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Mother Nature Sent Me to College

Taking Big Risks Can Lead to Pivotal Moments in Life

In the summer of 1990 I was asked, “If you could pick Time Magazine’s person of the year, who would it be, and why?” I chose “Mother Nature” and it landed me a full scholarship to college.

When I look back on that moment in my life, I realize how pivotal that choice was and how it set me on a course of a new manifested future. At the ripe old age of 17, I took a huge risk choosing Mother Nature over other more conventional figures of the time, like the President or a famous actor/actress or a family member. I realize, now it was a choice that opened new doors for me and a risk worth taking. As humans we can have up to 70,000 thoughts in a day. Mostly self-deprecating noise, about how we “can’t” do big shit. Imagine if just one of those thoughts was about taking a big risk. What could we accomplish?

My path to that pivotal moment was driven by the circumstances of my life at the time, all of which contributed to the choice I made. I grew up in small town in southern New Jersey near the Barnegat Bay with my mother and my stepfather. We had a small ranch in a planned community of modest working-class homes. It, like the others in the neighborhood was built as a rectangle and covered in asbestos shutters, typically in colors like “sea foam green” or “gracious grey”. It was 1500 sq ft, with three bedrooms and one bathroom. It was a standard formula home built in the 1970s and plenty for us to live out our daily lives. The kitchen, living room, dining room on one side, and a small hallway with three bedrooms and one bathroom on the other. I distinctly remember the hollow wood veneer doors that barely gave us privacy and the original shag carpet that always made me feel like there was something hiding within, like insects in the polyester mist. My mother and stepfather ran a small used appliance and service business out of the house. This was long before the days of mass appliance purchase at Home Depot, Lowe’s or Best Buy. Then, you went to small independently owned shops for appliances or maybe from Sears if you could pay top dollar. Any existing appliances you owned, you got fixed by a repair man, like my stepfather. This allowed my parents to run their business as a going concern and they could pay the bills and put food on the table. They ran the business out of the kitchen. The small space with an area for a cafe table, was often filled with files, service tickets, ledgers, pencils and ash trays teaming over with cigarette butts from the day’s home office chain smoking. It was the type of business that did not adhere to 9-5, and my parents dutifully did what they had to, to keep money coming in, including taking dinner time and late-night calls. The mustard yellow rotary dial phone, mounted to the kitchen wall, would often ring, just as we sat down to eat, and my mother would jump from the table and grab the handled portion of the phone, answering with an almost repressed annoyance, “Astro Appliance, how can I help you?”. The phone had a long spiral mustard yellow cord, and my high energy mother would pace from the kitchen to the dining room and back as she responded to customer’s seemingly uninformed questions about their broken washers and dryers.

As small business owners, my parents did not earn much. And as a teenager in the mid to late 80’s I knew it was incumbent upon me to find a way to get an education, if I ever wanted to move on from New Jersey and broaden my horizons. My parents and I never had the discussion about how to pay for college, but I knew that they were not able to save, and it was always assumed we would just figure it out. My mother impressed upon me that the way that I approached my education was completely and totally up to me. “Don’t do well in school because you want to please me”, she would say. “Do it for you.” “You want to do big things, kiddo, focus on your schoolwork and get good grades”, she once said. My mother may have been sending me on a path to rebellion. But I would like to think she knew who she was dealing with and was saying to me exactly what I needed to hear to get in the “flow” and be motivated. She was laying a foundation for her son to be a risk taker.

I did take my mother’s words to heart because I did want to do big things. The high school that I attended was actually a good public school and had a reputation for sending students to some fairly prestigious universities, especially in the region. Being one of the poorer kids in schools did not make it easy to know that my path to college was not similar to those of my peers. Many were looking at private schools around the country and those that could not, were headed to the regional community college as a viable option to get their college education started.

I often thought about just going to community college and relieve the stress on my mom, who I knew fretted about how I was going to pay for school, even if she never said so. I could see the emotion in her eyes when I would talk about it and that I wanted to study architecture or engineering. She would encourage me, but would often look away, and then get up and stir the pot of sauce or other dish she was making for dinner while cleaning up the stacks of paper from the days work in the home office. Despite the alternative options and the obstacles, I knew at the age of 17 that I had a pre-ordained path. I could feel the universe sending me other vibes, although I had no idea then what that was. So, my instinct was to do what came naturally to me, I would focus on getting good grades and I would start making a list of all the scholarships and financial aid I could apply for. I would spend countless hours, trolling through local announcements from the Elks Club and the Rotary club about scholarships they were providing to local students. I began making a list of the universities that I wanted to attend and would call to find out what they had available to apply for. It was a quest. I felt if I could just cobble together enough varying scholarships, I could pay enough tuition to get through and fill the gap with financial aid.

As I poked further along through my Senior year in high school, I worked with my mother to narrow the list of schools I was interested in, that we could then being visiting. As I was focused on engineering, there were four. Steven’s Institute of Technology, in New Jersey, the Savanah College of Art and Design in Georgia, Duke University in North Carolina, and Drexel University in Philadelphia. It was Drexel that piqued my interest most, being an urban campus and far enough away from home for independence, but close enough to still easily drive home for holidays. It also had an amazing selection of scholarship choices, including the “Drexel University Presidential Scholarship”, a full ride to the school, covering 5 years of tuition, room and board. It was a coveted prize and at the time, only granted to one student a year.

After being told about this, I saw it as my window of opportunity. I had to apply. It was a long shot, I knew, but I had to try. I called the university counselor I was working with and asked her to send me the application. There was no internet at the time, so everything was being done by snail mail. When I received the application, it was actually quite simple. It contained the normal questions one would expect:

-Classes taken in high school - check - I did advanced placement,

-GPA -check - likely the salutatorian of my class,

-Extracurricular activities - check I had volunteered for everything to improve my chances for college, and;

-Future goals - check – I wanted to be an engineer.

The piece de resistance, however, was the essay question. “If you could choose Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, who would it be, and why?” My first reaction was fear. That seemed like a lofty question. Who was I to pick Time’s person of the year? What were the qualifications? Should it be a known figure, or perhaps someone in my life? I began to ponder my options. The stakes were high, and I knew I either had to write a masterpiece for a conventional figure or do something that stood out. Something really unconventional. Fly my freak flag. Knowing that I was not the best writer in the world, I decided I had to do something unconventional. It was a risk, but I had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. If I could get that scholarship, it would be an enormous relief for me and my family.

I began jotting notes on paper about possible ideas. I thought about non-standard possibilities like Disney characters or maybe someone from another country that people were less aware of. And then it came to me…I had just spent the spring working on efforts around Earth Day and many celebrities had jumped on the bandwagon to promote it, including Bette Midler. She had done an event that included her being dressed as Mother Earth and she used her comedic and singing talent to promote conservation. She portrayed mother earth as being beat up and sad surrounded by garbage. It was clever. I was always drawn to her as a kid and the images of her as this earthly figure were burned in my mind. Never mind that my early affinity for her as a teenager was probably a strong indicator that I would eventually come out as a gay man, but no matter, I had my inspiration. I would choose Mother Nature as person of the year, and to really make it authentic, I decided to structure the essay as an interview, like a sit down with Diane Sawyer. I would sit down with Mother Nature and ask her questions about all that was on my mind. How did she see us humans treating the planet? What could we do to help her and keep our home safe for future generations? What was her biggest fear?

I didn’t have a means to type this all out, and I felt a handwritten essay would fall flat on a collegiate review team in terms of impression. I began asking my friends if they had a typewriter I could borrow, and with the best of luck my friend Lisa had just been gifted a “word processor” which allowed you to review the words you typed on a single line screen, before submitting it to print out on the box like device. It was easy to type the words, but grueling to review them line by line. It did however allow you to proofread before printing and avoid the endless strokes of “white out” on your page. So I went over Lisa’s house one school night and just began writing. I typed away as fast as the ideas would come to me and the words and dialogue just poured out for me. I painstakingly scrolled line by line through the essay, reading it out loud to Lisa and taking her comments and other errors and making updates. I then hit print. Folded the three pages into a clean white envelope and nervously but hopefully dropped the envelope into our nearby mailbox on the way to school. Risk taken. Done.

The stress began to set in after three weeks went by and I had not heard anything. The fear of knowing that I had such a small chance of getting that scholarship, but also holding on to a glimmer of hope was palpable and eating at me day after day. Perhaps my efforts to go out on a limb and do something different would pay off, or perhaps I would continue my slog of finding smaller scholarships and financial aid to hobble together a package of payment for my education. Either way, I would find a way, but winning the Drexel University Presidential Scholarship would certainly make my life a whole lot easier.

It wasn’t until a full six weeks later that the phone rang one evening after dinner. I was in my room, doing some homework when I heard my mother decry her dutiful “Astro Appliance, can I help you?”. I expected to then hear her normal response of questions asking about whether the dryer was heating, or the washer would go into spin cycle, followed by “well we probably need to come to by and look at it.” For this particular call however, there was silence. An eerie silence as well, as I could not hear my mother doing her normal pace back and forth between kitchen and dining room. I ignored it and went back to my schoolwork when a new sound broke through the hallway and permeated my hollow veneer door. My mother’s footsteps barreling down the hallway, stretching the mustard yellow spiral cord as far as it would go without breaking. “Keith, Keith, you have to come get the phone”, she screamed. I jumped up from desk and opened the door, seeing her peering at me with this odd look of stress on her face, but also some relief. Thinking nothing more of it, I stomped down the hallways and grabbed the phone.

The voice on the other side was sweet and kind, as she asked, “Is this Keith Al - y - a”. Yes, “Keith Al-Yea”, I replied. “This is he.”, correcting the pronunciation of my last name, as I so often had to do. “Well, I have some very good news for you Keith. I am calling on behalf of the Drexel University and Board of Trustees to congratulate you on being this year’s recipient of the Presidential Scholarship.” I remember distinctly asking her if she could repeat that, because I honestly could not believe it, but the surge of joy, relief and gratitude that went through my body was a moment I will never forget. I looked to my mother, who was standing there about 4 ft away from me, chewing her fingernails and gazing at me with anticipation, waiting to hear what this voice on the other side of mustard yellow phone was saying. I capped my hand over the mouthpiece, and whispered to my mother, “I got it mom, I got it, I got the scholarship”. At that moment, this little 5’ 5” women jumped from those four feet away and wrapped her arms and legs around me as we both jumped and screamed with joy. I could hear the young lady on the phone beaming with pride and delight at our response, and as my mother climbed down off of me, she put her hand on my face and smiled at me, pride in her eyes and relief on her face. That look is something I will never forget. Risk taken. Reward received.

I’m not embarrassed to say I cried as I typed these words for the blog, because the memory is strong and palpable for me. The emotions felt then are as strong now. That decision sent me on the next stage of my universal path and is an element of who I am today. It was achieved by pushing myself to go beyond the boundaries, to take a leap of faith, to be unconventional, and reaping a bountiful reward. I decide to use just one of my 70,000 thoughts that day to take a big risk and it led to a pivotal moment in my life. I know all of you have these moments you can look back on, when you did something bold or different and it led to new things. Cherish them, learn from them. You have more pivotal moments to come, and you can use the juice form these experiences to power you through to the next one. If you haven’t had one of those moments yet in your life, may this story be inspiration for you to take a risk now to do something you have been holding back from doing. Take the leap of faith and let the universe deliver.

Mother Nature sent to me college. She was a risk worth taking. Find your “Mother Nature” and do some big shit.

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