I don’t regret many things in life, but there is one thing I regret mightily.
When I was a senior in high school, I received a full scholarship to the Univ. of New Mexico, without asking for it. The university was targeting bright local kids with good GPAs in hopes of getting them to stay home and contribute to the state. Being a budding elitist, and bearing the mark of so many motivated teens from towns like mine whereby we mistakenly think nothing good ever comes from a place like this, I turned it down. I couldn’t go to UNM, I reasoned. Even though both my parents had gone there and my father had made a nice career for himself as a tenured professor there. I, I told myself, was cut out for bigger and better things. Like Boston. Like the ivy leagues.
Off I went, to get my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from fancy East Coast schools, using student loans to do it. I’m still paying those loans back, almost 20 years later, and I can confidently tell you that the teachers and students at the fancy schools were no better, overall, than their counterparts at the public university I’d turned my nose up at. I can’t tell you how many times, listening to some rich idiot who was a legacy at Columbia, I thought to myself, “Girl, you’ve been duped. You bought the lie of elitism, and man was it expensive.”
They tell you getting a fancy degree from a fancy university will help you get further in life. It’s a lie. Education is what you make of it. I knew spoiled rich kids at Columbia who did heroin and navel shots instead of homework, who are, in their 40s, still living off their parents. I’ve known kids at UNM, from humble backgrounds, who studied their asses off and worked two jobs at the same time, and went on to become successful professionals.
I loved this piece by John Rosemond that also ran in the local paper this morning. In it, he refers to a survey of Fortune 500 leaders that shows many of them went to regular schools like UNM, or no school at all. The idea that a fancy education will guarantee success is flawed. In the final analysis, says Rosemond, it is character, not prestige, that will determine your place in the world.
My greatest success in life has come as a novelist. I never studied to be a novelist. My bachelor’s degree is in music performance, and my master’s degree is in journalism. I began to be a novelist when I was 14 years old. It was a calling. I am convinced now that if I had simply attended UNM and gotten a degree in any field at all, I would still have been a novelist. I might even have been a successful novelist long before it actually happened for me, because I wouldn’t have been sidetracked with other stuff.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the character versus prestige issue lately, as I divide my life between the city of Albuquerque, where my son attends an excellent prep school, and the ranch my cowboy manages 250 miles away. The school is expensive, but the classes are great. But part of me wonders if it might be better for my son to be homeschooled at the ranch, where he’d learn a lot more about character and responsibility than he ever could at any school, no matter how good.
The elitist part of me balks at the idea of moving my bright and promising boy to the middle of nowhere, to both study calculus and shovel manure. Part of me clings to the notion of prep schools and ivy leagues somehow being my son’s ticket to success. But surely I know better than that now, don’t I?
I’ve recently gone into business with a super successful film producer, named as one of the top paid people in Hollywood (if not the top, frankly) in spite of his having come from a very humble background, dropped out of high school, and holding only a GED. Talent is talent. You can’t buy it. And the older I get the more it seems to be that ambition and creativity can actually be thwarted in fancy schools, where a sense of entitlement often reigns. It’s the bright kids who’ve had to struggle a little who have something to say, who think of new ways to do things…
My son was born smart. His smarts won’t go away, no matter where he goes to school. I am starting to think he might do better, in the long run, from having things a little tougher than he does right now. I’m on the fence. I just don’t know.
What I do know? I didn’t need to waste all this money on these fancy degrees. I would have been a writer, eventually, no matter what. I should have taken the scholarship, but I was too arrogant to realize that, and it has been this same arrogance that has stood in my way of certain successes throughout my life. I wish I’d known then what I know now, but I didn’t, and now I just hope I can make the right choices for my son.