I had arrived in the northern branch of the Dakotas at the beginning of June, hastily dropping my possessions before embracing the nomadic life of the low-man-on-the-totem-pole expected of an aspiring collegiate basketball coach. By the time I returned in August I had crisscrossed the Midwest several times over, expanding both my professional and personal knowledge with each stop. Finally, it was time to settle in for the fall semester.
The trek to Bismarck from the east can be treacherous for the soul, a mind-numbing journey across some of the flattest plains the United States has to offer. Towns are spaced evenly along the old railroad lines, giving a rhythm to the monotony as each town boasts a ‘famous’ attraction. There are white buffalo in Jamestown, a giant winged steel sand crane in front of the hotel in Steele. As the final miles pile onto the odometer, the city finally rises with the Missouri River Escarpment out of the tall-grass ranch land, a thousand lights on the horizon welcoming back any traveler journeying west.
Exiting the Interstate I quickly found my way to the address I would call home for the next couple years, carefully following the GPS unit on the dashboard to ensure that I didn’t end up in the wrong place. The day I had come to drop by belongings earlier that summer it had been daylight, now I had to double-check the address before entering through the garage, equally unsure of myself and my place in this new home. My room was how I had left it: filled by my new twin sized bed. Later I would relocate to the basement, deciding that damp conditions trumped overcrowding. That day however, I simply dropped my bags and fell into a sleep fitting for a homecoming.
Each morning I would awaken on the side of a bluff that held much of the city before making my way into the flatland surrounding the Missouri River, and then back up another bluff to the university. Originally founded as a monastery, the campus was built with stunning views of the rolling Western North Dakota plains across the giant, snaking river. If you squinted hard enough you could make out the reconstructed military post at Fort Abraham Lincoln to the south of Mandan while walking across campus, at least until the searing winds of the winter months began to rip across the valley.
At first, I struggled. The requirement of my work study job with the basketball program were not those asked of a typical student. Each day I was expected to spend each spare moment around my class schedule crammed into a former janitor’s closet with two other men, one of which was also my roommate. The tasks asked of me were not difficult, however, lack of direction paired with specific expectations to ensure that I was constantly failing to successfully fulfill my role. As the year wore on it became more clear to me that I had no interest in continuing down that path, at least in the circumstances as they existed then.
Those first weeks my coursework also provided a challenge. I had arrived after two-and-a-half questionable years at my local community college, first failing spectacularly before finding a comfortable stride in my initial academic foray out of secondary school. My study habits had always been less than exceptional prior to that semester, and I was determined that I would avoid any pitfalls by devoting significant attention to my studies. However, as the first week unfolded it became clear that my motivation would be tested before my abilities. Several courses worth of credits had failed to transfer in successfully, placing me in remedial courses I had previously passed. I was discouraged, disenfranchised and utterly alone on the eastern edge of the Mighty Missouri.
As I spent the bulk of my day in class or the retired janitor’s closet, I had little time to provide for myself outside of the $750 per semester of work study and student loan refund checks. I carefully maintained the balance of my accounts, nearing, and occasionally plummeting below, the minimum required balance. Each day I would scrape together a meager meal to be eaten in my cramped room, often choosing the fatalistic sadness that accompanies hunger before the shame filled decision to try and plead with loved ones for a bit of assistance. Eventually a financial savior emerged in the form of the local Biolife Plasma donation clinic, where for the small discomfort of replacing the plasma in my bloodstream with a chilling saline solution I could net almost $60 per week. Twice a week I would leave that clinic feeling lightheaded and numb, happy to have received the small sustenance that would allow me to keep what was remaining of my dignity.
Each night I would try my best to put on a good tone for a phone call to the young woman I was dating who has since become my wife. Eventually my voice would break under the weight of circumstance, too brittle to support the hundreds of miles separating her and I. She was attending another institution, enjoying the experience of making new friends in the environment of a larger university. At the small school I was attending I had entered in an odd and unfortunate limbo, not quite old enough to find communal relationships with full-fledged staff members, but still viewed skeptically by other students as someone who clearly had professional ties to the college. Those first few months I made no friends, feeling the truest sense of loneliness I hope to ever endure.
Adding to the hopelessness creeping at the edge of my conscious was the complete disinterest I received from the man responsible for my arrival in the North Dakota capitol city. A former player and assistant coach of my father, the then current head basketball coach at the university had one day called out of the blue to suggest that I transfer following the completion of my community college studies. Eagerly, happy to have at least some minor direction, I had accepted his proposition with little thought to the logistical and emotional factors that would play into the reality of personal contentedness as I moved up north. After the opening of the semester I rarely saw him, always walking on eggshells whenever I would be quickly summoned to his office for the assignment of a task. I was consistently lost in a cycle of self questioning and doubt that I would be able to summon the necessary gumption to complete the commitment I had made.
One day in the early weeks of that semester, however, everything changed. I was walking down the hall and the head coach’s door was open, a rarity for a man who had purchased mini-blinds to block out inquiring eyes meandering through the underground hallway stuffed with athletic offices. As I walked back from the copy machine to the janitor’s closet with a crisp set of our players’ course schedules, he beckoned me into the doorway. He didn’t have much to say, in hindsight I am sure it was just a random encounter that he would not recall today. “I can tell you are about to turn a corner,” he said.
That simple phrase became a mantra for me over the following days, and with some persistence I was able to begin the difficult adaptation process. Although the problems afflicting me did not dissipate, I was able internalize the smallest glimmer of hope that things would be on the upswing soon. Instead of wallowing in my own misfortune I was able to embrace the little things within the realm of my control: carefully preserving my income, filling my time with exploration, both physically and intellectually, working through processes to gain the credits I had been shorted, and making the best of my situation in the basketball office while knowing that I would be done following the close of the season. I had learned the ability of adaptive mindset, eventually leaving the situation with the knowledge that when personally tested I could count on my physical, mental, and emotional stamina to help me carve sustenance from relatively dire straits.