Along about this time of year, graduating seniors come into my office, sit on my old blue recliner, and tell me that they don’t know what they are going to do with their lives. I have three responses: a) “Don’t worry—life is going to do to you what it wants,” b) “It’s never easy starting out,” and c) “Get as much education as you can, as young as you can.”
Then I tell them a little about my life.
In 1976, I was a newly minted B.A. in English—highest g.p.a. in my College of Arts & Sciences, writer for the school paper, Who’s Who, etc. But the only job that I could find in the small, northeast Alabama town where I decided to hole up after graduation was cooking third-shift at an egg-and-waffle diner. Humanities majors will understand my thoughts at the time when I make reference to “the dark night of the soul.”
Because life was doing to me what it wanted, I became friends with a fellow short-order cook—Tho Nguyen. Tho was a Vietnamese “boat person.” He had worked in a high administrative post in Saigon with the South Vietnamese Department of Education, he was a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and he spoke fluent French. He was considered dangerous by the invading Communists.
After Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops in April 1975, members of the South Vietnamese government, military, or anyone with ties to the U.S. were under suspicion of treason and could be arrested, shot, or sent to “re-education camps.” Tho and his family decided to make a break for it.
Tho told me that the escape boat he boarded on the Saigon River was fired on by soldiers on the riverbank. Worse, in the chaos of the exodus, he had become separated from his wife and children. He eventually made it to safety on a US warship in the South China Sea while his family remained stranded in Vietnam. He would not see them again for years.
Through the kindness of strangers, Tho ended up in north Alabama where a purple-heart US Army Vietnam vet found him a place to stay and a job in the diner. Tho taught me how to cook: omelets, poached eggs, steaks, cheeseburgers, and how to flip eggs in a pan over-easy. He was a teacher after all. We must have looked like Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber working the grill—Tho was a little over five-feet tall, I was a little over six.
I helped him with his English; he helped me with my French. To this day, in my head a burger with everything is, “ham-bur-ger toute chose.”
And we talked philosophy. He told me that all philosophies ultimately address one question: what am I truly? There we were the two of us trying to figure out each in our own way what we were truly. Just about every support system that Tho had relied on during his adult life had been taken away—family, job, savings, home, country, culture, status. He was alone: a stranger in a strange land. Was his knowledge of philosophy providing sense and solace now?
Not only is the question what am I truly one for philosophers, it’s also a basic theme in literature. Hamlet wonders who he is—but only comes to an understanding of himself when it is too late. As he dies, he tells Horatio, “report me and my cause aright . . . what a wounded name . . . shall live behind me!”
In another example, in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness a doctor measures Marlowe’s head before he takes a job as a riverboat captain in the Belgian Congo: “It would be . . . interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot,” the doctor says. Later, upon seeing the horrors of colonialism in Africa, the Marlowe says, “I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting.”
Marlowe goes on to say, “These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone [the police, the butcher on the corner, the weight of public opprobrium] you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness.”
For Tho, there were some hard choices. Because his English was spotty, he knew that a job in American academe was out of the question. He took stock of his talents as well as his age and decided he would make a career change into food service. He relocated to the large Vietnamese community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and took culinary classes to become a chef.
In the great, Old English epic Beowulf, the hero finds himself cornered in the underwater cave of Grendel’s mother. His heretofore trusty sword Hrunting cannot crack the braincase of the attacking monster. What to do? What is Beowulf now? He responds with his own resourcefulness. “. . . he flung his sword away . . . he would have to rely on the might of his arm . . . The sure-footed fighter felt daunted and he stumbled and fell . . . Beowulf got back up on his feet.” He kept his wits. He saw a better sword in the monster’s armory and he won the day.
In my general studies literature course I ask the students why they are there—I mean literally, sitting there. “To earn a diploma,” they say. Why do you want a diploma? “To get a job?” Why do you want a job? “To make money.” Well, I argue, if what you want is a job and money, you could do that now.
The point I’m leading them to is that in their own ways, the students are embarking on quests qualitatively as challenging as the heroes of old. And those heroes didn’t persevere for selfish reasons—Odysseus could have stayed immortally frolicking with Calypso on her idyllic island; Beowulf could have remained in Geatland quaffing mead in the great hall. But they undertook and persevered in their quests for the sake of their people. What they experienced and learned during their trials and travails they employed after finally getting back to their homeland to improve the lives of family, friends, and community.
I tell my students that their quests are nobler than Odysseus’s—he wanted to reunite with Penelope, to see his son Telemachus grown to a man, to hold in his arms again his elderly father Laertes. Tangible goals.
Our students’ quests are nobler—and I wish I could get them really to believe it—because they are undertaken for the sake of people they may not even now yet—future spouses, future children, their new communities. Intangible goals.
Sometimes it helps to understand that the statement what am I truly is both the question and the answer that life presents when we are confronted with disappointments, crises, challenges, and yes, even successes. I’m not sure that we are expected to give an answer. It’s meta-cognition—thinking about thinking.
For me, the one idea that I held on to during those long hours on the graveyard shift working with Tho was that I wanted to continue my education. I liked to read, I liked to write. I knew that I wanted more.
Increasingly, there are commentaries about the value of a college education. We all know the statistics—a college degree has become almost ridiculously expensive. According to Forbes:
“Student loan debt is now the second highest consumer debt category—behind only mortgage debt—and higher than both credit cards and auto loans. . . . [There] are more than 44 million borrowers with $1.3 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. alone. The average student in the Class of 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt.”
And imagine my dismay when I read the title of this opinion piece in The New York Times: “College May Not Be Worth It Anymore.” The writer, Ellen Rupple Shell, a professor at Boston University, suggests, “We appear to be approaching a time when, even for middle-class students, the economic benefit of a college degree will begin to dim. Since 2000, the growth in the wage gap between high school and college graduates has slowed to a halt; 25 percent of college graduates now earn no more than does the average high school graduate.”
But what else is better for the money and time than an education?
I believe that our students, my colleagues, and the administration know the answer. However, I’m not sure that state legislators, political power brokers, and unfortunately, many tax-paying citizens would arrive at the same conclusion.
But where else perhaps outside of a religious service do people reflect, read, or study the concept what am I truly? I daresay it happens in my literature and writing classes, and I would hazard that it takes place in other classes as well in TROY—philosophy, leadership, psychology, and political science, to name just a few.
The American higher educational system is egalitarian—or at least it used to be—if you’re willing give it a shot and work hard, we’ll give you a chance to study and graduate. It produces what the columnist David Brooks calls a meritocracy. However, it doesn’t end there: “We need to build a meritocracy that is true to its values, truly open to all,” he writes.
But Brooks goes on to suggest that the meritocracy should be reconfigured to include, “a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.”
So, what are some definitions to help describe what am I truly? Well, Paul makes some suggestions about possible attitudes: loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. Homer, too, offers other examples: courage, loyalty, perseverance, hospitality, self-respect, as well as righteous indignation.
Even old Jacob Marley’s ghost has suggestions: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.”
* * *
I drove Tho to the station in Anniston where he boarded a bus to Grand Rapids. We kept in touch by letter, but life kept doing what it wanted to us and we fell out of correspondence. I knew that he became a chef, and I went off to grad school to continue my education. Within a few years, he was able to arrange the logistics to bring his wife and children to America. I would go on to become a university professor.
I’ve been trying to find Tho. I want to tell him that his example and the lessons he taught during lonely, desperate hours in an all-night diner in north Alabama made a lasting impression on a young man who was just starting out and trying to find his way in the world.