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Return to the U: The Confession

Sauron’s ring had nothing on mine.

Both were made of gold, but a Dark Lord forged the Hobbit’s, and a loving dad bought mine. Still, it burned just the same.

One of the joys of a long writing career is that ambition gives way to wisdom. I’ve always believed in honesty and transparency, but those commitments deepen as age weathers the ego.

But the ring — even in a desk drawer, tucked in a box — mocked all that.

The tradition began with my grandpa, who gave the first of his four sons a ring for finishing college. The eldest was on the hook for the next brother, and on it went, only the baby escaping the obligation. The brothers continued the tradition with their kids.

My dad faced no such claim for many years. There’s a line in “Animal House” where Bluto mutters disgustedly, “Seven years of college down the drain!” It made me laugh —ruefully. My college career spanned eight years and two schools.

I’d started at my mom’s alma mater in New York, but discovered a private college full of New Yorkers sucked. I hated the college cloister, and even in the ‘70s, loathed the loans my parents and I piled up.

After 18 months waiting tables, I settled on a solution: a good public university in a big city where I could work and not borrow. I looked at UCLA and the University of Washington, but settled on Minnesota, largely because it tolerated part-timers.

That selling point is no more, a victim of college rankers and grant funders who frown on anything that hurts the graduation rate. But I wonder how many talented Twin Citians were drawn here because a high-quality school was unusually flexible.

Given my phlegmatic attendance, my senior year stretched into a biennium. I was set to graduate after summer session 1985. One last foreign language course, and one last elective.

But that spring, an occasional gig at the Twin Cities Reader became a regular one. My writing life was blossoming at age 26; college could wait a little longer, possibly forever.

This isn’t the sort of news one broadcasts to one’s parents. I returned home that August to a well-intentioned but horrible development: Dad bought the ring.

Aside from dumping the same nice girl twice, driving blind drunk at 19, and picking stupid fights with my wife and kids, I’ve led a decent life. Was I afraid to disappoint my parents? I’d like to believe that, but I was probably too proud to tell the truth. A moment of cowardice begat decades of shame.

Return to the U: David BrauerI put the ring on that day, but never wore it after that. In those first months, Dad might’ve asked me why it wasn’t on, and I mumbled some excuse about not wearing jewelry every day.

Over the years, I had a recurring nightmare: an erroneous transcript forced me back to high school, a grown man in a class of kids. It’s not an uncommon dream, but I knew the source of mine.

Despite that, the lie didn’t dominate my waking life. I told my wife shortly after getting married, and my kids knew fairly young. But I could never screw up the courage to come clean to my parents or my sister, who took years to get her own degree but was at least honest about it. Whenever I stumbled across the ring box, I felt the sadness.

The cure came, ironically, when I got really sick two years ago. Recovery left me unwilling to gobble the kind of stress that had fueled my maniac productivity. Shorn of a key professional attribute, I found myself pondering a career refresh.

My mind drifted to some sort of educational fellowship, only to be jolted by the pang of unfinished business. My parents were in their 80s; there was a deadline to make things right. So I booked a flight to Tucson.

The third morning at the breakfast table, I found my confession tumbling out. My mom exclaimed, “Really?” and my dad, after a moment to soak it in, simply said, “You’ve tortured yourself more than we ever could.”

They were the same supportive people who hadn’t pressured me about my college wanderings three decades earlier. I found myself their child again, inventorying the lessons learned with parents who knew I had to learn my own lessons, however belatedly. We even chuckled at my sister’s reaction (“You mean I was the one who graduated first? All those years they gave me grief about not graduating from college like you?” she snorted. “At least you had to buy me the ring.”)

After I returned home, I took the ring out of its box and slid it on my finger for the first time in 28 years. My finger promptly turned blue — not because of demonic possession, but because the damn thing is now two sizes too small.

Three months ago, I applied for readmission, and today marks my first First Day of School since the Reagan administration. (Am I nervous? Yes.) This time, blogging will pay the freight. I’m hoping some slapstick reports will at least entertain, and maybe inspire a few people who’ve wavered about going back to give it a shot. In any event, the ring no longer pulses dark, and I intend to flash it on graduation day.

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 01/22/2013 - 09:09 am.

    More proof

    that the connection between publishing and having a degree is tenuous at best. That, or after you finish your degree, you’ll wow us with your vastly improved writing skills.

    • Submitted by David Brauer on 01/22/2013 - 09:28 am.


      Mark, it’s not a vocational move, for the most part (more a karmic one) but your point is the subject of a future post … Have thought about this issue a lot, want to see what this experience adds to my beliefs.

  2. Submitted by Mike Rose on 01/22/2013 - 09:34 am.

    Best of luck

    This is a great story, and I’m wishing you the best of luck. Clearly, you haven’t “needed” a college degree to create a successful career, but I definitely understand the sentimental value of finishing what you started…and earning that ring, as it were. May I ask: What are you studying in your new college life?

    • Submitted by David Brauer on 01/22/2013 - 09:45 am.

      Poli Sci

      Mike, also subject of a future column, but I already have enough credits for a political science degree already, so it’s electives … Writing and social studies.

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 01/22/2013 - 09:39 am.

    You gotta buy a new pair of shoes for first day of school…

    and keep on walking:

    Neat story/revelation…but don’t let yourself be “limited to a degree” by ‘institutional collateral’ and the paper it’s written on.

    Certainly when you finish this phase…keep on with what you love as you now know it…enjoy always whatever…best to you.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/22/2013 - 09:46 am.

    Congratulations on Going Back!

    I suspect you will find that things (especially among your fellow students) have really changed in the past thirty years.

    But one thing will not have changed. Even a great University, like every gathering of humans for shared endeavors, follows the normal curve in some form.

    Among the students, there will be a very few amazingly brilliant people (although the direction some of their brilliance takes may not endear them to their professors or result in stellar grades),…

    an approximately equal number of students who struggle mightily just to get a passing grade,…

    with the vast majority of students somewhere in the middle.

    The SAME will be true for the professors. Equal numbers of truly brilliant professors (in intellect and/or teaching ability, which are NOT the same thing) and nearly useless professors,…

    with the vast majority being somewhere in the middle.

    (Why people believe our educational institutions should be able to escape from the normal curve is curious, at best and toxic at worst,…

    but the belief that, somehow, educational institutions with underpaid staff – compared to business – should be filled only by teachers/professors who are above the mid point on the normal curve is a logical fallacy the right has used to attack public education ever since the days you were at the U the first time around,…

    especially since there is not a single business in this country that escapes the same reality, nor do corporate board rooms, nor executive office suites – those who think otherwise are likely telling defensive lies to themselves regarding their own position on the curve – the stupid far too often seeking undeserved solace in attacking those who are smarter and wiser than themselves.)

    In the end, I suspect your foray back to the “U” will be an education in itself. Good luck! I hope your experience proves to be worthwhile and leaves you hungering to explore more deeply the subjects you already know so well, and even to branch out into new areas you do not yet know much about.

  5. Submitted by B Maginnis on 01/22/2013 - 09:57 am.

    Old School, baby!

    I’ll meet you for lunch in Dinkytown if you are available….

  6. Submitted by Melissa Hansen on 01/22/2013 - 10:18 am.


    Best of luck to you, I look forward to reading your point of view as a returning student.

  7. Submitted by Joseph Rydholm on 01/22/2013 - 11:34 am.

    You were a student and a teacher

    Great column, davbra. Fun to hear that you’ve returned to campus! You helped me cut my teeth as a budding writer (and aspiring editor) when we were both at the Minnesota Daily and I’ve been a professional writer and editor for nearly 25 years now, so it’s clear that even though you were “just” a student back then, you also had a gift for teaching as well!

  8. Submitted by Paul Gustafson on 01/22/2013 - 11:53 am.

    No shame

    Hi David,

    I’m Paul. Another late graduate.

    I’m here to say, there is no shame in graduating late.

    I was going to graduate in spring, 1973 from Bemidji State College, Magna Cum Laude. Alas student activism got in my way. I was wrapped up in MPIRG (Minnesota Public Interest Research Group) activities. And, there was a Bad War going on….

    I actually went thru graduation (I think the Powers That Be at Bemidji did not want to shame a member of their first Honors Program class.) But, truth is, I flunked my last classes that spring due to lack of interest in Organized Education.

    So….I became, after a stint on the loading docks at Sears on Lake Street in Mpls., a stringer for the suburban Sun Newspapers. (I worked there with R.T. Rybak…..he always threw a good party!!)

    After that, I became a Star Tribune reporter and stayed for 27 years. Then, I was an executive asst. to Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner.

    I got my B.A. degree in Humanities from Bemidji State University in 2008.

    That – and a buck – will get you a cold cup of coffee.

    Hopefully, you will do better…..

    Paul Gustafson

  9. Submitted by Davis Hal on 01/22/2013 - 12:20 pm.

    I look at all those…

    …continuing-education catalogues that arrive in the mail and think, “When I have time.”

    I’m two credits short of a B.A. (I have an incomplete in Modern American Drama; my teacher went off to write teleplays and screenplays). (The college might differ with my calculations.) That was in 1968.

    Since then, I’ve cobbled together a career in journalism.

    We’ll see what comes next.

    Good luck on campus.

  10. Submitted by Eric Sannerud on 01/22/2013 - 10:01 pm.

    Welcome to Campus

    As a “traditional” student (straight into college from HS, done in 4 years) just over the hump of my last first day of semester at the U I feel a certain connection to your story.
    I’ve had plenty of classes with returning students and there is almost always a disconnect between them and the 20-ish year-old students. I wish I had taken the time to learn more from them, I hope this series can mend my regret.
    I look forward to reading the rest of your series.
    Welcome to campus.

  11. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 01/22/2013 - 11:17 pm.

    A stretch here but on the subject of education and diplomas…

    …Congress may be able to provide a confetti of diplomas buried in their representative rucksacks; one, two, no matter…but the only diplomas that the people should be willing to offer them for their most uneducated performance is the’third degree’…Sitting On Their Ass-ets 101…

  12. Submitted by Sarah Silander on 01/23/2013 - 07:12 am.

    U of MN had not changed much even after 25 years

    I obtained both of my degrees from the U of M Twin Cities (1983 and 2008). So I look forward to reading future blog posts.

    I think it will be an easy transition for you because not that much has changed.

    Faculty hierachy and teaching methods are the same. TA’s (indentured servants IMO) still teach most freshman and sophomore level courses.

    A couple changes worth noting. Very few classes are scheduled on Fridays and the MWF class schedule is gone. Campus is pretty empty on Fridays.

    Buying books from campus bookstores and registering is now very fast and convenient. (I recall that in the early 1980’s, it took me 2,3 or even 4 days to register because I had to chase down computer punch cards for each course and then track down a few people (advisors?) for their signatures.)

    Important Tip for you Dave — You need to document that you are up-to-date on required immunizations. I first learned about this policy when I went to register for 2nd semester classes. Boynton Health had placed a hold on my record which prevented me from registering.

    Good luck and enjoy.

  13. Submitted by William Gleason on 01/23/2013 - 09:39 am.

    Great story!

    Looking forward to further observations.

  14. Submitted by Steve Sundberg on 01/23/2013 - 09:43 am.

    Congratulations, David!

    I, too, have never received my sheeps’ skin nor, as a well-meaning acquaintance once told me three decades ago, have I “completed a discipline.” Three schools; no degree. Part of me, like you, was to benefit from a job opportunity I couldn’t turn down doing something I really loved doing; another part of me — maybe, my larger concern — did not find the classroom to be as instructive as was the “real world.” I was more more interested in “paying my dues” than I was “paying my tuition.” lol

  15. Submitted by Richard Voorhees on 01/23/2013 - 04:44 pm.

    “Finish what you Start”

    I was an Instructor at a metro Community College for some 25 years. In my last five years the pressure was on folks to “Finish what you Start.” That is to start and finish a degree in two years.

    Finishing a degree in the stipulated years is frequently not in the interest of the student. I was aware of two who took more than ten years. Jerry took some time off to work for Dave Durrenberger, look after his profession and his kids. I don’t recall the woman’s name. Her self understanding was forthright and sensible. Then there was the young woman who glared at me through two classes. When she showed up for the third I asked about her anger. She was in school because the parents insisted she remain eligible for medical insurance. Not a good reason and apparently that is now in the past tense. A father wanted me to tell his son that if he didn’t stick it out now he would never get a college education. I regarded students as adults and avoided responding to their parents. In this case I said, “Don’t worry about him. This college is filled with folks who started years ago and returned.” Then there was the guy who flunked out of the U. years ago and took a 4.0 on his return to the Community College. The U. choked on that for awhile when he returned for his four year degree. Many people get started on a degree when jobs are slim and depart when prospects improve. After all, they have families. When the economy takes a dive they return.

    Interest displaces persistence when it comes to learning.

  16. Submitted by Andy Driscoll on 01/24/2013 - 09:37 pm.


    David, congratulations. Yes, I shut the hell up because it took 45 years to complete a BA, and it would have been another 45 if my pal, Tom O’Connell, PhD, MA, BA and I dunno what all, determinedly dragged me back to Metro for the umpteenth registration in 2000. I was 60. Took a couple of years, but they rolled me out of there and down the street to the U for a Master of Liberal Studies, then across campus to the Humphrey. Y’know, you can become addicted to asking questions.

    Best wishes for a smooth completion. You, too, might just cement your shoes in the place. At least for a time. Andy

  17. Submitted by Rohn Jay Miller on 02/06/2013 - 12:21 pm.

    Good luck

    Great story, best of luck. Personally I’d skip the part about working at The Daily this time.

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