I never had good grades in high school. In fact, since the fifth grade I had trouble passing a lot of my classes. It was never because the material was too hard, and I didn’t have a learning disability making it difficult. I just hated doing homework. I would fail to turn in assignments, and I started by making simple excuses, then moved on to complicated excuses, then moved on to not making excuses at all. I just wouldn’t do my homework. I found it boring and repetitive. But when it came time to take a quiz or a test, I would always pass it with flying colors, most times acing it. Needless to say, this greatly frustrated many of my teachers. When I was in middle school, my mom was pretty involved in the school, so they would talk to her directly and tell her what was going on. These conversations usually led to me using a Christmas vacation or Spring Break to make up a significant percentage of the assignments that I had just failed to do. Even with this kind of negative reinforcement, my habits did not improve when I went to high school. Now, without the burden of my mom being readily known and available to staff, I sank deeper into apathy for mundane classwork. Essays were done, but slipshod and last minute. My history with science labs was notorious. And still, my grades held, for the most part, above passing and sometimes close to the top of the class due to tests. I could still crush a test, even after drawing comic book characters during the lecture and ignoring the homework outright. This annoyed a lot of my classmates. This frustrated many of my teachers. I still graduated with honors from high school. But due to some of my less than stellar grades, I was not a shoe in for college.
I wanted to go to college, because that’s what you do if you’re a white kid from the suburbs. You go to school, you go to high school, then you go to college, possibly graduate school. Then you get married, have some kids, and move back to the neighborhood you grew up in, or one that looked just like it not too far away. But it was going to be a difficult needle to thread, considering my I did not want to go to school locally (or even in the same state) and my grades didn’t exactly jump out at an admissions department. In the summer between my junior and senior year, I started visiting schools. On the insistence of my parents, I went to quite a few around central New York. But although they were good and offered some things that I wanted, I was still desperate to leave the state. Knowing this, my parents took me to a college night and proceeded to ask every school there from Ohio how close they were from Cedar Point, a favorite place for my parents to go. Especially my father, roller coaster enthusiast that he is. But that’s a topic for another day. Most schools laughed at their joke and moved on, but the representative from Ashland University jumped at the chance to sell his school to us with this opening.
And so it was that we visited Ashland University on our way home from a trip to King’s Island in Cincinnati (a large number of our family trips revolved around theme parks. again, that’s a topic for later). I really liked the campus when I saw it, and liked what they could offer for an aspiring art major such as myself. But, since Ashland was still a private college, and since I was from out of state, it was going to be expensive. Possibly prohibitively expensive. We were not a rich family, and an incident that same summer had eaten up my college savings in legal fees (also a story for later). Financial aid would cover some of it, but my family existed in that awful grey area of not being able to afford tuition outright, not making enough to get a good loan, and making too much to get a significant amount of financial aid. It seemed like a hopeless cause. I certainly wasn’t going anywhere on a sports scholarship, and had not had any success applying for other scholarships, none of which would have done much to dent the price tag. I’m not complaining, I completely understand why “white, middle-class heterosexual male” is an under-served market for scholarships. We happen to be the reason the other groups need them. But at this juncture, it wasn’t working out for me. Then we found out about the scholarship exam.
Ashland University offered an exam to all incoming freshmen. The did it twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring. Depending on how well you did, Ashland would then foot part of your tuition for four years. The student who had the top score on the exam got a full four-year scholarship (at the rate of that current year). This was perfect for me. A test! I can do a test! If I could get one of the top ten scores, that might be enough to offset the tuition for me to afford going there. I had to try. I mean, I did really well on my SAT and ACT exams (there’s another story there I might get to at some point), outscoring most if not all of my class (depending on the test). Why couldn’t I do well on this, too.
So on a crisp autumn Friday afternoon, my dad and I set out for Ashland University. Other than sitting for almost two hours in traffic on I-271 outside of Cleveland, it was an uneventful journey. We stayed at a Super 8 just off the highway near Mansfield. The next morning, we went to Ashland and I took the test. The test, if I’m remembering correctly, was about one hundred multiple choice questions, and your choice of three essay questions at the end. There was a break between the multiple choice and essay questions. Now, I considered myself quite the writer, but my skill with essays was never my strong suit. I was more of a fiction and creative writer type. Making concise arguments based on a hypothesis was the kind of work I had spent the last seven years desperately avoiding. But this was my chance.
The multiple choice wasn’t bad at all. I felt pretty confident through most of it, quickly filling in the proper bubbles with my #2 pencil. I was done about ninety minutes before the time limit was up, and just hung out reading a book for the remainder. Then we had lunch, which my dad was there for. There was some kind of program for the parents diligently waiting, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. He asked me what I thought, and I told him I felt pretty good. But that was the multiple choice section. The essay was the hard part. I had already had to write so many of those “personal essays” on entrance applications, and I was not looking forward to whatever essay I was going to have to write for this. Was it going to be another “personal narrative?” If that was the case, I was screwed. I had no gift for those. Was it going to be some kind of “read and discuss what the author means by the following passage” nonsense. I hated those too, since they always took some scenario totally out of context. That or the just used one of Shakespeare’s hundreds of sonnets. Not my brand of writing, sonnets. Couldn’t stand them, much less write about them. So, as lunch wore on, my anxiety just increased.
Lunch was finally over and all of the prospective freshmen filed back into the banquet-hall-turned-test-center. They gave us our packet with the three essay options and a few sheets of lined paper (ironically, not college-ruled paper). Then they told us to begin. I looked through the three questions, worried what I would find. The questions were about what I expected. There was a passage from some book that we were supposed to analyze and write about, there was a “compare and contrast these two historical figures” essay option, and then there was the third option.
“It is said that art imitates life, or that life imitates art. Which one of these do you believe to be more true and why?”
Well, I was an art major, or at least I planned on being an art major. Somewhere, they have that written down next to my name, and if I don’t take this question, are they going to look and say, “What kind of art major doesn’t want to write an essay about art?” This was obviously a trap. But I had to take it. It seemed the most logical for my chosen major. I thought maybe taking one of the other two might be the bolder move because of this, but decided against that idea for two reasons. First, I didn’t think the people who made this test or the people who graded this test were that clever. I was, by my own assumption, probably in a minority of art majors in the room. Ashland was not actually know for its art program. So why would they waste an essay question geared towards one or possibly two people out of this group of seventy or so kids. Second, I didn’t want to write about the random, context omitted passage or the historical figures who I knew very little about. And so the third one was for me.
I did get a bit bold with my answer. I split the middle, saying both statements were true. What was wrong with me? I was making this intentionally harder. I had now put myself in a situation where I have to prove each statement is true without disproving the other at the same time. I couldn’t make any arguments that would undercut my arguments on the other side. Way to move the goalposts unnecessarily farther! But I went with it. I didn’t really speak to imitation on either side as much as I talked about the symbiotic relationship of influence between art and life. To make my first point, art influencing life, I told a story about how my graphic design classes forced me to notice the architecture of the atrium in a building downtown. Without the influence of art, I would have just seen some painted, exposed girders. Due to the artistic training I had received, I not only noticed the girders, but noticed the negative space they created and how they created the illusion of depth and space in what was a narrow area. I argued that most people probably didn’t see or didn’t care because they had not been influenced by art enough to appreciate it. To make my counterpoint that life influences art, I discussed my music habits. I talked about how I listen to music based mostly on my mood. I talked about what I listen to when I’m happy or sad, but really brought it home when I talked about listening to White Zombie. I listened to White Zombie when I was angry or really upset, but also listened to it when I felt good, and there were times when listening to White Zombie changed my mood. It was my clincher. With one band I was showing both life influencing art and art influencing life. I promise you I made the point with more eloquence and flourish than I am right now, but it was a long time ago and I barely remember all of the various points I made on it. Suffice to say, White Zombie was my closing argument. It was a risky choice. I was hoping that whatever crusty old professor they had wrangled to read all of these would get the idea of who or what White Zombie was based on my description and arguments. White Zombie was hardly popular enough to resonate in the public mind as a metal band. They were just some noise that we kids listened to. But it seemed like the best closing argument I could think of. One artist to make the point on both sides.
I put my pencil down, feeling satisfied but still a bit apprehensive. I was pretty sure I did well enough on the multiple choice that even if the essay was a total wash I would still get a decent scholarship. Dad and I returned home the next day, and then I spent a few anxious weeks wondering how I did. One night, the phone rang. It was Ashland, calling to talk to me about the exam results. I was not expecting a phone call. I figured it would just be a letter, like my SAT or ACT results. The representative from Ashland was calling to congratulate me on my results. I was the top student in my group. I would receive a full four year scholarship! Dumbfounded, I thanked him, then rushed to tell my parents to news. The letter confirming all of this came a day or two later.
Without that scholarship, I would have never been able to afford Ashland University. If I did not go to Ashland, I would not have met my best friend Jeremy, or met his brother Josh, my current best friend and best man at my wedding. More importantly, I would not have met the woman who would eventually become my wife. The tales of my times at Ashland are for another day, but the importance of my short time there cannot be overlooked or discounted. Now, I don’t know how much of my score on that test came down to the convincing case I made in my essay using White Zombie as the cornerstone of my argument, but I like to think the essay had something to do with it. There’s no way I scored that high without a decent score on the essay. So I think it’s safe to assume that without White Zombie, I would not have earned that scholarship. So, using the transitive property, without White Zombie, a lot of important things in my life would not have been.
As an interesting epilogue, the first CD I bought at the campus bookstore once I started at Ashland was the White Zombie remix album Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds.