A second chance changed, and probably saved my life.
In our new entitlement society, the true meaning and intrinsic value of getting a second chance has lost some of its luster. That’s a shame given that a real second chance can alter a person’s life trajectory.
As you read this post, I hope you will think about a seminal second chance in your life – one accepted or ignored – and share it. There is much we can learn from one another.
My life-changing second chance came in early January 1971, at about 4:50 PM on a cold and gray Friday in the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences at a small university in a small town in Northeast Texas. The spring term registration was to begin on Monday but earlier in the week I had received a letter from the Dean denying my admission. My academic performance in the fall, my first on campus after transferring from a community college, was nothing short of dismal. The letter stunned me although, truth be told, my grades did suck. That is the only polite way to describe the GPA equivalent of one B, a C, and two Ds.
The letter included a telephone number to call if I had any questions. I had only one: could I get a second chance?
There were a lot of reasons – excuses – for my dismal performance but they seemed so silly at that moment in time. Across the Pacific, in a Southeast Asian country called Vietnam, American men were dying at an alarming rate in what became known as a “no-win war,” and I was the owner of a very low draft number. Without a student deferment, getting drafted to “join” the military was almost a certainty. No doubt my draft bureau had been notified. A sense of sadness and dread swept over me.
The Dean’s receptionist, a friendly voice who remembered me as a reporter for the college newspaper, answered my call. “I am so sorry John. I hope you will be OK…” she paused, and then quietly said that the Dean was personally meeting with students who called to ask for a second chance. But there was only one time slot left – at 4:45 PM on Friday. If I could come back to campus, a two-hour drive, he would give me 15 minutes. I said yes, please.
I have never been shy about making presentations so the idea of “pitching” the Dean on why I should be readmitted was not daunting. I was better than average as a high school debater and speaker, and certainly a legend in my own mind regarding my skills with the verbal BS. I was confident that I would prevail.
When I was ushered into the Dean’s office, I suddenly felt uncomfortable, all my rehearsing notwithstanding. Behind the desk, the Dean was leaning back in his chair. He looked tired – actually exhausted. I subsequently learned that I was the last of more than 40 students who had come to plead their case. We chatted briefly about the holidays and then he abruptly signaled that I should begin to tell him why I was different than the majority of the other students who had been in his office asking, begging for another shot.
Barely two minutes into my presentation, he leaned forward, and impatiently waved his hand to cut me off. Silence, and then, “You are not telling me anything I want to hear. You have not told me why I should give you another chance,” he said he in a voice filled with frustration and a tinge of anger. Again I was stunned. I thought my little speech was a winner.
My mind went blank. For what seemed like an eternity, I stared, frantically, searching for something to say. “Are you going to tell me what I need to hear?” His impatience was growing.
With the quivering voice of someone who was on the verge of experiencing a life-changing defeat, these words, filled with a raw, intense emotion, tumbled out: “Because this is my last chance at ever getting a college education.”
He motioned for me to sit down. Apparently I stood up during my brief but intense confession. He stared at me as if to divine the sincerity of my outburst, and then spoke, kindly and with warmth, the words that changed my life. I have never forgotten them.
“This may be your second chance, and it is certainly your last chance. I am approving your re-enrollment.” He leaned back in his chair. “John, I know your draft lottery number. And I am relatively certain that if you blow this, you will find yourself leading some patrol in the rice fields in Vietnam. Two people in the last two years who sat where you are sitting today are dead today because they did not appreciate this opportunity. Please don’t let yourself down.”
The reality of what had happened, what could happen in the future, came crashing down on me. “Please don’t let yourself down,” words that rang in my ears for the two-hour drive home, and for years to come.
Fear, they say, is a strong motivator. It certainly was for me. I am proud to report that in my remaining semesters at East Texas State University – now known as Texas A&M University-Commerce – I earned Dean’s recognition for academic performance at least once and never failed another course. Today, on the wall of study, is something I am enormously proud of: a college degree.
I never spoke to the Dean again. Over the years I have come to understand that I owe a great deal to that school and today I am working to give back. But I owe the most to that Dean who gave me a life-changing second chance.
He did not have to.
If you have had a second chance, please share. We can learn much from one another.
© 2021 John Gregory Self