Educating Billy

Early in the spring of 1963, we eighth-graders at Conway Junior High traipsed down Main Street to Kennett High School to sign up for our freshman programs. It did not occur to me, or perhaps to many of my classmates, that this event could have a significant impact on the future course of our lives. We saw the guidance counselor, who asked us a few questions and filled out some 5×7 cards before signing us up for a program.

There were three general courses of instruction at Kennett. College prep consisted mainly of academic studies. General education began with fundamental English, math, history, and science, and bookkeeping or secretarial classes for those with business interests. Industrial arts included the same basic courses as general education, but with wood and metal shops and some basic automotive training.

Somehow the guidance counselor wrote me in for industrial arts. I don’t know how it happened; maybe I found the phrase “industrial arts” intriguing, and said “I’ll take that,” or maybe he suggested it. After all, this was the same man who later suggested that I ought to consider becoming a barber. I didn’t really care what course I took. I hated school anyway, because it cut too deeply into my reading time.

I came back to the junior high in time to file back into the building after noon recess, and my homeroom teacher, Margaret Gagnon, fell into line beside me. While we shuffled in she asked what I had chosen for a course. When I told her, she took me by the elbow and turned me away toward the office, where she sat me down and called the high school. I don’t remember what she said, but from a drawer she produced a 5×7 card just like the one the guidance counselor had used, and after filling it out she told me to take it over to the guidance office after school.

That was how I entered the college preparatory course. I took some interest in English and history, but by the beginning of my senior year it dawned on me that my post-graduation prospects would be limited. If I didn’t go to college, my schooling only qualified me for local jobs I didn’t want, or for military service. I was considering the Navy.

Attending college already seemed economically impossible by my last year of high school. Tuition and housing expenses then only came to a few hundred dollars a semester, but I had accumulated no savings. Neither had I thought far enough ahead to compete for local scholarships that bridged the gap for better scholars. In 1967, family-court judges had not yet extended the limits of mandatory parental responsibility through the college years, and I had moved out of the house anyway. Student loans—as ridiculous as it must seem to adherents of Elizabeth Warren and Comrade Bernie—were limited to those who actually had some intention of paying them off, and only in amounts that seemed possible to repay. The system of unlimited, unsecured, and essentially federally subsidized loans that encouraged colleges to charge astronomical tuition had not yet been engineered.

So I didn’t go. Even after getting out of the Army, I still spent several years dividing my time between bread labor and obsessive reading. For upwards of two years I lived barely half a mile from the Boston Public Library, and made that my principal hideaway, with a decided preference for the microfilm and special collection departments in the old half of the building.

Thanks to the GI Bill, I did finally earn a degree in the last months of my third decade, and graduated with savings instead of debt. I did quite well, too, in that era before grade inflation rendered deans’ lists completely meaningless. Still, the degree itself never won me a job, and I continued at blue-collar work I could have taken straight out of high school. That gave me the free time I needed to experiment with my most compelling interests, and eventually they coalesced into what became a most satisfying occupation.

Had a Mrs. Gagnon taken me by the elbow again when I graduated from high school and insisted that I begin college, I might have followed the logical track for those who don’t yet really know what they want to do. That would probably have yielded a respectable career with a satisfactory income, and in a day when students had to actually pay their own college costs it would not have cost a fortune—but there isn’t much chance it would have made me happy. Today the education racket promotes college as the “key” that all students must have, but those who rush into it often find that it locks a door that might otherwise have remained open.

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