Dear Subway

Elizabeth Donald

A little gray hair doesn’t mean you can’t be a student.

Dear Subway: At first, I simply vowed never to go into your restaurant again. But then I remembered that if you say nothing, then nothing changes.

My husband and I have eaten Subway far more than people with our income should, because we can fool ourselves into thinking that lettuce and tomato makes it healthy.

And you’re convenient. Subways seem to sprout from the ground like dandelions in March, attached to every gas station in the Midwest and probably nationwide. There may be only one Starbucks between St. Louis and Memphis along I-55, but by God, there are sixty Subways. I’m pretty sure that the first manned mission to Mars is going to find a Subway open for business.

There are three in our town, but we liked the one next to Wal-mart best, because it was clean and quick and it offers a 15-percent discount to students from the university.

Dear Subway: One year ago this week, my husband and I stopped at your restaurant. We ordered our sandwiches: my usual club with lettuce and tomato with extra mayonnaise, and his usual meatball sub with extra onions, as I reminded him that he better not try to kiss me after eating that, and we both know he will and I will mock-protest by shouting, “Ew, onions! Onions!”

When it came time to pay, I reminded my husband to show his college ID. With multiple family members in college at the same time, we can use all the discounts we can get.

The cashier refused to give us the discount. Flabbergasted, I explained that he was a student and a night janitor. But she could not see past his graying goatee, and our obvious middle age. She cocked a skeptical eyebrow, and began quizzing us.

What year was he in? What was his major? What classes was he taking?

Three other customers stood in line behind us and watched this interrogation take place, bland curiosity on their faces. Jim is not one for public conflict, and he was frozen in place, his university ID in his hand.

I was thrown entirely off balance— which is not terribly characteristic for me — and I stammered out some responses as my mind turned into a hissing white void: he’s a junior — no, a senior, studying English and philosophy.

The cashier looked over at her manager, who shook her head. No discount. Essentially branding us as liars in front of a roomful of hungry people, as though we were faking his student status to get a measly discount. Humiliated, we paid and left, and I waited until we were in the parking lot to declare that we would never go to Subway again.

Dear Subway: Let me tell you a little bit about my husband.

Jim was a quiet kid, more than a bit of a geek back in the days when geeks weren’t cool, especially in Memphis. He liked Dungeons & Dragons and J.R.R. Tolkein, read voraciously and watched Star Wars and Star Trek. You know the type.

People told him he was dumb. He grew up strong, and he had a southern accent. He didn’t come from money. He was the seventh of ten children, the son of well-meaning parents who never finished high school, and so college was never even discussed as a possibility. People told him he had nothing to offer, he wasn’t going to make anything of himself, because of where he came from. Teachers told him this, openly mocking him when he said he wanted to be a doctor. “You aren’t going to be anything but a garbageman,” a teacher said. It boggles the mind.

Jim graduated high school with a GPA that suffered a bit from three years of Latin, but otherwise would have been more than sufficient to get him into a university with plenty of poor-person grants.

But not one person ever told him that. Not a teacher or a guidance counselor or a friend, and his parents lacked the knowledge to ask. He never took the SAT. College was for rich people and geniuses, or so he believed because it’s what he was told.

So he went into the Air Force, but that didn’t take. After he got out, he got jobs lifting heavy things. He worked on loading docks for trucking companies and grocery stores. Got married, had kids, got divorced. Decades passed.

But his mind didn’t let up. He read constantly, worked his way through The Simarillion three or four times, which is more than I ever managed. His imagination worked overtime while his body did the work that paid him. Eventually that roving imagination found an outlet: he wrote a novel. A small press picked it up and he was a published author.

He set to writing as best he could in his spare time, practicing the craft. First it was an escape from the doldrums of life, then it was a side gig, albeit a frustrating one. His writing was raw and lacked nuance, but it was solid work. It needed forming and shaping.

The only way to do it is to do it.

Eventually he chased love up to St. Louis and proposed marriage, only to be laid off a few months later. But the lay-off was a blessing in disguise, because after a few months on unemployment, he managed to get a job as a night janitor at a local university. And it turned out that one of their benefits was free tuition.

I practically had to put him into a headlock to get him to fill out the application.

He was too old.

He was never any good at school.

He wasn’t smart enough.

I had to fight past all the mind-blocks. I’d seen his transcripts, so “no good at school” wasn’t going to fly with me. Except Latin. Who takes that much Latin?

I made my own arguments: a man closing in on fifty with a bad knee couldn’t do physical labor forever. Thirty-plus years of hauling things wears a body out, and if that happened, he’d need to be able to shift to a job with more sitting and less lifting. Otherwise, his knee could blow out and he’d be unemployable.

That got his attention, because he is not a man who can avoid work. The few months he spent laid off were nearly unendurable for both of us, because he needed to do something for himself and for us to feel right with himself.

Jim is the guy who wouldn’t quit his job as a night janitor just because he won the lottery. This is the man you humiliated over a 15-percent discount.

Finally, I wore him down by telling him that college would make him a better writer. College could take that raw talent and shape it, help him write better books and succeed as an author. And all of that was true.

But also unsaid: I knew it would widen his world, expose him to new ideas and different cultures, let him reach the potential I knew was there.

But that last argument, that was the hardest. Not smart enough. I wasn’t fighting him. I was fighting all the unseen ghosts who told him he wasn’t smart, that he wouldn’t amount to anything, that all he was good for was lifting heavy things.

Being strong doesn’t make you dumb, and being southern doesn’t make you ignorant. I knew there was so much more to him than a guy pushing a mop or lifting a box. There was nothing wrong with the work he was doing, but I knew there were depths he hadn’t explored. I knew he was more than smart enough to succeed in college.

But he had to figure that out for himself.

Dear Subway: My husband began college in the fall of 2014, only three months before we married. He started small, only two classes, and missed one week of his first semester for our honeymoon. He bought a red university T-shirt and stood in the group picture with the rest of the freshman — you can see him off to the right, the only one with a graying beard. Our friends called him Froshy, and I warned him about the dangers of keggers and irresponsible life decisions.

What? I went to college once.

It didn’t take long. Jim took to college like the proverbial fish to water. Of course he did well — that stalwart work ethic that drove him through all those years on the loading docks took over school assignments and homework, papers and research.

Once during his first semester, he came back home after a particularly rousing classroom discussion and declared loudly up the stairs to my office, “Mother of God, I love school!”

I laughed my head off, but secretly my heart was full, because I knew it already. I knew he would find himself there. He was the only one who was surprised.

Each day he went to classes, and each night he clocked in with the janitorial crew. By day he learned in those classrooms, and by night he cleaned them. Soon he was taking a full twelve-hour schedule, while still working full-time and continuing on the book tours with me.

Dear Subway: College is tough enough when you’re a kid out of school. Going to college for the first time as a 47-year-old man with a full-time job and a family? There were long nights working on research papers. There was Spanish class, and the dreaded math. He opted for an English literature degree with a creative writing minor and a double major in philosophy, of all things, so I honed up on my ancient-philosopher puns and buckled in for incomprehensible text messages about the nature of reality.

Then came the Dean’s List, and the English Student Award, and the English honor society and union local president. He flourished in school, and shared every step of it with the family and friends who cheered him along his path. Every “congratulations” helped shut down all those long-gone voices who said he wasn’t smart enough to be worth anything.

I knew better. I think now he does, too.

Dear Subway: It is ironic that your cashier’s refusal to believe an older man could be a student came two days before the ceremony where Jim was named the Nontraditional Student of the Year. I’ve rarely been so proud as I was to watch him receive this honor, standing with my son and applauding and taking pictures and all the silly things we do to commemorate great achievements — followed by a nice dinner, because we eat our victories in my house.

The people who gave him that award only knew the smallest portion of what he’s fought through to get where he is: all those nights cleaning floors until 2 a.m, only to go home to a silent house and read Immanuel Kant before grabbing a few hours’ sleep and catching a bus back to the campus for classes the next day.

That becomes far harder when some stranger decides you must be a liar and a cheat, simply because your beard is gray.

Dear Subway: Approximately 14 percent of our university’s student body was comprised of nontraditional students on the last day we entered your restaurant. The university’s enrollment was approaching 15,000, which meant more than 2,000 nontraditional students living and studying in our town. That’s a large demographic of potential customers for your employees to insult and humiliate by assuming “older” means “not a student.”

I told you this when I wrote to your franchise owner, in the hopes that you would educate and train your employees never to treat your customers this way. You sent me a placating email asking for more specifics, which I provided… and never heard from you again.

In the year since this incident in your restaurant, a funny thing happened: I joined him. After more than 20 years in the newsroom, I went back to school — a grad student this time, pursuing a masters so that I can teach. Even in graduate classes, I’m usually the oldest student in the room, and the younglings I partner with on our projects enjoy ribbing me about the vast difference in our ages and childhood experiences. But I bake them chocolate chip cookies, and we get along.

No one has humiliated me the way you humiliated my husband, but then, we haven’t gone to Subway since that day. I still see it in the faces of on-campus cashiers when I show my student ID, emblazoned with the second-worst picture of me that has ever been taken.

(The worst picture of me that has ever been taken was my press pass as provided by the county sheriff’s department, permitting me certain access allowed the press to various locations controlled by law enforcement. I can only assume the camera they used is the same they use for booking photos, and it explains why most arrested individuals appear to have taken mug shots after going through a Cuisinart.)

The cashiers look at my ID and ask, “Employee?” And I reply, “Nope, student, believe it or not.” And they take a second look, and see “student” under my name. I’m only a little gray around the temples so far.

And yet every time I have presented my identification, I remember the cashier in Subway, and how it felt to be interrogated about our schooling.

Dear Subway: Here in the 21st century, students come in all colors, genders, orientations, backgrounds, cultural and social identities…. and ages. We need more people going back to school, to create a more educated population and workforce, and we will see more and more people choosing to do so as those jobs on which my husband survived all those years slowly vanish.

They should not be required to recite a transcript in order to get a stupid discount. And no one, of any age, should be humiliated or treated like liars as we were that day.

Of course, I see my husband through rose-colored glasses. I could list his faults for you, if you’d like, but I think he’d prefer not.

But when I tell you that he is one of the finest individuals I have ever known, that his dedication and hard work make me feel like an utter slacker, understand that I’m as objective as I can be. If I weren’t married to him, I’d still think he’s one of the more inspirational people I’ve ever known.

I will resist the temptation to send you a copy of his diploma when he graduates next spring.

Sincerely, your former customers.

Elizabeth Donald

Written by

Journalist for more than 20 years, president of St. Louis SPJ, masters candidate/teaching assistant, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade