It’s Election Day in the America. It’s a day that always make me think about how I got into this business.
Back in 1992, I was trying to stay out of a godawful job market by doing a Q-year in Economics at McGill (ended disastrously: don’t ask). On November 2nd, I was sitting with some friends in the Shatner Building reading a New York Times story about the celebrations being planned in Little Rock for the next evening. It was clearly going to be the biggest party in North America that week. So we decided to go.
Some local car rental company had unwisely signed a deal with the student’s union offering any club a 3-day rental for $150, so seven of us (mostly from The Tribune) jumped into a Chevy Astrovan at 5 o’clock Monday afternoon and drove 23 hours straight from Montreal to Little Rock. We had a good time while there (I managed to blag my way into a temporary press pass which – with a little help from a local laminating shop – became my ticket to hang out in the basement of the Excelsior Hotel following Wolf Blitzer around listening to him bullshit with other reporters). But for me, the real event of that trip happened the next morning.
We left Little Rock at midnight, needing to get home so some of us could take midterms on Thursday. At about 7AM, we pulled into a McDonald’s near Champaign, Illinois. By this time, none of us had really bathed or slept properly in about 48 hours and six of the seven of us were smokers (a fairly representative percentage in Montreal in the early 90s), so there was a kind of blue haze that followed us out of the van as we trudged into a nearly-empty restaurant for some coffee and McMuffins.
“You all look like crap,” said the woman behind the counter (note: she did not say “crap”, she used a different word). We gave her the back story on our trek, and told her that we were coming back from Little Rock.
Somewhat to our bemusement, the woman began to cry. “You saw the President?” At first I thought this was just an exaggerated expression of royal-like deference American sometimes display towards the Commander-in-Chief. But no. She recovered slightly and said “Mr. Clinton is our President and my boy is going to go to college”.
So that was it. Amidst all the back and forth of the campaign: Gennifer Flowers, The Comeback Kid, Ross Perot jumping in, Sister Souljah, Double Bubba, Ross Perot leaving, Murphy Brown, Dan Quayle’s spelling ability, Ross Perot coming back in again, “it’s the economy, stupid”….the main thing this woman had keyed in on was that Clinton was determined to expand access through a “Domestic G.I. Bill” higher education by letting all students either a) borrow via an income-contingent loan or b) do national service (that never quite happened, though Clinton did manage to introduce both an income-contingent loan repayment option and Americorps).
The fact that we’d been near the man who was going to make this happen was just a bit overwhelming for her. And that made a big impression on me. Among those who have degrees, there’s often a world-weary cynical pose about higher education “not being worth it” – devalued degrees, crippling student debt, etc. But to a family who’s never had someone attend post-secondary, and that moment when they realise they can go is something magical. They’re not foolish enough to think that going to university or college means but they do know for sure – rightly – that going to higher education is by far the best way to get step up to the middle class. And if you aren’t already in the middle class, that’s a Big Deal. Something worth devoting a career to, anyway.
And that – in part – is how a visit to an Illinois McDonald’s 24 years ago got me studying student aid and from there, higher education generally. And why every four years I think about that morning, and that woman, and wonder whether her son succeeded in college or not. I really wonder.