Did I waste my college opportunity?

In two months, if all goes well and schedule permits, I will attend my 25-year reunion at Duke.

I never really wanted to go anywhere else for college. In high school, I had a list of schools that mildly interested me. But my junior year, the Athens Academy college tour swung through Duke, and I fell in love. (With the school. And maybe the tour guide.) I only applied to two schools — Duke and Virginia. For the latter, my “alumni son” status put me in the in-state pool at the time, and at the time, I had no need to sweat admissions in Charlottesville. (Today might be a different story. Don’t let your kids apply to just two schools, especially if they’re both about as good as schools get.)

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A few days after this photo, four people in this photo returned to college, and three left to start their freshman years. The dude in the Duke shirt was in the latter group.

Thirty years after that first impression, I still love my school. But it’s not without reservation. Duke, to me, is a bit like a family member who’s sometimes a little embarrassing, sometimes a little arrogant. And I know I didn’t fully live up to my part of the relationship.

I met people I treasure to this day. I knew talented athletes. Brilliant musicians. People who opened my eyes to a wider world than I saw in my wonderful but not particularly diverse high school.

Academically, I could’ve done better. And Duke could’ve done better — better advice, better teaching. Yes, I said better teaching.

So take this as a cautionary tale of sorts. Students have to be better than I was at taking charge. You can’t count on advisors to get you where you should be, next semester or after graduation.

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18th birthday. GPA at the time: 2.75. Still have the shirt, but it’s safe to say it doesn’t fit.

Let’s take a look …

Freshman year, first semester

The University Writing Course was required. It was a joke. I had a history grad student as a teacher, and when I misread the instructions on an early assignment, she clearly marked me as an idiot. She gave contradictory criticisms of my next several assignments, then let me off the hook with a C-minus. I’m still tempted to dedicate a book to her.

Aside from that, I took a buffet approach to picking classes:

  • Astronomy was a good science class you can’t take in high school.
  • Intro to Art History wasn’t one of my first choices, and I stunk at it. Literally — I signed up for a P.E. course, Racquetball/Badminton/Squash, and had to immediately race to catch a bus from the West Campus athletic facilities to East Campus, where we sat in a dark room looking at slides.

The class that changed the trajectory of the next four years was Fundamentals of Music Theory. I had no intention of majoring in music, and in those days, Duke didn’t have “minors.” But I’d always had an interest in music theory, and I wasn’t scared off by the realization that it had “lab” sessions — in addition to the three theory-related meetings each week, we had two musicianship sessions, where we did a lot of ear training. (Another freshman turned up to the first class and admitted he signed up thinking it would be easy. He dropped it.) I loved all of it. I loved the people in my class. I loved the professor, Rodney Wynkoop, who is still at Duke conducting the Chorale and the Chapel Choir. I decided I would stick with it next semester. Getting my lone A of the semester didn’t hurt.

I also got a quarter-credit for Jazz Ensemble, which wasn’t a fun experience. I quickly realized I knew nothing about actual jazz, and I was attempting to play tenor sax parts on a bass clarinet. While auditioning for Jazz Ensemble, I asked an aging man where I could find a string bass. Turns out he was Paul Bryan, the Wind Symphony conductor, and I was immediately recruited into the group, though I didn’t sign up for course credit.

I had stretched myself too thinly. I resolved not to do that the next semester. I had four AP credits — one English, two American history, one calculus — so there was no need to pile on the classes.

Freshman year, second semester

I flushed everything from my writing course out of my head and went back to my high school writing style for a freshman seminar, Comedy: Theory and Performance, taught by a professor emeritus in the drama department. It worked. I got an A-minus.

I also sailed through Tonal Harmony, the next class in the music sequence. A B-plus in Intro to Philosophy wasn’t too discouraging, so I had a pretty good sense of the two majors I’d aim to complete.

My Calculus teacher barely spoke English and didn’t fully prepare us for the exam. I was a calculus wizard in high school and got a 5 on the AP test. This class? C.

I’d also settled on my extracurricular activities. Jazz Ensemble was out, but I happily stayed in Wind Symphony. I was also drafted into the pit orchestra for a couple of Hoof n Horn musicals, playing woodwinds and bass. Second semester, I also bounded up the steps in the Flowers building to The Chronicle’s office for the first time. I had no idea how much that would change my life.

And I’d picked my home for the next three years — a selective (but not that selective) East Campus dorm called Brown House, where I would hang out with a laid-back group of people who leaned toward the “artsy” side and had a colorful mix of religions.

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Added one more activity for sophomore year only. Wish I’d done it all four years, but …

Sophomore year, first semester

Why didn’t I major in history? Because Germany: 30 Years War-1871 killed me. I struggled to a B-minus.

I was also knocking out some graduation requirements with a solid B in Advanced Intermediate French and an easy A in Computer Science Fundamentals, where the professor was terrified because he was teaching Pascal to liberal arts majors, including a couple of basketball players in my lab. I remember no Pascal, though the thought processes probably helped me pick up other coding down the road, and very little French.

Modal Counterpoint is the organic chemistry of the music major. We hated it, but it was kind of a bonding experience. And I finally took the quarter-credit for Wind Symphony.

Sophomore year, second semester

What possessed me to take Endurance Swimming? The joy of diving into a frigid pool, where I felt icicles forming in my hair every time I stopped for breath? Yikes.

Everything else was geared toward setting me toward my majors. I doubled up in music, taking Tonal Counterpoint (blech) and Composition (humbling, though I met Philip Glass and wrote at least one piece worth saving) on top of Wind Symphony. I jumped into History of Ancient Philosophy. And I was calling myself pre-law, maybe, so I took the American Political System poli sci class, which was worthwhile if a little tedious.

The grades were all in the B/B-plus range, but they were OK given that I was still finding my way. And I was spending a lot of time at The Chronicle office and with an oboe player from Wind Symphony, who was coincidentally staying at Duke for the summer.

I also wanted a job for the summer, and it was tough to find one back home in Athens. So I walked into the library and met a nice woman who walked me down to the Newspapers and Periodicals room, where a charismatic 30-ish woman chatted with me and offered me a job. I called home and told them I could knock out a couple more classes, earn some money and get in the swing of things at The Chronicle. Good deal.

Summer between sophomore and junior years

Halcyon days. Walking from Central Campus apartments to my classes on Socialism and Communism (first session — and no, it wasn’t a how-to, just a basic history) and Logic (second session — easy A in my philosophy major), going to work in the library, then hanging around The Chronicle. A few Hoof n Horn folks also put on a production of Godspell in Duke Gardens and brought me in to play guitar, which was more fun than I could imagine. I liked the library job so much that I took a weekly shift for the next year as well.

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One advantage of living on unfashionable East Campus — it was easy to get a single room by junior year. For Millennials: That thing on top of the shelves is a “stereo.” That’s how we listened to music in those days. Athenians, note the Rocky’s Pizza sticker.

Junior year, first semester

Poor planning on my part left me taking a strange collection of classes. I realized I needed to take a year of half-credit performance class for my music major. The Wind Symphony had converted me to Percussion, so I signed up for that. But I was a half-credit short of a full load. Some Chronicle people were in a program in which they took reduced loads, but it was too late for me to get into that. Rather than take an overload, I added a P.E. class — Racquetball — even though I had already taken two P.E. classes and couldn’t count another toward my graduation requirements. (Between AP and summer classes, I was way ahead, anyway.)

I knocked out another science requirement, and please don’t make fun of me for it. It was Chemistry and Society, the broad overview of chemistry rather than the intense class-and-lab course that most freshmen took. I enjoyed it, and I got a lot more out of it than I would’ve gotten out of a lab. And, yeah, I got an easy A.

Along with Music History I (lots of chanting, with Bach not yet on the horizon), I sailed to straight As … except in philosophy, where History of Modern Philosophy kicked my butt. I was fine with Descartes and Hume. I don’t understand Kant to this day.

Junior year, second semester

I somehow convinced a couple of people to form a percussion ensemble with me, which counted as a quarter-credit for Chamber Music. That, Wind Symphony and Percussion added up to a whole credit.

Music History II was pleasant and easy. But my philosophy courses were problematic. Philosophy of Law beat my pre-law inclinations out of me, though I would’ve earned better than the B-minus I got if I hadn’t spent my entire “reading period” desperately trying to get through Symbolic Logic, which was a math class disguised as a philosophy class. I should’ve been suspicious when only one other philosophy major was in the class. I have no idea how I managed a C-plus. By all rights, I should’ve failed. I had no idea what I was doing, and I just wanted to race out of class and get to The Chronicle in time for the daily budget meeting.

By this point, The Chronicle was my life. I spent junior year as the arts editor, but I did much more — “CE2” shifts (the night editor who does the final checks), sports writing, Editorial Board, etc.

I certainly wasn’t a candidate to go to grad school in philosophy. I no longer had any interest in law school. The music department would’ve written me a reference to go to any grad school I wanted, but I just couldn’t see that path. Besides, I was best suited to be the next PDQ Bach (sort of the Weird Al of classical), and the world really didn’t need more than one. Journalism was going to be my career.

Summer between junior and senior years

First session: Breezed through Introductory Psychology, worked at The Chronicle and the library, roomed with my buddy Matt. We played guitars and talked about forming a band called Limbic System.

Second session: Struggled in Organismal/Environmental Biology. I can only imagine my biochemist father seeing that C-plus and shaking his head. Maybe I was just so focused on The Chronicle that nothing else mattered. Maybe the problem was that Matt went home, and in his place, I got a roommate who threw parties in our apartment for his stoner buddies and kids from the Precollege Program.

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My desk at The Chronicle, with recruitment flyers for my precious magazine Currents hanging by my head. The business manager tried to kill the magazine at the end of the year, scheduling a meeting when he knew I’d be in class. I wrote a blistering letter. The magazine stayed, eventually morphing into Towerview. You’re welcome, Chronicle staffers today!

Senior year, first semester

I was editor of Currents, The Chronicle’s magazine, and I was approved for an underload this time. But all I needed to graduate was to finish my majors. I once again combined Percussion, Wind Symphony and Chamber Music into a full credit. Music History III covered the golden age of classical music — how’d I only get a B-plus? But I got through a senior-and-grad-student seminar on Plato with a good A-minus, shaking off the intimidation of grad students examining the original Greek.

Then things changed. Chronicle editor Matt Sclafani (not the Matt I roomed with in the summer) was diagnosed with leukemia. He would take a leave of absence. I ran for election to replace him for spring semester but wound up instead as the managing editor. That still qualified me to drop to part time. My parents were thrilled to learn their tuition bill for my last semester would be cut in half.

Senior year, second semester

It’s easy to forget from this historical vantage point, but the Class of 1991 spent its last semester legitimately worried about being sent to war. The Gulf War was ramping up, and we all thought this was our Korea or Vietnam. We compared notes on the draft (Matt Sclafani, who maintained a sense of humor even as leukemia took his life the next year, chortled that cancer made him exempt) and fretted for our futures.

That fear, along with my futility in finding a girlfriend or a job, added a lot of stress to what otherwise was a great time. I was thoroughly enjoying my last semester at The Chronicle — I was the CE2 the night Duke won its first national hoops championship. Academically, I just needed one class in each of my majors. The music major required yet another semester of music history — Music History IV (the weird 20th century stuff). Then I united my two majors in Philosophy of Music with the great professor Ben Ward, doing some terrific academic work to go out with a bang. A-minus in each class, nearly pulling me up to cum laude status.

Over the summer, I found a girlfriend and a job! I was thrilled to be a grown-up making $400 a week. And I was done with school.

Or so I thought. A few years later, I saw a couple of ads for a part-time grad program at Duke. I knew Duke had added some journalism classes to the 1-2 they had (neither of which I took) while I was an undergrad, and I still fancied myself an intellectual of sorts. So why not go back and get a masters in liberal studies?

The work was harder than I anticipated. But I loved it. And I filled in a few gaps in my academic background.

Grad school

Spring 1996: Ecology and Society, in a building that didn’t exist when I was an undergrad. Learned a lot about the environment and got an “E” (excellent, the top grade).

Summer 1996: Culture, Identity and Education. At long last, my first sociology-ish class. Different way of looking at things.

Fall 1996: Politics and the Media, an undergrad course populated by a whole lot of clueless seniors. I marveled at how much I’d grown since then.

Spring 1997: Political Economy of Development. Econ! And sociology. I did some research comparing Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch. I gained a big fear of the latter.

Summer 1997: Voices from the Past, a class on oral history. Great experience for a journalist.

Fall 1997: Global Environmental Politics, taught by an actual Communist. I felt like Jesse Helms in that classroom, but I still learned a bit.

Spring 1998: American Culture and Public Policy. I think this was the class in which I wrote the paper on letters to the editor, which was a trip. Duke doesn’t officially record classes above “A” for undergrads or “E” for grad students, but my transcript here shows an “E+.”

Then it got tricky. I was engaged. I moved to Northern Virginia, a bit of a commute from Duke. But we had this thing called “the Internet” that made it slightly easier for me to communicate with people. Besides, I had made contact with a professor who had been teaching journalism classes in the public policy department — Susan Tifft — and she lived in New York. She was willing to do an independent study with me (History of Objectivity in American Journalism) and be my advisor for my thesis. I finished in 2000 with a couple more Es on my transcripts. And I miss Susan, who passed away a few years later, far too young.

The grad school didn’t compute an official GPA, but if you convert the “E” and “G” grades to A and B, I finished with a 3.7. Not bad.

So what would I do differently?

Academically, I got more from nine grad-school classes than I did from my 38.75 undergraduate credits. Part of that is my own self-confidence in figuring out how to choose classes and how to do research. I would not have been able to write what I’ve written in the past 15 years without my grad-school experience.

But what went wrong in my undergrad years?

My academic advising wasn’t great. I wish someone would’ve pointed out a few things — say, that Symbolic Logic required more of a math background than I had.

My career advising was a joke. They had no idea how to break into journalism. I discovered late in my senior year that a lot of information about applying to CNN and such places was kept at the poli sci department.

A Duke degree goes farther in journalism today than it did back then. The public policy department built up a journalism program that gives students a bit of academic substance and a few connections. Dukies have done well in the Internet age, landing jobs that didn’t exist when I graduated. And a Duke connection did help me once — a fellow Dukie mentioned my name when ESPN was looking for people to cover the Women’s World Cup in Germany, and I’m forever grateful.

I’m still not sure I’d recommend a journalism career to any college student today. But if you really want one, Duke isn’t a bad place to go.

A few things I wish I’d done differently:

  1. Picked ONE major. And probably neither philosophy nor music. Philosophy isn’t a bad major at all. It trains your brain to deal with complex thought. I’m better off for taking some of those classes. But I just wasn’t good enough at it to major in it.
    Maybe public policy? Maybe history, though I struggled to do the research in the German history class I took.
  2. Taken one more French class to try, once and for all, to master it.
  3. Taken a religion course or two.
  4. Taken some sort of econ/business class that grounded me in the basics of accounting, which would have helped for some of the boards on which I’ve served.

A few possibilities I wish my advisors had suggested:

  1. Take stats, not a second semester of calculus. Much broader application to anyone not going into engineering.
  2. A minor in music. As far as I remember, no such thing existed in the 80s and 90s.

What did I gain?

I use a “batting weights” analogy to justify a liberal arts major. A baseball player swings on deck with a weight on his bat, so when he steps up to the plate without the weight, the bat feels lighter and easier to swing. My classes dealt with topics far more complex than anything I encounter in work.

So my undergrad years weren’t a total waste. And sometimes, you have to fail. (Well, get a C.) You have to learn your limitations and weaknesses. I certainly did that.

But what I treasure about my undergrad days is the interaction with so many smart, talented people. I think if you gave The Chronicle’s staff from my day a couple of years of professional experience, then gathered them back together, you’d have a hell of a newspaper staff.

I had hallway discussions on religion in which a Muslim, an agnostic, an evangelical and an Anglican (me) found common ground. New Yorkers and Southerners dispelled their stereotypes about each other.

The Internet is great. It’s a giant library, sans the musty stacks with grad students of questionable hygiene roaming around. But it can’t replicate that experience.

I made bad decisions. I didn’t get everything out of the experience that I could have. It went by too quickly.

And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Paul Jeffrey, Duke jazzman

I was in over my head. I knew it, and so did the man sitting across the desk from me.

He was a legitimate jazz man who ran in the same circles as Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. I was a 17-year-old kid from a lily-white private school whose “jazz band” started with two teachers and two students playing nothing that sounded like jazz. We were popular, at least, because we debuted by stretching the Hawaii Five-O theme with so many self-indulgent solos that the assembly ran long and several tests scheduled for the next period had to be rescheduled. All I really knew of jazz was what I’d read in Musician magazine, which had encouraged me to pick up a couple of cassettes by Miles Davis and various Marsalis brothers.

In that high school “jazz” group, being a jack of all trades and master of none was fine. I’d quickly gathered that the Duke Jazz Ensemble was a little different.

But he humored me as I worked my way through several instruments. I was a competent classical piano player who could get through some complex arrangements of Rush songs. I was competent on clarinet, which I would later play in marching band, though it’s strange that he let me audition on an instrument that they didn’t really use in the jazz ensemble. I could play Stand By Me and a few other tunes on bass, though I’d never been trained in doing the “walking bass” so essential to a jazz ensemble. He got a good laugh out of my drum set audition.

As intimidating as he was, a compliment from him went a long way. Two of us auditioned on guitar, and he tested our ears by playing a note on piano and asking us to match it. The first kid had no clue. I had built up a decent relative pitch — something that would help me boost my GPA in music classes — by figuring out rock riffs on my guitar, so once I found the first note he played, I was able to follow him with no trouble. He tried to trick me with a tritone that went nowhere near the key in which he was playing, but I got it right away.

He nodded. “You have a good ear,” he said.

My audition also led to one of those freak coincidences that changed my college years. I needed to find a string bass on which to audition, and I asked an older gentleman in the equipment room for help. “Oh, you play bass?” he asked? That man was Paul Bryan, who had led the Duke Wind Symphony for decades and was getting ready to take most of the group on one last semester-long trip to Vienna. He also liked having string bass in the Wind Symphony, as counterintuitive as that sounds. No, I didn’t go to Vienna, but the man they called “PB” recruited me to play in the “scab” Wind Symphony that stayed home, and I stuck around to play seven of my eight semesters. The conductors who replaced PB — who still sometimes plays with the group at the age of 95 — decided they needed a percussionist more than they needed a bass player, so I switched instruments.

Back in jazz ensemble, things weren’t going well. Somehow, we settled on having me play bass clarinet, on which I would play tenor sax parts. I simply couldn’t keep up — at times, I was playing every other phrase and letting my section-mates handle the rest. A lot of the time, I just hoped Jeffrey couldn’t hear me.

He was a unique conductor. He tucked his arms in close to his body and flapped his hands in 4/4 time like a bird making a really weak effort to fly. If the tune was in 5/4, he’d add a little beat as his hands swung out. And if we sounded horrible, he’d let us know — he’d remind us how long he spent writing out the charts for us to play and tell us he needed a few shots after our last rehearsal.

Before one concert, a pad fell off the bass clarinet. He growled and offered little help in fixing it, so I just went back to my dorm and missed it.

That wouldn’t be the last I saw or heard of Paul Jeffrey, though. We overlapped in another of the activities I sought out upon arrival at Duke, DJing at the campus radio station. I went through DJ training, where the one thing they emphasized was that we should never leave “dead air” — you play a song, you speak as soon as it’s finished, and you speak until you play the next song.

Paul Jeffrey had a different approach:

(song ends … silence … a few more seconds …)

That was ……. Impressions …… by John Coltrane …………….. from North Carolina …… Coltrane ……………….. he’s from North Carolina ………… and that was ………………….. Impressions.

I actually thought his show was more interesting than the rest.

My extracurriculars changed after that first semester. I never got called to take a DJ shift at WXDU for some reason. Nor did the people at Cable 13 ever get back to me. I joined the marching band my sophomore year, though I ran out of time to stick with it the next year. I stayed with the wind symphony until my last semester.

And after that first semester, I walked away from the jazz ensemble and walked into the office at The Chronicle, where it’s no exaggeration to say my life changed — I found friends, memories and a career.

The paper needed more arts coverage, and so I wound up frequently calling on Paul Jeffrey, often with a bit of trepidation. Big things were happening with jazz at Duke — the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz was coming to Durham and would be affiliated with the school. I wound up in Jeffrey’s office on the phone with people who were setting up the institute, and he growled at me once when I asked someone to tell me about the interest in the project outside Durham. I insisted I was trying to get across to the Duke audience how big this really was; he wanted to get across to me that the South was jazz’s heart and soul, a point re-emphasized when I wound up on the phone listening to Thelonious Monk Jr. for about 30 minutes, trying to scribble down quotes as he went through an enthusiastic monologue about jazz and the South.

This was the big time. I wound up standing on a stage trying to do interviews and getting elbowed aside by photographers getting pictures of Clint Eastwood, who had come to Duke along with Steve Allen and Clark Terry to kick-start the institute.

I crossed paths a few other times with Jeffrey due to scheduling conflicts back in the days before the music department figured out how to avoid such problems. I wound up playing in pit orchestras for the stage musical group Hoof n Horn, where my “jack of all trades, master of none” traits were put to good use. I played woodwinds in one show, drums in a couple of others, and bass in a couple more. One day after exams and before our Graduation Weekend shows, I went to the equipment room at Duke to find that Jeffrey had taken all of the string basses — some Italian jazz buddies were in town, and it was his right to take them. I wound up playing bass parts on a keyboard for the final shows.

My senior percussion recital was scheduled a few hours before a jazz performance in Baldwin Auditorium. I walked in before my performance to find my equipment shoved to the side, with the stage set up for the jazz show. I managed to get my stuff up to the front of the stage to play. After my recital, which went surprisingly well despite the vibraphone falling over, I recruited audience members to help me reset the stage. “We don’t want to make Paul Jeffrey mad,” I said.

But Jeffrey’s honesty meant his compliments and his willingness to help out were sincere. If I needed to get in touch with someone, he’d help me track that person down. One day at The Chronicle, I called Jeffrey to ask something for the next story on the institute, just a couple of days after my last one. “I read your story,” he said. “You’re a good writer.”

To this day, I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder to hear that.

I saw Paul Jeffrey at least once in the year after graduation. I was bouncing up to The Chronicle office, having not yet cut the cord from the group I considered family. He was probably headed to Page Auditorium next door. He smiled and greeted me warmly, and we chatted for a few minutes about the arts at Duke. I think he and I recognized that we shared a passion for the subject, even if our experiences differed greatly.

The Thelonious Monk Institute never got off the ground in Durham for some reason. But Jeffrey stuck around Duke for a couple of decades, leading the jazz ensemble and teaching a jazz history course that was well-known for being one of the easier classes at Duke. He didn’t care about that rep, he’d say, as long as kids were listening to the music.

Listening to the music was what mattered.

Paul Jeffrey passed away on Friday at age 81. And while I never became a great jazz musician or even a great jazz writer, I’m glad I listened to him. I’m sure thousands of Duke alumni feel the same way.

Your marriage is just distracting us from the real issues!

rageaholEver find comments on the Internet that are so delusional, so full of unfocused rage, so wacked-out that you simply have to share them with the world?

Welcome to Rageahol, inspired by the great Homer Simpson line: “Ohhhh, it’s true, I’m a rageaholic! I just can’t live without rageahol!!”

Our first entry comes from a Bruce Sims of Pensacola, Fla. (or someone who hacked into his Twitter account), who reacts to the news of Duke hoopster Ryan Kelly’s engagement to Bill Cowher’s daugher thusly:

So….when I married the love of my life, It never got on the news, because it was not news! what makes people think this is news when we have all that is going on in this country, and the Homosexual mess in the scouts and the govt going rampant etc and this is news! Yeah news that will take peoples sights off the danger to come! Oh will it come!

Full story and surely a few more rageaholic comments: Former Duke hoops player is engaged to Bill Cowher’s daughter | For The Win.