I had no business going to Duke. Or more accurately, I had no business being admitted to Duke. I don’t know what the Duke admissions folks were thinking back in 1985, even contemplating the thought that I belonged among the incoming freshman class the next Fall.
I’ve interviewed a number of high school students over the years as a Duke alumnus. These students have been, without exception, far more deserving than I was. They have founded their own dance companies and introduced ballet to innercity neighborhoods more accustomed to drive-by shootings. They are classically-trained pianists, starting point guards, and DJs specializing in “trance” mixes. (“They” in this last sentence actually refers to a single person.) They have spent their vacations mentoring underserved kids in bare-bones, but life-changing, summer camps. They are polite. They make and keep eye contact. They are ridiculously modest; I have to practically drag out of them all of these outsized accomplishments. They are amazing. To a person, they are amazing.
No Duke alumnus interviewer or admissions packet-reviewer could have said the same about me in 1985. I was jelly-headed, narcissistic, arrogant, far from worldly, and insufficiently curious. Reading through that list again, I may well be all of these things still. But that is better left for a later blog post.
My performance that first semester fairly proved the admissions committee had made a mistake on me. By mid-semester, I had two Fs and a D, or maybe it was two Ds and an F. It didn’t help that I had stubbornly chosen to take Chemistry, Calculus and some other ill-fitting course the name of which I cannot currently recall. Clearly, they should have offered my spot to someone else.
On the plus side, I had learned to juggle beanbags; a skill I picked up from one of my two perfect SAT score roommates. My mother, who had scraped by to pay my tuition, was not amused by my juggling. The move where I toss a single bag in the air, then loft the others simultaneously to cross each other’s paths, cascading back down in a half-circle? My mother’s eyes glazed over, probably calculating the tuition math in her head just as my juggling cubes scattered across the kitchen floor. My kids will tell you, by the way, that this is still my signature juggling move. Well, maybe my only juggling move.
Also on the plus side: I learned how to roll a quarter from the bridge of my nose, the coin’s thin circumference striking a hard surface two feet below, keeping just enough kinetic energy to wobble back into the air half again, before collapsing into a foamy, 24-ounce, plastic cup of beer. This trick I taught my perfect SAT score roommates, as I recall. I’m sure their parents were very impressed at their sons’ newfound skill. My kids will tell you nothing about my proficiency with a quarter, by the way, because, well, just because.
My parents selflessly cobbled together the funds to cover my tuition, a critical piece of which was a gracious scholarship from the company for which my step-father worked. Keeping that scholarship would require more than juggling tricks and bouncing currency, as I confessed in a repentant missive addressed to the scholarship director. The scholarship director must have been persuaded, as she gave me another length of rope, when she could easily have cut me off and changed my trajectory.
Somehow I managed to scratch my way through the rest of my time at Duke. I figured things out as I went along. A couple days ago, prodded by my wife, I opened up a white cardboard box in my garage, unearthing some musty college notebooks. The pages yellowed, my handwriting clearly imprinted there and clearly more legible than it is today. Reading the words now, I can picture the 20 year-old me, brain slightly less gelatinous and slightly more curious. Figuring things out. Or perhaps more accurately, figuring out how important it is to want to figure things out. Safe to say I am still trying to figure things out.
Those weathered pages also brought back an interesting and timely memory —
On one atypically snowy evening at Duke, I was wrestling at the bus stop with a buddy of mine. I’m sure he had perfect SAT scores, with a double major in chemical and electrical engineering, to boot. About all we shared, then, were bellies filled with beer. At one point, I had managed to pin his arm behind his back or maybe stuff his head in a snowbank, and he complained, “C’mon Keir, get off!” A solitary figure standing in the periphery startled me:
“Keir? Is your name Keir Beadling?”
I stumbled to my feet wiping snow from the knees of my jeans, eye-balling him. Not my age, and not someone I recognized from campus. “Yes, um, hi, do I know you?”
“Well, no, not exactly, but I read your admissions essay and it was great. Really great. I was on the admissions committee a couple years back. Good luck and take care.”
With that, the stranger climbed aboard the shuttle bus to East Campus, and left me standing there a little dumbstruck. Feeling as if I’d just seen a ghost, a piece of my own history, a rare glimpse at how and why things happen. Fate, maybe.
I read this morning that Duke received 32,506 admission applications this past season — the school’s largest ever pool of applicants. All competing for just 1700 spots. I went to law school to avoid math, but I believe that equates to just 5.2%. Very rough odds for kids with perfect SATs, ballet companies, cross-over dribbles, and Rachmaninoff sheet music. Impossible odds for a beanbag-juggling quarters savant who apparently wrote one really good essay. I figure I need to keep writing, if only to prove that my bus stop apparition made the right call on me thirty years ago.
Thanks for reading.