The Weight

In 1995, I decided to bag my radio career completely and I went back to college, enrolling at the University of Iowa, in the teacher ed program. My plan was to end up a social studies teacher someplace. My first semester, I took four history courses and one education course. There was a ton of reading to be done, but it was the sort of reading I did for fun anyhow, so it wasn’t like work. I was able to build good rapport with my professors, and although most of my fellow students were 12 to 15 years younger than me, I didn’t feel out of place. And I enjoyed the hell out of it. I remember walking out of my last class one afternoon (“Topics in the History of Public Health”), my head still ringing from a discussion of game theory as it related to epidemic disease prevention in 19th century London. As I walked among the old campus buildings on that sunny early-spring day, I felt a tremendous rush of excitement. I had never dreamed a purely theoretical, academic discussion could be so much fun. This is what it’s like to be a history major, I thought.

But that was March. Come April, I was to learn something else about being a history major, when all the end-of-semester projects came due around the same time, followed immediately by final exams. It was as exhausting as the earlier part of the semester had been exhilarating. For a period around the first of May, I was working harder than I’d ever worked at anything in my life—and I found a theme song that described the feeling exactly.

I lived an hour away from campus, so I had a lengthy commute each way. But Iowa City had a really good classic-rock radio station at that time, and I’d listen to it most of the way there and back. One weary afternoon I punched it up just in time to hear:

I pulled into Nazareth
Was feelin’ ’bout half past dead
Just need some place
Where I can lay my head

Although I’d heard “The Weight” plenty of times before, I could never relate to it until that moment. Neither did I really understand before that moment what it meant to take the weight. I had always been someone who preferred the path of least resistance—which explains, among other things, why my radio career ended up a disappointment. My return to college wasn’t the first time I’d ever taken on a task that turned out to be incredibly, unexpectedly hard. The difference was that this time, I was determined to keep at it, and my strong desire to see it through was a revelation. Far from being an intolerable burden, the weight itself became its own motivation for going on.

Apart from being a damn good song, “The Weight” is on my Desert Island list because I like being reminded of that life—those two-plus years of full-time studenthood, a tremendous luxury for a man in his mid-30s—weight and all. Here it is from The Last Waltz, with the Staple Singers.

3 responses

  1. A great song which was also featured at the end of one of the episodes of “Sports Night.”

  2. Great song but I can’t listen to it without thinking of that stooge Robbie Robertson and how he used the Band to come up with the songs and then took (monetary) credit for them. He learned the ropes from Dylan and his manager Albert Grossman in the art of song stealing. It’s survival of the fittest? I call it disgraceful.

  3. Great post! And it really captures that whole grad school experience as I remember it. Yes, I worked my ass off, but it led to a good amount of enlightenment about history, politics and literature. Alas, my teaching career (much like my radio career) hasn’t been ideal, but I really don’t regret the years I spent in grad school chasing a dream of an academic career.

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