News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 19, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Gains outlast pains on long journey to graduation day

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Numbers could flood my brain today, but they won’t.

True, new statistics released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau tell us that 54,365,177 Americans hold a four-year college degree, or 27.5 percent of the nation’s adult population. It’s the latest addition to that list, though, that will dominate my thoughts.

I could dwell on the cost of a university education, which — as we know quite well — leaves graduates of a four-year public college with an average student-loan debt of $25,000. That’s real, but the only bottom line concerning my family today will be the one bearing his name on the front of a Purdue diploma.

There’s legitimate cause to fret about the job market my son will enter, with nearly 10 percent of the labor force out of work. He’s well-equipped for the challenge, though. The unemployment rate for folks with a bachelor’s degree stands at 5 percent. Plus, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists his field of study, civil engineering, as one of the top growth jobs for the coming decade.

Besides, he and other “echo boomers” — the children of baby boomers — came of age in an era when tough economic times were the norm, from the 9/11 collapse through the Great Recession. I like his chances. I’ve seen him handle steep odds before.

Five winters ago, he broke his leg — just below his knee — at the outset of his final season as a high school wrestler. For a senior, the temptation to just call it a career would be strong. Wrestling is hard enough for a healthy athlete. Three 2-minute periods can seem like an eternity. There’s no teammate to rescue you when some behemoth has your face squashed into the mat and your arm wrenched behind your back. Bloody noses and lips, black eyes and swollen ears are routine. So are ringworm outbreaks.

Oh, and there’s also the small matter of maintaining a consistent weight. Few teenagers are willing to say goodbye to pizza for five months, or eat a nice, fresh, delicious salad on Thanksgiving. But to be a wrestling team’s 189-pounder, you must weigh, yes, 189 pounds. There’s a weigh-in before every meet, and scales don’t lie.

The kid didn’t quit.

Instead, he spent most of his team’s practices lifting weights. He couldn’t use his leg for almost two months, but his upper body looked like one of those super hero Halloween costumes.

Finally, once his rehab stretch was complete, he got cleared to get back on the mat. And, at the start, he literally ended up on the mat more often than usual. The year before, he’d led his team in pins (a victory earned by holding down both of your opponent’s shoulders). Now, with his legs not yet fully conditioned, he was struggling to win. That’s another beautiful aspect of wrestling — you learn humility, in front of a gym full of moms, dads, grandparents, brothers, sisters, girlfriends and best buds. He absorbed the setbacks with class.

By the time the sectional rolled around, he’d lost as many matches as he’d won. Quite a change from his junior season. When the sectional coaches met to select the seedings for each wrestler in each weight class, they slotted my son seventh out of eight competitors, or next-to-last. Given his gradual recovery and record, you couldn’t argue with their assessment.

He decided to disprove them, though.

With amazed smiles, my wife and I, and his kid brother and sister, watched him knock off higher seeded sectional rivals, one by one. The video of the final seconds of his victory in the championship match looks as shaky as “The Blair Witch Project” because my wife and I couldn’t stand still. The image of him jumping with a beaming smile and jubilantly punching the air will be etched into my brain forever. Not because he succeeded in a sport, but because he didn’t give up when life got rougher.

After seeing that, I knew he could tackle college.

On graduation day, whether in May or December, parents flip through a mental scrapbook of the 16-plus years it takes to reach this point … That uneasy wave through the bus window on the first day of school. Turning plastic pop bottles into science fair projects. A squeaking saxophone, warming up on the night before the Christmas concert. Creating a driveable contraption known as a “super mileage car” for a high school competition. Frantic searches for lost wrestling shoes at 5:30 a.m. Packing lunches. Hustling to get to parent-teacher conferences. Honor rolls. Groundings (just a couple). Driver’s ed. Heading off to college. Late-night calls about a course from hell.

And then, after the last final exam of college ends, an excited text saying, “School’s out forever!”

Each mother or father of America’s 54,365,177 college graduates probably reacted differently when their son or daughter received a diploma, assuming they lived long enough to see it happen. Some likely smiled with quiet dignity. Others may have shed tears of pride, joy and relief. As for me, today, I might just jump up, punch the air and smile.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or