It’s my 9th semester at the University of Illinois and I’m on academic probation for the second time. I’ve managed to take almost the full compliment of Econ classes needed for the degree, but I’m not yet officially accepted to the program. I need to get a B or better in all of my classes to get in, otherwise I’m going to have 130 credits and no degree. Somehow, despite taking a whole bunch of 300 level classes, I’m just now getting around to taking Econ 103: Introduction to Macro Economics.
Lectures are held in Follinger Hall, the largest auditorium on campus. The professor is engaging, articulate, and funny. He’s also the head of the Econ department. Lectures are on Mondays and Wednesdays, with small twenty-person lab sessions on Fridays. Grading is perfect for the way I do college: 40% midterm, 50% final, and 10% weekly quizzes taken on Fridays. All I’d need to do is cram one or two days for the midterm, then again for the final and I’ll be fine. I can even miss a few Fridays and still get my B.
I stop going to lectures two weeks in. I stop going to labs shortly after. Weeks pass and my spidey sense speaks up, telling me that my midterm is coming soon. I haven’t made friends with anyone in the class, and being 2003, the University hasn’t fully embraced the interwebs, so I can’t find the time and location of the midterm online.
I decide that the midterm is Wednesday night at 7pm. I don’t know how I decide that, but I do. I don’t know where I’m supposed to go, but there’s only a few rooms big enough to hold a class that big. So at 6pm, I set out and spend the next two hours trekking between every large lecture hall on campus. I never find my room.
I’m in one of those rare situations when you know that the trajectory of your life is hanging in the balance of this one night. I fail the midterm, I fail this class. Fail the class, I don’t get into the Econ program. No Econ program, no degree. No degree… I don’t know. Destitution? Disownment? Despair.
The next day, I do something I’ve never done before — go to the professor’s office hours. I spend half an hour telling him my story. I tell him I don’t need to go to lectures because I’ve already completed several 300 level macro classes, and I aced this shit in highschool anyway. I tell him how I co-founded a startup and sold it eight months later for all equity in a company that went defunct, and that now I’m just checking requirements off to complete an obligatory degree because all I really want to do is stay at home and start another company.
He patiently listens to my story, and when I’ve run out of things to say, there’s a long pause. Then he says, with a smile on his face, “You remind me of my son.”
His son, as he goes on to tell, never went to college. The son of the head of the economics department, and he never went to college. His son was bright and entrepreneurial, with a passion for music and live performances. He was always staying out late, hitting up the hole-in-the-wall venues to see the acts that everyone would be talking about in two years. He wanted to help new bands get their start, so he started a successful promotion company and helped independent bands book shows. He bootstrapped it, grew it into a sustainable company that had him living out his passion.
And then he died of leukemia.
The professor tells me “Don’t worry about the midterm, and don’t worry about the quizzes. There are questions at the end of every chapter in the book. Answer all of them, and turn those into me at the end of the semester. We’ll count those for your quizzes, and the final for your the midterm.”
It might be the greatest act of grace ever given to me by a stranger.
I go home and diligently start working on the questions that night. Just kidding. I put them off until the day before the final, pull an all-nighter, and turn them in with the test.
I got a B in the class. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to salvage my academic career, as I failed two or three other classes that semester. But it was a small victory in a year riddled with failure and desperation. But more importantly, it reinforced a truth about the world that I had always had a fuzzy understanding of, but had never seen demonstrated so tangibly:
No matter the obstacle, there’s always another way around, and people — people with their own worries and mortgages and sons and daughters and wives and hobbies and hopes and dreams and desires to make a difference in the world — people are the gatekeepers.