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A long and winding road back to the University

Courtesy of Ray Malo

By Ray Malo, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 11, 2012

I had achieved my lifelong dream: to play music for people in a different city every night. But it was a huge risk to give this a shot. I was starting to feel like it hadn’t been worth it. I was happy to be a piece of the band’s success, but that success wasn’t necessarily my own. And then I found the e-mail.

It was November 2010. I was in a motel lobby in northern California, taking advantage of the complementary Wi-Fi. Having been on the road for weeks, bored with the usual website options, I gave my old Hotmail account a look. I had received an academic suspension from the University in 2001, so I forwarded my University e-mails to this account to stay in touch with old friends. My inbox now was mostly junk. “Re: Hi,” read most subject lines, from computer-generated girls who wanted to meet up.

Why I clicked on the actual junk folder, I will never know. I guess if this nonsense got past the spam filter, I wanted to see what it was actually catching. Incredibly, there it was near the top of the heap: an e-mail from Dan Freidus, my academic advisor at the University. Dan had written, simply, “Hi, Ray. Did you ever finish school? If not, would you consider finishing back at U of M?”

Wrong turn

I was intimidated the first few weeks of my freshman year. I had been an average high school student – mostly because I didn’t manage my time well, not because I didn’t grasp concepts. But in these classrooms, I just wasn’t getting it. And surrounded by the brightest kids I’d ever met, it seemed like I was the only one. I felt helpless and all I wanted to do was avoid that feeling.

So instead of seeking help, my semester was mostly bros and beer bongs, beer pong and barn dancing. Besides those first weeks, I barely remember setting foot in a classroom. Nevertheless, I was surprised when the academic probation letter arrived. This school is so big. How had they noticed?

The suspension came after another unfocused semester. In an effort to get back on track, I spent the summer taking classes at New York University. But distractions, as you might guess, have a way of seeking out an 18-year-old in New York City.

After a final desperate attempt to re-enter the University, living on campus to “immerse myself in academia” while taking the bus to Washtenaw Community College, I came home to New Jersey, defeated. I had achieved practically nothing in college and any attempt to process this just made me feel sorry for myself. I wasn’t smart enough. Or just didn’t care enough. Either way, I realized that I despised the very concept of school. I simply couldn’t figure it out.

I began working part-time in fashion retail. Unlike the classroom, this was an environment in which I was comfortable sticking my neck out, working hard and moving up. In two years I was a store manager. Four years and three stores later, I was promoted to the Puma store in Union Square and made a move to Brooklyn.

Still, I spent a lot of time trying to plan out the next thing. With no degree, I knew a career like this had a ceiling and would always require thankless late nights and weekend shifts.

My daydreams drifted toward playing music. A musician since age four, I’d always written songs. I was an anxious performer though, especially as an adult, and open mics, cover bands and collaborations had come and gone — but then came the opportunity.

The Risk

An employee walked into work one day and said, “Ray, you play piano, right? This band I know needs a keyboard player for their next tour. I’ll forward you an e-mail.” I always perked up at these offers, but ultimately backed out. I truly thought of myself as an amateur, intimidated by the professionals who had made it in the New York scene.

But I figured it couldn’t hurt to check this band out. I began consuming whatever bits of information I could find on April Smith and the Great Picture Show.