When I needed $300 for college, I had one person to depend on: Myself

I had seen preachers raise more than that with a quick pass of the collection plate. I figured that somebody in the family would come through.

SHARE When I needed $300 for college, I had one person to depend on: Myself
The True Vine Church, founded by John Fountain’s grandparents, on Chicago’s West Side.

The True Vine Church, founded by John Fountain’s grandparents, on Chicago’s West Side.

Photo provided by John Fountain.

This week’s column is the second in a series of excerpts from the author’s memoir, “True Vine: A Young Black Man’s Journey of Faith, Hope & Clarity”

I had a pocketful of cash, money I had saved for books and incidentals. I worked at the notorious Cabrini-Green housing project through the Mayor’s Summer Youth Program, supervising youths who lived there. Working there gave me a deeper appreciation for K-Town and its relatively minor brand of poverty and despair compared to Cabrini.

Once during the summer, I had taken the teenagers I supervised to see a movie at a downtown theater, only to discover that many of them had never been downtown before, even though it was just a few blocks away…

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There were no fences barring the residents of Cabrini from entering downtown, only the fences inside their heads… But their bondage first took up residence in their own minds. That was the lesson I would take with me from my summer job.

I was about to learn another, more painful, lesson.

A few days before I was due back on campus, Mama called me into the living room as I was packing. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” she began. “We don’t have the money to pay your school bill.”

I still owed the university about $700 in tuition from the previous semester that I had to pay before registering for fall classes. Earlier in the summer, Mama had told me that she was going to take care of the bill and not to worry.

“I’m sorry, we just don’t have it,” she continued. Her words were slow. Her head was bowed, and her eyes drifted from mine to the floor. “It doesn’t look like you’re going to be able to go back to school.”

“What?” I asked, feeling as if I had been slapped. “What do you mean? Did you ask Grandmother? And Grandpa?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“And?”

“They said they don’t have it,” Mama said.

I began doing the calculations inside my head. …I still had one more check coming in two weeks that would be enough to tide me over until my job on campus kicked in. “Ma, all I need is $300,” I said. “Do you think someone will let you borrow $300?”

“I don’t know, John. I’ll ask,” Mama said.

I went to my bedroom feeling stunned. I wondered why Mama had waited so long to let me know she might not be able to pay the bill. …I suspected that Mama was probably too ashamed to tell me, and that time and money had simply run short…

I figured somebody would loan Mama a measly $300. I had seen preachers raise more than that with a quick pass of the collection plate. I figured that somebody in the family would come through. The thought eased my worries.

A short while later, Mama summoned me back to the living room. “John, everybody I called said they don’t have it,” Mama said, her words ringing hollow.

I have never understood why no one would loan Mama, or, for that matter, me, the money to return to school unless it was the case that Mama was plum borrowed out and considered a bad risk.

Whatever the case, I could not comprehend the sudden lack of resources in a family in which the majority were homeowners with decent-paying jobs. I always figured that they might have taken up a collection at True Vine for a young needy college student.

Slowly, the idea of not being able to go back to school began to settle in and filled me with great pain…

For weeks, I walked around dazed. Eventually, I found some sobriety and solace in understanding that the only person I could truly depend on was myself.

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Email John Fountain at Author@Johnwfountain.com

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