Surviving College: A Primer!

Surviving College: A Primer!

Why did I drop out of college? I used to ask myself that question all the time. I would dwell on that question morning, noon, and night. If I ever became unresponsive during phone calls or froze up in the middle of making coffee, it was because that question killed my train of thought. That question was the inciting force and prevailing theme of all my drinking sessions. For about three years, anyway, until I saw “difference between binge drinking and alcoholism” in my google search bar and decided to quit.

The first mistake I made was listening to my own press. I was one of those “gifted” working class kids, which meant I was to do the family proud and major in liberal arts at a private school. Then, because I was so gifted, I would effortlessly pass the California bar and become a handsome attorney or maybe a handsome professor. Occasionally, I would fly out to see my parents and give them money and advice on how to invest it, and so on. Maybe show them how to use a French press. The plan was airtight. It could not fail.

The first step was to kill off all my GEs at a community college. That was fun, because everybody was as poor and miserable as I was, so there was a sense of “you also look sad, let’s smoke cigarettes” solidarity. And sometimes professors would just give me good grades for not pre-gaming night classes – one guy gave me an A for saying my term paper, which I never got around to writing, was about Jim Jarmusch. I went to work and then I went to class, and I was still idealistic enough to think maybe all that handsome attorney stuff was viable.

Then I relocated to an expensive private school by the ocean. This was partially my own damn fault and partially the fault of my parents, but really, the education system should have stopped me long before I made that decision. Somebody somewhere along the line should have sat me down and said “you do not have the work ethic or upper class background or thick skin or historically unprecedented talent required for social mobility.” It would have saved me from sinking a punishing amount of money into a losing investment. More importantly, it would have put me in the work force instead of hiding me from it for 4 years.

Right away, something didn’t seem right about the private school by the ocean. Nobody else seemed to be living in constant fear over the amount of money they lost. Everything was too attractive: the cars, the people, the landscape. None of the professors showed up hungover and lazily came up with an excuse to watch Bullitt. Nobody flinched at $8 lunches. In class, when students were asked what they did over break, people would say they “went abroad” and they weren’t bullshitting you. Nobody ever smoked or fielded angry calls about car repair after class. People knew what Coachella was and would actually go there. It was all wrong.

As a working class bum, the only experience remotely like going to a fancy private school is that of Disneyland: everything there is a zillion dollars, the staff clearly has a secret code of conduct, a façade that you’re not allowed to see past, and the experience is designed to distract you from the punishing amount of money you’re losing. It’s a bubble. Once you’re in the gate, everything is suddenly hunky dory. That custody battle you got dragged into? Didn’t happen. That blown head gasket on your car? Irrelevant. Those jolts from SSRI withdrawal? Oh no, don’t be sad, look at how beautiful this place is.

But if you’re anything at all like me, it’s also like Disneyland in the sense that you can’t stay there very long. After a time, you get tired of wasting money, and you’re not getting into Club 33, and you just want to sit down in and run a load of laundry. So my level of alienation would steadily rise throughout the week until I forgot every last detail of who I was, and I’d drive to the most remote Denny’s I could find,  where I was sure no one would recognize me. Then I’d sit down for a few hours, just to remind myself that life can exist outside the bubble. To remind myself that I can exist autonomously without being bombarded by Horatio Alger-isms.

I was able to talk myself into competence like that for a couple semesters, but I knew I was doomed about a month into a GE history class. I had to write an essay on Reconstruction, one I’d already written in community college, and had a nervous breakdown just thinking about all the money I was losing. So I went up to my professor and explained myself. She said “you’re upset because you were a big fish in a small pond, and now you’re nobody.” And then I shut down and never rebounded. Not because it was an insensitive thing to say, but because I was destroying my life with debt and I didn’t even get the dignity of a correct answer.

I managed a couple more years after that, but I no longer had aspirations of being an attorney – my new goalpost became “consistently employed and sober.” I had lost all drive, even “me against the world” drive, and no academic information ever resonated again. From three years of a poli-sci degree, I remember all of two things: 1) the word “hegemony” exists, and 2) predator drones are the exciting space age future of warfare.

It’s been a couple years since I whittled my goal down from “get a diploma” to the more viable “stop hemorrhaging money” and dropped out. By that point, I had lost almost all my lucidity and I was going to bed at 7 in the morning to avoid the mere suggestion of other people (and RAs calling me to confirm I was alive). And to this day I mourn the fact that a college degree is so widely seen as a non-negotiable term for being a functional member of society. I’d be a lot more content if a guidance counselor had told me “alright, you’re never gonna be an attorney because you don’t come from a family where anybody knows what an attorney does. You’re not gifted. And that’s fine. There’s no indignity in manual labor. Honest.”

I’m mostly beyond the shame and self-destruction phase of failing college. But sometimes I still try to isolate the exact moment when everything went irreversibly wrong. I think I’ve figured it out. It happened at an Oliver Stone Q&A session. He was wearing this huge scarf.

You know how if you type a word too many times it stops making sense? How you start to lose your grip on reality over the fact that “answer” has a W in it? Well, the longer I stared at Oliver Stone’s scarf, the less sense his words made. They became a jumble of noise, lacking form or structure, and all I could think was “I’m never going to be able to pay off my student loans,” and I literally ran to my car and left town.

And the more I think about Oliver Stone’s stupid scarf, the more I accept the obvious reason I dropped out of college: because I never had a chance in hell.

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  • msanthropesmr

    Excellent essay. Also, too, a timely reminder that I need to get back to work on my dissertation, which regards the mechanisms through which African American males can find the support required to stay in engineering schools. Your experience, though I do not know if you are an African American, echoes my findings so far – that you can have all the academic preparation in the world, but social preparation is far, far harder to achieve. In addition, I’m finding, from personal as well as others’ experiences, that high school didn’t do a damn thing to prepare anybody for anything, at anytime.

    • Mahousu

      I beg your pardon. High school gave me the drinking skills I needed to survive college. College gave me the drinking skills I needed to survive work. And work has given me the drinking skills I need to survive .. well, I’m not sure yet, but I’ll be ready.

      • glasspusher

        What about drug skills?

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          • glasspusher

            Hey – HEY! Only users lose drugs!

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          • glasspusher

            Hah. I didn’t even drink ONE BEER my first year in college. That didn’t stop me from getting a 0.69 GPA the last trimester of my first year. I had some friends who enjoyed getting high, but they were all fine fellows.

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          • glasspusher

            So, this guy’s a real loser? Well let me tell you the story of another loser.

  • $73376667

    Ever find yourself frustrated that this-or-that professor didn’t give you a failing grade, thus denying you independent verification that you really can’t make it and can finally stop trying?

    • msanthropesmr

      Actually – that’s one of my findings too – that students often have no idea how they’re really doing, even when compared to their peers. Most students see curving as both hurting and helping their progress.

      • glasspusher

        that’s why I’m glad I failed a couple of kids last year.

  • $73376667

    And to this day I mourn the fact that a college degree is so widely
    seen as a non-negotiable term for being a functional member of society.

    My personal solution after burning/flunking out was to get an AS degree in a lesser field from one of those afore-mentioned community colleges, soon followed by a BS from the same institution and now apparently an MS from a similarly non-competitive institution (assuming I don’t go completely Section 8 before then). This way I get to be forever haunted by the knowledge that I still wasn’t good enough to get a real degree (i.e. in something other than this petty commoner stamp-collecting) from a real institution, because even though I snarl at the word “potential” deep down I’m still an intellectual snob.And “work ethic?” Funny how I was able to cope fine with being a full-time student (in stuff I already knew) while simultaneously delivering pizza full time and yet freeze up when it’s time to be a “serious student.”Happy Nice TIme!

    • That is definitely the money quote, here. Terrific work, Kaleb.

    • msanthropesmr

      With a lot of professors (not all – excellent ones exists) it is always your work ethic in question, not theirs. God forbid you need help outside of the minutely prescribed times they are available.

      • glasspusher

        Fuck, for me it’s the opposite. Except for the first time I taught, they avoided office hours like the plague. We all find ways of screwing up (professors too)

    • glasspusher

      Guppy- excellent. Thanks for sharing. My solution after my first (and only) crash ‘n’ burn year of college was to get a job as a chem tech and go to school nights for the rest of the first two years at the CC. Then I did the last 2 full time, while working 30 hours a week. After that, grad school seemed like a vacation.

  • Homestar

    Oh man, I feel you. I worked my ass off in high school to go to a prestigious east coast university. I came from the working class. I had no idea what I was in for. My freshman year I got terrible grades because I couldn’t bring myself to go to class, to interact on some level that I just didn’t understand. The money thing I didn’t even think about till more recently–I was just lost that first year, and I couldn’t figure out why. I gradually discovered that I could actually do really well by attending class and doing the work, and once I had a solid group of friends, things changed. Despite taking all advanced courses in high school, I simply wasn’t prepared for the social aspects of that sort of collegiate environment.

  • glasspusher

    Wow. Sounds like a little more guidance early on would have helped. Hope your life is better! I won’t bother you with the details of mine.

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