From Paul Cataline:
My name is Paul Cataline, and I’ve decided to submit my story to you because I believe that if it inspires even one person, it will be worth the telling. I’ll preface my story with an analogy. One of the things that I know in this world is football. I’ve been involved in the game, either as a player or a coach, for more than half of my life. Any football coach will tell you that while a good running back is good because of the effort he puts in, the great running backs are great because of second effort; the determination to hit a wall, redirect, find a little daylight and drive themselves for a few more inches or a few more yards. It is, in fact, that second effort that often makes the difference between winning and losing, between being a champion or not. Mine is a story of second effort, and I believe it merits sharing.
On the surface, my story might not seem as compelling as some. I was not raised in poverty, I am a native English speaker, and I have no disability to speak of unless you speak to my wife, who might say I have a learning disability when it comes to putting my razor back in its case every morning. I was a middle class kid from a middle class neighborhood in a peaceful community who had all of the opportunities that came with being so who squandered each and every one of them in turn. I was a smart kid and a pretty good ball player who was able to skate through high school with minimal effort because I was both. High School was largely an ongoing party. I never developed a problem with alcohol, and I didn’t experiment or get hooked on drugs. There was nothing that dramatic with me. I was just a good natured underachiever who was content to be just that. The problem was that the skill set required for being an unmotivated underachiever didn’t transfer very well to college. The things that just seemed to click for me in high school didn’t in that new environment. I lasted a couple of years, probably longer that I should have; private colleges are pretty good at giving you the benefit of the doubt as long as someone is footing the thirty-two thousand dollar annual tuition bill. Finally, though, my situation snowballed to the point where I was politely informed that I was taking a leave of absence for an indefinite amount of time due to poor academic performance. Apparently, private schools are also adept at sugar-coating ugly truths. The ugly truth in my case was that I’d failed out of school with the option of applying for readmission in one year.
One year doesn’t sound like a very long time, except in my case one year became five; time I spent travelling throughout the country working any angle I could or job that would pay enough to keep me on the move, burning through friendships and relationships almost as fast as I made them, leaving a trail of bewildered and broken hearts in my wake. I delivered furniture for various rental companies throughout New York. I sold Cable Television subscriptions in Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Virginia, and Maryland. I was a Bouncer in Bars and Clubs throughout Southern California, sold overpriced vacuum cleaners in Texas, mucked stables in New Mexico, and raked chicken coops in Kentucky. It was there, in a tiny speck of a town somewhere between Lexington and Louisville, in a motel less than a mile from a ramshackle barn that boasted a sign proclaiming it as Colonel Sanders’ original Chicken Farm that I came to a realization that had been five long years in the making; I was unhappy. It wasn’t depression or anything clinical but more the recognition that I was fundamentally unfulfilled as an individual, the awareness of having an existence without life, and the emptiness of it all settled on me like a weight. The next day, three days before Christmas, I called my father. It wasn’t much of a conversation. In fact I spent most of it crying like I hadn’t cried since childhood, talking about what a mess I’d made of things. The thing about my father is that he is truly one of the good ones, the kind who, no matter what you might do or not do, loves you simply because you’re his kid. So he did what the good ones do; he listened.
Eight hours later, after spending most of the night in three airports, three planes, and a cab, he walked into my motel room, packed my things, put me into my car, pointed the car towards New York, and started driving. For the first time in five years, I was going home. It was a six hour ride my father and I talked, really talked, for what might have been the first time ever. He didn’t pull any punches; we were beyond such niceties. In fact he was brutally honest. He agreed that I’d made a mess of things, adding only that it was astounding that I hadn’t realized that fact sooner. I’d spent years running a long con on the world, he told me, and the truth was that the only one I’d been conning was me. I’d alienated every person who’d ever cared for me, squandered every penny or opportunity I’d ever been given, and wrung out every ounce of good will ever extended to me by anyone naïve enough to offer it. And now here I was, spent up and penniless, unable to even look at myself in a mirror, or maybe unwilling for fear of the truth I might see in it. Then he did something odd. He reached over, turned down the passenger side sun visor, flipped open the mirror, and made me look into it. He made me do that for what seemed like a very long time. He said It was important, that I needed to burn that image into my brain, puffy eyes, tear streaked face, empty eyes and all. I needed to remember, he said, the way I felt in that moment. It was important, he told me, because not one thing I had done up to that point was in question. I’d done what I’d done and been where I’d been, all of that was fact, ugly fact to be sure, no real question there. The only question of any importance was what I was going to do from that point forward. He told me that the person I’d become didn’t have to be the person I would always be. It was a demon of sorts that I had to let go of. Then, oddly enough, he asked me about a writer. He asked me if I’d ever read anything by James Agee. I was surprised by the question and hadn’t ever heard of the writer. I asked him why he asked, and he shook his head. He just shook his head and said that one day down the road, when I had some distance from where I was, I should look that author up and do a little reading. He said I’d understand. Then he told me he loved me, and I believed him. And I felt clean, somehow, and empty; ready to be filled with something more than self-loathing.
During the holidays, I contacted Hartwick College, the school I’d failed out of five years earlier, and inquired about re-admission. I was told that my best chance at being invited back was to enroll in a Community College for at least a year and demonstrate success. That January I enrolled in Finger Lakes Community College as a full time student. I took two classes at the local extension center and two at the main campus in Canandaigua, N.Y. During that time, I was living with my parents, but still needed to work, so I took a job working the overnight shift at an electronics factory assembling mother boards for computers from 11pm to 7 am every day. I spent that four months working harder between classes, homework, and my job, than I had ever worked in my life. During that time I met Louise Mulvaney. She was an English professor and the instructor for two of the four courses I was taking that semester. During the third week of class, she returned a paper to me with a single comment on it. Don’t give up. I stayed after the next class to ask her about her comment. Was there a problem with my work? She smiled and assured me that there was no problem with my work. She told me that in fact I was one of the best writers in her class. When I asked her about her comment on my paper, she just smiled and said that I looked tired and like I could use some encouragement. I thanked her and proceeded to share my entire story with her, ending with the fact that my intention was to eventually return to Hartwick and finish what I had started five years prior. At the end of it she simply smiled and said, “Well, then, it appears we have our work cut out for us.” I thanked her for listening to me and excused myself. In retrospect I think I may have been feeling a little embarrassed for being so open. As I was leaving, though, she stopped me. “If you noticed,” she said, “I used the word we. You are not in this alone; don’t forget that.”
During the course of that semester, Louise and I had dozens of conversations. She was a motivator, a critic, a resource, and a friend. She became my advisor, both academically and personally, introduced me to other students who were, as she used to call us, “non-traditional.” It was the beginning of one of the most important relationships in my life, a deep friendship that continues to this day. There were days when I felt as if I were literally sleepwalking through my life, but with Louise’ continued patronage and the encouragement I found in new friendships, I was able to maintain focus, even on days when I could scarcely focus my eyes on what I was reading. When the semester was finally over, I slept through nearly an entire weekend, spending what little time I was awake wondering if I would be able to keep going at that same pace in the fall. That next week, though, when the grade report came, I tore open the envelope and found myself staring down at a perfect 4.0 report. Later that summer I received an invitation to join Phi Theta Kappa, the International Honor Society for two year colleges. Louise was the advisor for the local chapter, so I threw myself into that group with the same focus and determination that I’d thrown myself into my first semester. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Over the course of the next year, my successes continued to mount. I was receiving top grades across the board, but in addition to that, I was being exposed to an entirely different level of academia through my association with Phi Theta Kappa. I was elected a chapter officer and traveled extensively. I attended Honors Study institutes on both the regional and national level that challenged me to expand the breadth and depth of my own ideas and integrate those of others in creating a more global, wholly integrated perspective. I took part in leadership development conferences and other enrichment opportunities that made me a more dynamic, confident student. I discovered and was able to nourish a talent for leadership, and became, on the whole, a more complete student, a more complete person.
A year and nine months after first walking through the doors of FLCC, and thanks I returned to Hartwick College with something one doesn’t get very often in this life – a fresh start. The Grade Point average that I had earned at FLCC—a 3.9—became my recalculated GPA at Hartwick, and I began anew. The skills and habits that I had nourished during my Community College time and with Phi Theta Kappa served me well. Two years later, eleven years after beginning, I graduated from Hartwick College with a 3.8 Grade point Average and degrees in English and Education. During that time, I remained active in Phi Theta Kappa, becoming the Founding President of New York’s first Regional Phi Theta Kappa Alumni Association, Zeta of New York, in 1996. That association has emerged as a leader among alumni, receiving the Society’s Alumni Association of Merit Award three times since the award’s introduction in 2000. Fifteen years later and more than 700 members strong, it continues to thrive and serve the New York region today.
Building from these earlier successes, I have made successful career in education, determined to provide for others the same kind of compassion, support and nurturing that I found at the hands of Louise Mulvaney, FLCC, and Phi Theta Kappa. I have had a successful career as a teacher and school administrator and hold Masters degrees in Secondary Education and Education Administration. I am currently in the process of starting a Charter School – The Finger Lakes Preparatory Academy – a 9-12 Charter school whose mission will be to prepare students for the transition into college by offering a streamlined, more focused curriculum at the 9th and 10th grade levels and offering a full spectrum of college 101 and 102 level courses during the 11th and 12th grade years to provide students with the opportunity to transition into Community Colleges with a significant head start toward completing as Associates Degree. This is a labor of love for me, a way of paying forward my second chance in life, and the opportunity for redemption that I was afforded. It is nothing less for me than a sacred duty.
I am a husband and a father now. I have two sons of my own who even at the ages of 7 and 10 demonstrate much more natural sense than I did at their age. I am encouraged by that and sincerely hope that they can manage to parlay that natural sense into successful lives without hitting the speed bumps along the way that I did. If they do, though, I hope and pray that I can rise to the occasion and be even half of the man for them that my father was for me. Even now I look back at that long ride from Kentucky to New York as the beginning of my new beginning. Not too long ago, between work and football practices and trumpet lessons and cub scouts, I managed to make some time to look up James Agee. It didn’t take me long to find what I think my father wanted me to find, a frequently quoted passage from Agee’s, “A Death in the Family.” It reads:
"How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it's good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life. And what's it all for? All I tried to be, all I ever wanted and went away for, what's it all for?”
I read that passage a few times, and I have to confess that I just didn’t get it at first. I had assumed that I would find a lightning bolt, a moral to the story, so to speak, but the passage ends with a question. It wasn’t until I was writing this that a realization dawned on me. I believe I know now what I couldn’t have possibly understood then, and what he wanted me to eventually understand; a lesson that none of us can truly see without a little distance and some hindsight: Life is not a neat thing and seldom happens exactly according to plan. At best, it’s a collection of choices and consequences, actions and results and questions, all of which change us forever, leaving us to search for answers, and in searching for those answers, somehow find ourselves.