Let's go to college

(Hello friends, long time no see! I know I haven't posted here in a while, though I have been writing elsewhere: If you haven't seen it, please check out my review of the new book Mental Health, Inc., as well as my piece on Salon about boycotting Trump. And thanks for meeting me, once again, right here at This Life After Loss. I hope you enjoy today's post.)

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe

COLLEGE FACTS:

  • Dining hall food is always “gross.” (Even when it’s not.)
  • A “party” is a gathering that involves a keg of Busch Lite and more than two people, at least one of whom is standing there with a red cup.
  • A “party” is also a place where female people wear very little clothing, regardless of season or weather, and male people wear whatever they want.
  • If you have class at ten a.m., that’s “early.”
  • A “class” is an orderly march through preordained material.
  • Like a nation unto itself, each “class” has its own language and customs, the mastery of which will be important for your success.

 

Mom and I had joined the flow of newcomers, Mom guiding Dad’s sedan into the lineup of sport utility vehicles that glistened in the sunlight. We had pulled up to a white New England house with a porch. We had leaned forward and turned our heads. This?

I had checked the slip of onionskin paper. This.

We carted stuff inside. Heaps of belongings. The computer that was like a robot’s head. A fan. Stacks of paperbacks. My Teddy bear, Cocoa, who wore a ribbon bowtie and traveled clandestinely in a duffel bag stuffed with clothes. And it was only a couple days later that I emerged from that white New England house, carrying a backpack, and made my way to class.

Ten minutes past ten in the morning was the starting time of economics lecture. My classmates tended to complain about this as they walked into the hall for each session. Then they arranged themselves with disposable vessels of coffee and/or cereal without milk and opened their notebooks and uncapped pens. When they included me in the grumbling about the early hour, I nodded gravely. But really I hadn’t thought to resent the time.

I did puzzle over some of the material, though. Like for instance the introductory chapter of the textbook that alleged to explain “How People Make Decisions” in a few tidy paragraphs. Rational people think at the margin, it said. My brow crinkled.

Pretty soon I was way past that, though. I was scribbling notes and making asterisks for sub-notes and squinting at formulas, like

price elasticity of demand = [(Q2-Q1)/[(Q2+Q1)/2] / [(P2-P1)/[(P2-P1)/2]]

Which was obviously super enlightening in the sense of: Now I understand a fundamental truth about the universe and human nature!!! Kidding. Because basically how it works is that these profs throw at you several months’ worth of brow-crinkling material, and it will literally be Greek to you—in the sense that they’ll use Greek letters to denote major concepts, like “productivity”—and your job is to fully immerse yourself in it all so that your initial wonderment at whether this stuff could possibly be useful for anything later in life has just completely dissolved and been replaced by a razor-sharp command of a very specific assemblage of concepts and symbols which you will either disremember immediately after the final exam or, if you’re a dweeb, you’ll enthusiastically interject into otherwise normal conversation and get blank stares in return from your comrades.

Someone raised a hand. “Will this be on the test?”

Which made me stop and kind of appreciate that kid’s candor—because, why lie? The grade was the point. The syllabus decreed what we would learn in neatly organized units and sections and then revealed a formula to show how it all converted into a single letter that would be placed beside each of our names to deliver a final judgment on the goodness of our mastery.

Now, I knew that it was at least hypothetically possible not to care a lot about what that final letter was. I knew there were people who just went to class, did the work, and were basically cool with however it ended up.

I was not one of these people. I was, if we’re going to compare and contrast, the precise exact opposite of these people. Which, inside my head, sounded something like this.

Me: I’ve gotta get an “A” because everyone has to have their thing to be special and that’s my thing.

The voice in my head: But you’re not special, look at you. You’re a worthless speck. Plus you’re a head case, stressing over stupid grades. So hey, actually, you know what, go ahead and get good grades, because it really is the only thing going for you.

Me: <Swallowing> Okay…

Luckily, I also took fiction writing.