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I took ten gap years

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(Anthony Clark Jr./The Collegiate)

By Shane Madden

As I walk the stairs toward my seat I am taken by an overwhelming chorus of squeaky shoes, accompanied by the rhythmic pounding of leather on the hardwood. I have spent no time on a court or in a gymnasium since the start of 2020 when the world turned upside down, but I can’t help but grin as the familiar sound brings me back to my years playing – sweating and venting my frustrations.      

The game is neck and neck from start to finish. I scramble throughout, testing different methods of keeping notes, trying to keep track of who scored last, acting like I know what I’m doing. I don’t. Not yet at least. But this is everything I’ve wanted since high school. Ten years of wondering.  

The buzzer sounds loudly as the game tying shot falls for the home team. The game is headed to overtime. I should really get back to my notes, but the hair on my arms is standing on end and I can hardly maintain my composure as I give a little fist pump, doing my best to hide the grin spreading across my face. The mask helps. I feel alive, elated. Relieved. 

I spend the overtime periods flipping the switch back and forth between reporter and fan. I’m supposed to be (acting like) a professional, but it’s my first game, surely I can let out a whoop here or there as long as it’s kept to myself. 

We just fall short and the fan in me feels it. But, what a feeling!  

I get back to my car and let out the longest, most satisfied sigh. I have never felt so at home.  Never more myself. I am an absolute unapologetic basketball nerd, filled to the brim with gratitude. I just covered my first basketball game and I’m on top of the world. My mind wanders.  

I’m immediately taken back to 17-years-old, telling my counselor I wanted to be a sportscaster and get paid to talk about sports. I had the grades and test scores to get in most anywhere, but I had my eyes set on the University of Missouri. MIZZOU for the real fans. The oldest journalism school in the country; they must know something. I sat down to fill out the application, but never got past it. I, like many students, didn’t have the financial backing to confidently take such a leap. The intimidation of such a monstrous monetary commitment, without parental support on loans, scared me away from my dream.    

I spent the next 10 years after high school miserably meandering through every type of job, trying to find an occupation that filled me with something other than dread. Sales, service, management, finally settling into bartending. Working for tips suited me, and they were higher than any wage I had ever received. But there is a type of servile degradation that occurs in the restaurant industry. An innate power imbalance between server and guest that eats away at a person’s dignity over time. 

I started to feel trapped. No offense to anyone in the food service industry, as I’m still in the trenches, but nobody ever dreamed of a career in restaurant service. I simply could not accept that this was all there was in store for me. So, when circumstances (specifically those involving a once in a hundred-year pandemic) forced me to make a swift exit, I knew I had to make a plan. 

My job and income had vanished overnight. Restaurant jobs didn’t exactly scream job security beforehand, but now that crack shone through profoundly. I needed to find something more stable and more importantly something I didn’t hate. I took my economic stimulus payment and bought a laptop to enroll in online classes here at Grand Rapids Community College.     

I saw success through my first few classes, giving me more confidence in my decision to finally make the leap. When my English professor suggested I submit an assignment to multiple writing contests and scholarship opportunities, I felt validated and inspired to go further. Now my writing dreams are a plan of action.   

It took me 10 years, and an international pandemic that induced work stoppage, to seize the opportunity to give my dreams a second chance. Sometimes I feel frustrated, almost angry about the time I wasted, but those feelings are washed away by the notion of finally knowing who I am and where I’m headed. It seems morbid to call this pandemic a blessing in disguise, but it certainly gave me the time I needed to do some soul searching. Some time to decide what I was and wasn’t willing to accept in my life. A moment to breathe.

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