We’d sent Nellie Junior off to college last August and I’d spent the ensuing months nagging the two other sons about grades and sports. Little Nellie is a high school senior and was applying to the U.S. Naval Academy. Of course in my small mind, that means he needed major league nagging. Young Nellie was in 9th grade, apprehensively looking at an expectations game as big as planet Earth. Hence, it was all very simple. Using Junior as a foil, I was emphatic: “How are you two ever – “I said to both of them, shaking my head in wonderment, “ - ever going to equal your older brother’s success if you don’t listen to me?!”
Clearly, everyone needed a break so I ambled up north to flinty New England to check in on Junior. “At least I don’t have to nag you anymore,” I told him as I set down my suitcases in his dorm room. Then I paused. “I think.”
A bonus was that his college team had a few home games so I could pace a trail in the sidelines of a new zip code. One man’s rut, said Chesterton, is another man’s groove.
Given that Junior’s school is my alma mater, this pilgrimage had exciting potential for maudlin, Faulkernesque nostalgia. Yes, I could walk the freshman quad in the emergent spring, contemplating the once limitless horizons, the quicksilver ambitions, the -- yes, I’ll say it -- audacity of hope for bygone avenues of change, the dreams of my Dad ….
The best I could do, walking amongst the 19th century brick buildings, was lament all the C-plus grades I never got, a victim of my own soft bigotry of low expectations.
The second day there, I took Junior and five of his pals out for dinner, providing everyone a nice opportunity to hear advice about the world. At the restaurant, I artfully arranged to sit at the head of the table, with three bright minds on each side of me, unwittingly ready for the seminar. After we ordered, I invited them to open up.
“What kind of technology did you have back then?” said one alert guy.
"The entire school had only one computer monitor, on which the Dean played a wicked game of Pong.”
“We heard that you worked on Capitol Hill. Is it really like `House of Cards’?”
“Worse. Next question.”
“Did you play sports?”
“When I was here, if you had a heartbeat, you made a Varsity team. I played football.”
“Left out. You – your hand is up.”
“Do you think grades matter in terms of a career?”
“I got passing grades. I ended up in politics. Do the math. I see a hand over there….”
On it went. They were eager to learn and I was happy to oblige, even when explaining my work as an advance man in three blue states for President McCain.
“What do you think of my friends,” eldest son asked as I dropped him off afterwards. “Solid as hell. If they have any follow-up questions, I can stay for an extra day.”
The games were no less compelling. At them, I ran into two Dads with whom I’d played football and who also had sons on the lacrosse team. Paul Bossidy was our quarterback back in the day; he had an arm like a rifle and a commanding presence in the huddle. Jeff Kiesel was a linebacker who was the hardest hitter on the team. I know. I received more than my share of them. When I got my bell rung in a game (read: concussion), he was the first guy over to me on the sideline. He said something like, “Nellie, you don’t look good.” Later, I couldn’t quite recall the route back to my dorm. Both Bossidy and Kiesel were great guys then, they are now, and their kids are superb athletes, like their old men.
The game was a one-goal loss heartbreaker, after which I told Junior that it reminded me of when I worked for the second term of Bush 41.
I had always blithely assumed he was going to be fine here. Back in my day, the kids were incredibly sharp and driven. Nothing had changed. In fact, the only changes were a few more buildings and a universe of glowing rectangles, none with the ‘Pong’ app. I was grateful for my time here back then and even more so now.
While the athletic fields provide a lot of direct metaphors for life – the adversity, camaraderie and discipline -- I see college life as much more opaque. On a field, you sweat and hustle and keep the facemask up, all until the clock is at 00.00 and it’s over. Win or lose, you dig in the next day at practice, always relying on your teammates. A college education is much less distinct – yes, you graduate and get a diploma, a true achievement no matter where you go. But there is no score, no scoreboard clock and in the end, you’re a solitary individual headed out into a world without end, amen. There, you’re driven back on the field as you enter a workplace where, yes, there is adversity and camaraderie and slow steady grinding toward success in your chosen endeavor.
I didn’t bring this up with Junior because he’d heard enough of my philosophy his entire life, fortunate son. Instead, I fell back on the usual tropes. “I knew first-hand they were called Gentleman’s C’s for a reason” and “I notice you didn’t have to carry the water bottles out to the team during timeouts. Like I did.”
Then I told him my work here was done. “Time to get back and continue riding your brothers,” I said wistfully. We were walking through the fabled quad in the spring breeze of a late afternoon amongst a swirl of overachievers. Junior noted that one said brother was leaving for the Naval Academy in two months. “Yeah, and then it’s only your youngest brother I’ll have to nag.”
Junior paused and then replied, “Lucky him.” I detected no trace of irony.
Nellie Junior, Little Nellie, Nellie, Young Nellie