It was a long-running joke.
“You’re graduating in three years? Must feel good,” my RC advisor said during my senior audit.
“But I could fail one of the classes in Madrid, leaving me two credits short.”
I had a similar exchange while talking to my mom over the phone while in Marseille.
“Living in New York won’t be that expensive,” I said of my post-graduation plans. “Anyway, maybe I’ll fail this Spanish class and have to come home.”
We laughed then, too.
To be sure, I wasn’t laughing when Pedro Trinidad Fernández, a Spanish professor at Madrid’s Universidad Complutense, looked me square in the eye and said, “I think it’s because you have a poor handle of our language.”
Fernández failed me, leaving me two credits shy of 120. And I will never forgive him.
Finishing college in three years wasn’t a long-term goal of mine, but when it became clear that it was possible, I decided to make it happen. I wanted to save money, get some work experience, catch up on reading, paint some pictures, learn a new language, go for early morning runs, feel like the adult I wasn’t. A year in New York seemed ideal.
I could finish my last semester of college in Spain, move out of Michigan and never look back.
My goals were lofty, to say the least. Not passing the last class I needed to graduate seemed like a tragedy. I had failed more than a class. Still, having to return to Michigan in the fall didn’t completely wreck my plans. I did get to spend the summer in New York. And it wasn’t easy.
Where I lived, an apartment on Greenpoint Avenue in Queens, there was a killer dog named Jessie who made camp outside my door (You can read about Jessie in the New York Daily News article, “Park Horror Rottweiler Mauls Dog, Owner,” which labels Jessie as “bloodthirsty.”). I had a landlord who fancied entertaining his guests in just a towel and only a cemetery to run through in the mornings. To add to the character of it all, my first job was canvassing for the ACLU in Manhattan.
Every day for a month, we canvassers took to the streets and spared no one. On the phone? We didn’t care. Late for a meeting? You always have a minute for the Constitution. Need to pick your daughter up from school? She can wait – it is your civil liberties we are talking about. Bush has made a mess of our country – think about the military commissions and indefinite imprisonment. Habeas corpus, I don’t think so! Did I mention we’re nonpartisan? Come on – spare a minute for your rights!
I wasn’t as committed to the cause as some of the others, but it was fun to jump in front of Wall Street types dictating instructions to their secretaries and say: “Stop! Take a minute for the Constitution!” It made it even more rewarding when they said, “Hold the speech, take the Franklin and bother somebody else.”
Despite the enjoyable moments, there was a quota to meet. Canvassers may care about the cause, but they sure talk more about the money. It was a stressful job – if I didn’t meet the week’s quota, I would be fired. Even though I surprised myself with how well I was able to convince people to give me credit card information on the street, I was worried about my rent. I decided to take a job as an “outdoors instructor” at a summer camp in Central Park.
As a political science major, it seemed justifiable that I had left for the big city to fight for civil liberties. But I didn’t know how to explain to my parents that working at a summer camp in New York City was the sure-fire way to success.
The birds of Central Park are second to none, I would tell them. Did you know that the cormorant vomits when it’s nervous? Or that you can tell a male house sparrow from a female if it has a black mask and brown neck?
To say the least, I didn’t think graduating early would have me doing bird calls in the middle of Central Park.
After my long days at the park, I would study for the LSAT. I was always short on cash and energy, always trying to think up some way to come by more of both. Somehow, though, I fell for that city, even though it had conquered me.
At the summer’s end, I knew I wasn’t ready to live on my own in New York – I didn’t yet have the education to get a job that would support my lifestyle – but I knew I would return someday. Although, I was beginning to question if I was ready to live on my own anywhere.
While in New York, I landed a secretarial job at an Ann Arbor law firm. This job covers my rent and other living expenses, and little else. Even so, I’m much better off financially than in New York, even if my bird-watching is less regular.
Returning to Ann Arbor helped me create the life I wanted this year. I have been able to read on my own, take some private language lessons, get a YMCA membership, and even take a short trip to Disney World (on paid vacation days).
But the transition was all but simple. During the fall semester, I left at 2 p.m. for class twice a week, creating mild chaos in the office, which is short on staff. It was new to me to feel guilty about leaving an office. In other jobs I’ve had, my position was never essential to keep the workplace functioning. But for the first time, I felt worse about leaving work than about being late for class.
And I’m not sure I like this new guilt. I miss thinking like a student – writing papers, having reading assignments that I couldn’t possibly finish on time. I continue to work at the law firm and I generally enjoy it. But if I’ve taken anything from skipping out on school early, it’s that it’ll be good to go back. I’m counting down the days until law school.
–Leah Graboski is a former news editor for The Michigan Daily