The last year of high school can batter the ego. In my experience, friends who had spent years bragging that they would attend college in a sweeter clime—somewhere warmer, somewhere things happen, anywhere but [insert hometown, USA]—sheepishly admitted that they would be going to State U due to a scholarship’s failure to materialize. Nothing wrong with State U; I know people who have picked that route and thrived. But when someone has been staring at that castle in the sky for too long, and telling everybody else how tall the spires are and how the rooms are furnished in velvet, the castle’s fall into the sea will leave a humbling bruise.
I felt surer of my target. My favorite college was a church-affiliated liberal arts school that had the kind of personal atmosphere where students are more than bar codes to professors. It also had a full-tuition scholarship with two spots annually for high school seniors, an award worth six figures over four years.
With my community service, my GPA, my National Merit Finalist status, my test scores, and a few published stories, I knew I would get it, knew with the intensity of Ahab spotting Moby-Dick in open water (if you finished that book, you probably know where this is going). I did pray for the scholarship, but most of the prayers were mere references to my own sufficiency: If it is your will, let them see the promise in my…and discern the work I have put into…
I sent in my application and advanced to the interview stage. Nervously sipped at club soda as the committee asked me questions. Thanked them and left.
Four days later, the admissions director called to tell me I had gotten third place. I was the runner-up for the scholarship, an alternate, in case one of the two awardees turned it down—something that had only happened once before.
I’m in an Old Testament class right now, and we’ve been learning how the Israelites reevaluated their scriptures and wrote new ones after major defeats, in light of God’s apparent displeasure with their attitudes. Like them, I turned inward for a few days and became disgusted with the assumption I’d made about my worthiness. I also stumbled into Paul’s critique of self-sufficiency: “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase…For we are laborers together with God” (1 Cor. 3:6-7, 9). I had forgotten this and not bothered to call on the ability of the one for whom nothing is too hard (Jeremiah 32:27).
After a little needless stewing, I realized I could still cobble together enough scholarships and grants to attend the college for minimal cost. A patchwork of aid beat having none. God indeed had added all the things I needed, as promised (Luke 12:33), but he had waited for me to seek him.
Two months after the interview, the admissions director called me again. One of the two scholarship winners, after much agonizing, had turned down the award and gone to another school. I was next in line. Would I be willing to accept it?
That day was God’s wink at my self-certainty. We can labor, but God gives the increase. We are called to acknowledge him (Proverbs 3:6).
Did I get the scholarship? Yes. But did I get it? No.
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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