One sunny summer weekend afternoon in 1968 my dad and my brother were in the garage changing the oil and tuning up our family station wagon, I was nine-years-old at the time. A bit jealous that my brother was assisting my dad and I was not asked to help, with great enthusiasm and excitement, I yelled out, “Can I help too?”
It was no secret how my dad felt about me, or where I ranked in the hierarchy of his favorite children. It was obvious from the bruises and stitches I sported that I was not my dad’s favorite child. I could never forget the look on my brother’s face, or my dad’s face, when I blurted out that portentous question, “Can I help too?”
My brother, Frank Jr., began to laugh. As children, Frank Jr. and I were bitter enemies. As we grew older, we put aside our venomous childhood ways, and as adult’s nothing could separate us. Frank Sr., looked at me and jeered at my question then he spoke in his familiar raucously harsh tone, “Get the fu*k away from here. Don’t even think about walking in this garage. You wouldn’t know your ass… from a hole in the ground. You’re too fu*kin’ stupid to turn a Goddamn wrench. You’ll never amount to anything you’re a fu*kin’ retard.”
I think that was the first day I said to myself, “So, you think I’m stupid. You are swearing at a hunk of metal because you hit your hand on the motor and then cracked your head on the hood… and I am the stupid one. I’ll show you just how stupid I am.” From that day forward, I had a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to prove I could learn anything, and more importantly, there was absolutely nothing in the world, which I could not accomplish.
I struggled in life. When it came to jobs, I was the epitome of “Jack of all trades, master of none.” I struggled even more in academia, I was held back in the second grade, the fifth grade, and the seventh grade. I was the oldest, and one of the biggest, kids in the eighth grade class, which fared well with only the football and wrestling coaches.
The years passed by, but my passion to learn and make someone of myself never subsided. The chip on my shoulder just grew larger. I always began an adventure, a job, a project at home, but seeing it through until completion was another story. This time I was committed. Absolutely nothing was going to stand in my way, no matter the cost.
I had spent most of my life in the trades. A few years back I had surgery. The surgery went amiss and left me with a defective leg, and as a benefit to my wonderful genetic code I was gifted with a heart abnormality. The doctors wanted me to “accept my fate” and “exist” until my time was up. I refused those terms. I decided if I were breathing, I wanted to make a difference. That is when I applied for college.
To my surprise, I was selected to attend a private college. My dream was to earn a degree in English and Philosophy. Trust me, there were times when I questioned my resilience as a middle-aged adult student, but college has pushed me to limits I never knew I was capable of, and it taught me things I never had the desire to learn before.
That brings me to the apogee of my college experience—graduation. Because we moved allot, and I was held back so much in school previously, I never attended a graduation. I went back to get my GED when I was in my mid-thirties. Let’s face it; all the cards were stacked against me. I was a real hell-raiser, never settled down in one place too long, and my dad was not the only one to tag me with the label of “retard.”
I was a funny looking overweight kid with severely crossed eyes. To my classmates, I was a “retard” and I was too old and too big to be “normal.” When it comes to my character, I was a real character, and honestly my brother and sisters really had the goods on me, they knew the real me, well, they knew the “me” they grew up with. I can barely remember that guy.
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Most students were happy to have their given name and their surname announced over the public-address system. For Stacy Anderson, John White, and Michelle Jones they heard their names announced publicly before in a graduation ceremony. To tell the truth, for those students returning to the stage, their main concern was to make sure each hair was in place for pictures, that they flashed their colorful regalia—various color ribbons for academic achievements, and most importantly, that everyone understand the entire commencement celebration was solely and directly a result of their accomplishments alone.
While standing in line, anticipating the all too familiar entrance anthem, Pomp and Circumstance, which queued our march to the graduate’s seats, I turned to the girl beside me who was wearing three brightly colored sashes over her gown, and I said, “My, you’re awfully colorful today.” She responded with a pretentious, “That’s because I worked harder than you.”
For me, it was not about whom worked harder, or what degree we each held. For me, it was the first time I had ever graduated anything and I wanted the entire commencement assembly to hear my full birth name, Dane Allen Ladwig, after all, I earned it just as much as the colorful self-absorbed girl standing beside me.
When I was a child, to hear my first name associated with my middle name usually meant I was in deep trouble. My mom would be pretty upset if she were to yell out, “Dane Allen.” That always meant, front and center and move your ass! This time it was going to mean something entirely different. This time, my name… would define the moment.
As graduation weekend progressed and the anticipation of finally “becoming” a college graduate settled, I became more excited, and nervous. It finally hit me, I accomplished something no person in the history in my family had ever managed to do before—I graduated college.
My family attended the graduation. My brother Frank and his wife came in from Wisconsin. My sister Debra was there with her husband and my sister Sandra was there. They all huddled together with my wife Denise and my daughter Amy. They said when my name rang out over the loud speaker, “the crowd went crazy.” I was so focused on walking up the stage, and finally getting my hands on that all too important diploma that I worked so hard for, I did not hear the crowd. My family said, “You should have seen, there were even people sitting on the other side of the room, sitting across from us, yelling and clapping (a great big thanks, to my classmates and friends for your encouragement and support).
When my family gathered back at my home for the graduation party, my sister Debra remarked, “At one point I turned and said to Sandra and Frank, ‘Who would have ever thought it would be the three of us sitting here watching Dane graduate college. You do realize that’s Dane we’re talking about!’”
As my undergraduate college experience comes to an end, I already miss my classmates, (some of) my professors and the structure of the classroom. I miss the hectic deadlines and I must admit I miss the long evenings and weekends engulfed by homework. I do not miss the mad rush of finals or the dreaded anticipation of grades. I will never forget those who encouraged me and those who snubbed their noses at “the old man” on campus who thinks he can “hang” with the college kids.
“Beowulf!” still rings across Elmhurst College campus Mall as I stroll through. In my first semester, in British Literature class, classmates nicknamed me Beowulf because I was so passionate about the epic poem. I didn’t mind, I rather think of Beowulf as a tragic hero, I guess in many ways I can relate to the plight of Beowulf.
My family asked what I was going to do now that I have graduated; when I said, “I am going to write a book and get published,” ironically; they did not bat an eyelash. Now, it is as though if I did not do it, they would be surprised.
In a sick sort of way, or perhaps the opposite is true, I owe a small, or possibly a large, debt of gratitude to Frank Sr. Had it not been for that chip on my shoulder I may have never had the inclination to prove that I, Dane Allen Ladwig, who was once accused of not knowing his “ass… from a hole in the ground” because he was “too fu*kin’ stupid” just a “fu*kin’ retard,” could accomplished his dream in spite of the odds and hold a degree from an esteemed College.
I suppose becoming a college graduate has given me a new outlook on life. I realize that no matter the odds, anyone can achieve his or her dreams—no matter how far beyond reach those dreams may seem—just so long as you remain open to the experience!