It’s early evening. The downtown streets are still basked in sunshine and summer dresses. Bursts of citrus colors, flirty fabrics and bare shoulders breeze past the open patio windows of Mason Street Grill.
Inside, the lounge hums with an eager energy. Friends fill the space with animated banter. The largest group, four well-dressed couples, cluster along the bar. I imagine them relieved to abandon To Do lists and attaché cases for the evening. Perhaps they’ll enjoy a steak dinner inside the restaurant. Maybe they’ll go dancing. However their night unfolds, it is clear they’ve decided to do something.
The jazz trio reaches the end of its first set, and the crowd begins to thin. I notice them then, seated at a low table. They are absorbing the entire room now: the mahogany paneled walls, the grand piano, the sumptuous curve of the bar, the glint of men’s expensive watches, the dimming light and the pervasive sense of Going Somewhere. They were just a couple of teenagers.
Onteria and his girlfriend, Victoria, are graduating seniors heading off to college in the fall. They were being treated to a well-deserved celebration by one of Onteria’s mentors.
“I always knew I wanted to go to college,” Onteria tells me. Clearly, having earned a full scholarship to prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta. He is handsome with an infectious smile. He tells me he’d like to study Psychology or Physical Therapy.
“How about you?” I ask Victoria, who’s heading to Tennessee State University, another HBCU favorite.
“Nursing,” she says without effect, “if I don’t change my major or something.”
“Don’t stress about that now,” I say. “Sixty percent of college students change their major at least once.” The handy stat was lodged in my brain from years of delivering college readiness presentations to high schools and college freshman.
Victoria regards me thoughtfully. She’s slender with elegant features. Her eyes are sharp, and I’m not sure if she’s assessing or evaluating me.
We talk about plans for their last few months in Milwaukee before landing on the topic of all the uncertainties waiting for them at the edge of summer.
“I’m not sure what I’m afraid of,” Onteria says, that smile curling around his words. “It seems like we were just in 10th grade.”
Victoria considers before speaking, “I hope it’s all going to be worth it.”
Like 60,000 other Wisconsin graduates, Victoria and Onteria will decide whether their studying, late nights, aggravating teachers, deadlines, stressful rules, afternoons and weekends spent in workshops, tournaments and clubs and worrying about every possible thing in order to spend years away from home under grueling university study and agonizing personal reconstruction will, as promised, be worth it all.
Her statement hangs in the air. Onteria looks at Victoria and Victoria looks at me. This is not the time to fan out platitudes.
“I won’t lie, honey. You might go through years of school and still not find a job. Or get a job you might have gotten without the degree. But luck is really about being prepared when opportunities happen. College puts you in the path of ‘lucky’.”
I pause. She keeps her eyes on me. I continue.
I tell her how the most fantastic lessons will happen outside the classroom: dealing with that one chick in her dorm, negotiating extra credit, managing family drama from a distance, really stretching a dollar, surviving a breakup with the one, competing for internships and balancing heavier counterweights and freedoms.
“No matter what happens, you will be more,” I say. It’s one of my mother’s favorite affirmations. “At the end, you will know what you’re made of. You’ll have struggled, stumbled and stood up over and over again. And, yes, you’ll make lifelong friends. Job or no job, you’ve earned the chance to have a college experience strengthen you. That, I promise, will be worth it.”
Those eyes, they were glistening now.
“Please tell me those are happy tears and I didn’t make you feel worse,” I say.
“You will,” I say. “No one expects either one of you to be expert college students in the first week. Figuring that out is part of the journey. Make sure you enjoy it, though. College is your last stop before full-grown adulthood, and let me tell ya …”
We laugh and guide the conversation back to summertime, me eager to be the listener again. The kids drift back to their own conversation and I fall into one with the mentor. As she talks, I watch Onteria and Victoria chat and tease near the patio windows. It’s dark outside now, yet they are still two bursts of sunlight. They, too, are filled with a sense of Going Somewhere.