On the Road

IMG_6326Coming out of college an opportunity was presented to become an Admissions Counselor for Luther College. Feeling loyal and proud of the institution I interviewed for the position and was assigned the territory of Chicago and the state of Illinois.

This was well before the age of the Internet. That meant everything was done by landline and snail mail. Invites were sent out to students for high school visits and college nights. Then you traveled around to all those schools and community colleges around the state, eagerly hoping someone would show up.

My quota for the year was 70 students. I made that quota exactly. In many respects it wasn’t easy.

For starters, I was still naive about the ways of the world. Fortunately, and at a practical level, I knew a few things about the layout of the Chicago suburbs thanks to a summer job driving for U-Haul during my college years. I did not get lost easily anyway.

“The road must eventually lead to the whole world.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

IMG_9862.jpgBut what those seemingly faraway suburbs meant in terms of college prospects was a much more subtle thing to discern. My vision of large suburban communities was all based on what I knew of high school cross country and track teams against whom I’d competed.

Understand: There was no information available about the demographics of any community. No market research on the relative affluence or lack thereof that might give indications about where prospects might live. Even at my tender age, and well before the information age, I recognized this was a problem. College admissions was, to put it mildly, a relative crap shoot.

IMG_6438There were certain towns that had pumped out prospects for years. These were “hotspots” according to the outgoing Admissions Counselor, who was moving to take over the Luther Book Shop after ten years or more in the business of recruiting students. I sensed a bit of bitterness in the transition, something that surprised me as a young man. It was the first hint that something might be wrong in Wonderland.

“I didn’t know what to say. I felt like crying, Goddammit everybody in the world wants an explanation for your acts and for your very being.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

I met with the former counselor and he handed along some names of people that I’d need to know. Yet these were carefully nurtured contacts with whom he’d built long term relationships. That’s how admissions works in the real world. Even to this day, with the Internet and common applications and all the technology in the world, the choices made by 18-year-old kids are still subject to the influence of information provided by those with the knowledge to provide it.

IMG_6337So it was impossible to step in and expect to take over the territory with the snap of a finger. I met with those contacts but like anyone, they were feeling me out as to how much they could trust me to take care of the kids they were recommending to attend Luther.

The Big World

That first fall in admissions felt like sticking my hand into a big bucket of worldly water. And as much as I swirled it around, it felt as if I were in some way sinking.

Then there were the road miles necessary to do the job. I was on the road from September through late November, the recruiting season. The previous admissions counselor had worked out of his home in Palatine, Illinois. From there he could fan out and cover schools and college nights and be home in the comfort of his bed by ten at night.

IMG_9845That option was removed when I took the job. That meant I left Decorah on a Sunday night, drove the 258 miles to some hotel strategically chosen in the Chicago landscape, and traveled throughout the week to reach schools scheduled for visits.

It was an enormously inefficient dynamic on so many fronts. Downstate trips required massively long drives across the bleak Illinois landscape. Stripped of leaves and crops, there was literally nothing to look at. I’d tune in the radio to Chicago stations as long as they’d hold out, then be left to dialing up and down the radio trying to find some sort of music to enjoy.

“I had nothing to offer anybody, except my own confusion”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

IMG_6533That schedule left precious little time for running. I began to lament the difference between the previous fall, when our team had trained together all those gorgeous months in the sunshine, placing second in the national meet in Rock Island. I was in love then, and in college, and finally enjoying some personal success after a previously difficult junior year and a relative period of personal crisis.

Survival strides

By contrast, my runs that fall between admissions stops were runs of survival. I’d get to some sucky hotel in central Illinois and glance out at the cold, windswept fields and hardly feel like going for a run. But I would. Four miles one day. Perhaps six the next.

These runs kept my brain in some sort of hopeful status. The job was frankly depressing with all that alone time in the car. Then there were the hotels, including one forlorn, half-broken-down motel on the edge of Decatur, Illinois. It sat next to a massive junction of the railroad tracks, and the trains were moving all night, sending visceral slams down the entire line of cars long into the night. I slept very little as a result.

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Typically the week would wind up near Chicago somewhere and I’d leave IMG_9843on Friday afternoon to drive back to Decorah. Up through Madison and across the state of Wisconsin I’d go in that little blue Dodge Omni. It was a great little car in an era when American cars generally sucked.

Then I’d spend 46 hours or so with my girlfriend and turn around and drive back down to Chicago on another Sunday night. Sometimes I’d be crying all 40 miles to Prairie du Chien. Then I’d get out, get a Coke, suck it up and drive the rest of the way to Chicago.

“A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Results

For weeks, the grind continued, and yet the applications started coming in. But one Saturday morning during office duty, the boss pulled me aside for a hard discussion about my performance. “Is your head really in the game?” he wanted to know.

I did not know what to say. All those miles driven. All those college nights and dark long walks back to the parking lot after four hours standing at a booth with a binder full of pictures of a college six or eight or ten hours away. I was doing my best, I told him. “Well, you need to do better,” he warned.

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Snow bound

Sometime in late November, I arrived for a college night in the Chicago suburb of Orland Park. It had snowed mightily the night before, but I was desperately feeling the need for a run. So, after a visit to Carl Sandburg High School, I talked with the cross country coach and asked if I could run with his kids.

We took off on a run into the hills of a local forest preserve. The varsity had left earlier so I was running with a group of sophomores. The snow was deep, but the kids were determined to run a 10-mile route they knew by heart. So we slogged and jogged and fought our way through a difficult run in deepening snow.

Chicago Pavilion7I got back to the hotel late already for the college night. Exhausted and sweaty, I showered quickly and tore out the door for the college night at a local community college. Mercifully, I was busy talking with kids the entire night. It was like God delivered a batch of prospects on a spoon. I was elated and tired and disgusted by the strain of that day all at once.

Progress

Soon the applications began to add up. I topped 30 committed kids. Then 40. By 50 I was building some confidence. When April came around and I was at 60 kids, the goal seemed in sight.

Then a father from Lincoln, Illinois arrived on campus with his football player son. We’d made what felt like a connection back in his hometown. I’d gone to their home and had a nice visit. The father was grateful because he really wanted his son to attend Luther. As they were leaving, the dad reached out to shake my hand and pressed a $20 bill into my palm. He winked and said, “Enjoy dinner.” It made me proud to have had some positive influence in someone’s life. That didn’t seem ethical, but on the other hand, that $20 felt like a small reward for all those miles On the Road.

“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Quotes and quotas

By the end of the year, when the quota was reached, it was clear that my welcome was worn out in the Admissions job. Somehow my methods or recruiting were not predictable enough. A few of my associates had exceeded their quotas, but not by that much. So I had not failed but I recognized their focus was perceived as somehow different and perhaps more cogent than my own. Perhaps I had a little too much Jack Kerouac and not enough Bill Gates in my makeup.

IMG_2250Meanwhile my girlfriend had completed her degree and would graduate in December. We did not know what came next, but I had admittedly taken the Admissions job to remain close to her in some way.

She took a job in the Twin Cities that would soon mark the end of our relationship. After all, that meant an additional drive on Saturday morning each week to reach the Twin Cities. 150 miles up and 150 miles back to sustain my love and hopes. There are some forms of writing on the wall that we all easily recognize.

“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

So I took another job as a graphic designer in marketing for a startup investment firm. That meant a move back to Chicago. That drive to Chicago with my car full of my belongings felt strange. Perhaps that’s the moment that I really, truly graduated from college. I’d learned the difference between the Neverland of those four years of nurturing experiences and actually working for a college. The real world was substantially different. I’d learned some valuable lessons.

“What difference does it make after all?–anonymity in the world of men is better than fame in heaven, for what’s heaven? what’s earth? All in the mind.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The year after I stepped down from Admissions, the college allowed the next counselor to again live in the Chicago area. All the driving I’d done every week going to and from Decorah was eliminated. They also raised the salaries of all the Admissions Counselors.

Times were changing. The Admissions game was maturing and so was the college, which moved forward and modernized everything about its operations, philosophy, development, and image.

IMG_1299Sometimes we exist in a time and a void that has no real explanation. Institutions go through changes just like the individuals who serve them.

We chalk it up to experience and hold it deep within for those moments when we need to understand that we can persevere, and that we weren’t wrong when it felt like we were.

And, that we need sometimes to keep running in order to stay sane. On the Road.

“…because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

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About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @gofast and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and at 3CCreativemarketing.com. Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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