I had made a simple phone call to “find out what my options were,” and the thing had taken on a life of its own
s I trudged up three flights of cement stairs in an old brick building on 45th St. in Boro Park on a freezing Wednesday morning, all I could think was, how in the world did I get myself into this?
There was a window on the landing. I caught sight of my reflection as I passed it: white shirt, dark jacket, full beard, 23 years old. A regular chassidishe guy from Boro Park. About to begin my first day at a three month math workshop, in preparation for an attempt to get into college.
If you had told me when I got married three years ago that I would be here, I wouldn’t have believed you. In fact, if you had told me three days ago that I would be here, I wouldn’t have believed you.
It’s not that college was so foreign to me. My wife had just finished her degree in speech therapy, and her brother, who is younger than me, was already in his first semester for accounting. My older brother is a CPA, and one of my sisters has a degree in web design and development. Although I was still in kollel, there was always a growing awareness that eventually I would need a plan for parnassah. I had tutored kids on the side; I had dabbled a little, made a couple of deals, managed not to lose too much money. But the writing was on the wall—I needed a real plan. I knew I wasn’t the entrepreneur type, and a college degree took time, so maybe it was smart to start thinking about it.
The thing was, I had absolutely zero idea of what I might want to major in. Other than accounting and speech therapy, I didn’t even know what the options might be.
“Touro has a med school track,” I told my wife. We were standing in the kitchen, discussing my future college career as a hypothetical possibility, the way you talk about something that’s probably never going to happen, so you’re free to imagine any outcome, no matter how outrageous it might seem. “But it probably involves way too much math.” I’m really not a math person.
“You would love political science,” she said.
“How exactly is that going to become a source of income?”
“Why don’t you just call them and find out what your options are?”
That didn’t sound too threatening. I figured it couldn’t hurt.
The woman who picked up the phone at Machon L’Parnassah was nice. In answer to my vague and open-ended questions, she gave me an appointment for the following day. When I met with her at the office, she walked me through the process: a college degree is earned by the accumulation of about 120 credits. If you’re a full-time student, you can take about 30 credits per year. Machon L’Parnassah is affiliated with Touro College. She explained that I’d have to take a placement test which would determine whether I would be accepted to Touro’s program and at what level.
Additionally, in order to begin any college program, I needed a high school diploma, which I did not have. I could either take the TASC test (a high school equivalency exam; a replacement in some states of the better-known GED), or take a specific set of 24 credits which included humanities, math, and science, among others. Those credits would be accepted in lieu of a diploma.
I had very little general studies education in elementary school and zero in high school. I didn’t think I could pass the TASC, but the second option sounded like it could work. The anonymous woman asked me about my math skills and how well I could write in English. I thought I was a decent writer, but my math skills were basically nonexistent. I had friends who claimed to pick up math from their Gemara learning, but that had never worked for me.
I explained this to (name). She assured me that it was no problem: There were workshops offered prior to the beginning of every semester to prepare people like me for these courses. The math workshop was held twice a week, and it was starting the next day.
Until two days ago, I had been a regular kollel yungerman. I had never given any thought to what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had made a simple phone call to “find out what my options were,” and the thing had taken on a life of its own. When I had called Machon L’Parnassah on Monday, all I knew was that I wanted to take the fewest math courses as possible. It was Wednesday morning, less than 48 hours later, and here I was, walking into my first class.
I stood in front of a heavy wooden door and pushed it open. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
To be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 808)
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