true in rural parts of the state, where many communities have seen people leave in droves.

And I think about my own children, still years from leaving home and many more away from a college reunion, and I don’t want them to go. But I do.

In the end, I think my mother got it right. She clung on as hard as she could, but at the same time, she wanted me to go, pushed me to go – maybe because one day I’d come back again. And if not, I’d have a bigger world to explore.

I got the packet of information from Emory & Henry about my reunion this week. This time, it’s my wife who thinks I should go.