Sunday, February 3, 2013

15-501 is My Road Not Taken

Duke clocktower

My parents started my prospective college tours early, in the spring of my freshman year of high school. Our first stops were the University of North Carolina and Duke University, neighbors on Route 15-501.

On the day we visited Duke, the campus was a disaster--covered in toilet paper, littered with trash, and reeking of beer. It was Monday, March 24, 1986, the day after Duke beat Navy to make it to the Final Four. As I walked smiling amid the Gothic architecture and scattered party remains, my dad turned to me and said, "You love this, don't you?"

I did. Although we toured many other colleges over the next three years and I applied to several, Duke was always my first choice. For the rest of high school, I followed Duke basketball religiously, posted Duke photos in my locker, and acquired a treasure trove of sweatshirts, key chains, and other Duke memorabilia. Like every other senior, I wrote my admissions essays, mailed off my submissions, and waited.

Duke Chapel from BC Walkway

I received a thin letter from Duke.

Everyone knows that no good college admission news arrives in a thin letter. If you've been accepted, you receive a thick packet of information. The thin letters are only bad news. I took my thin letter upstairs to my bedroom and opened it. Wait listed. Not denied, but I might as well have been. All my visions of heading south to the college of my dreams were obliterated by that thin little letter. They wouldn't take me. I had to make other plans, become excited about other opportunities. So I did.

I still have the thin letter.
After I got the news from the other places I applied, I weighed my options and decided to attend UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke's rival eight miles down 15-501. Because Duke was no longer an option, I moved on and prepared to become a Tar Heel.

On a spring afternoon while my parents were out of town, the phone rang. I answered in the kitchen. It was a phone call that would change my life. Duke would have me. It was so unexpected that I couldn't process it. After hanging up the phone, I only vaguely remembered the details of the call. I checked the notepad where I'd been taking notes. All it said was "DUKE" in all caps.

I did go to Duke that fall. I loved my college experience, but to say that phone call changed my life is not merely a hyperbolic statement of nostalgia. That phone call, and my subsequent decision to take Duke up on its offer, set the course of my future. Had I gone elsewhere, nearly every experience of my adult life would have been different.

I would have different friends. I met many of my best friends at Duke, including several I chat with online almost daily and the godmother of one of my children.

I met my husband at Duke. Without that phone call, I'd likely be married to someone else. I would have different children.

Had I married someone else, I might have made different career decisions. I certainly would have lived in different places, as my husband's career has dictated our moves for the last fifteen years and will for the foreseeable future. Those moves, in turn, have determined the friends I've made and the experiences I've had since we first moved for my husband's career in 1998.

Different spouse, other children, different friends, and other life experiences. All the result of a single phone call in the spring of 1989.

That one phone call changed everything. When I play the What If game, that is the decisive moment. The moment I stood in my parents' kitchen, ballpoint pen in hand, and spoke to someone sitting in an office in Durham was my road not taken, my unanswered prayer, my sliding door. Without that phone call, my life would not be life as I know it.

I'm awfully glad they called.


  1. I was waitlisted at Swarthmore and could write a similar post about how getting in to Swarthmore and going there was pivital -- as was hating it and leaving after a semester and taking a year off before going back to Lafayette College. Hmmm, maybe I will. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Oh, and how do you still have a copy of the letter! I thought I kept a lot of stuff, but don't have my Swarthmore letter!

    1. I had it framed in my room for years. It made it here with the multitude of other things I had saved when my parents downsized and made me take all my stuff.

  3. My decision to take a teaching job in Bellefontaine, OH was the turning point in my life. I was "only going to work here for a year" when I went on a blind date that changed everything. I married that man 3 years later. We have been married for almost 15 years and have 2 amazing children. You never know where life will take you!


  4. Cynthia: We all have roads not taken. Some good and some bad. Sometimes it seems it takes some of us a little longer to find our path. Great writing.

  5. ME, TOO (awfully glad they called)! My life would be different, too, and that would make me sad. I'm glad they had the good sense to call!