My freshman year of college was filled with some pretty depressing realizations. After all, like so many high school kids, I’d dreamed of college as a magical place where all petty, small-minded behaviors would magically float away. It would be a place filled with people who “got it.” The halls would be teeming with bipolar, bisexual girls looking for three-ways with a deep and sensitive boy like me, and being a David Bowie fan would not be cause for suspicion. When I got to school, however, I found that none of that was true.
Still, college taught me a lot, and I’m not talking about all the things I learned as an English major: Dorothy Mermin explained the inherent anti-Irish elitism in T.S. Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” Gordon Teskey lectured about his theory on William Shakespeare’s “project of interiority” while being on the receiving end of Indiana Jones-esque flirtations from the girls in the front row and Dan McCall delivered flawless creative writing instruction. But the most important lessons I learned from college, I learned indirectly. Life lessons delivered to me by my first immersion in a shitty microcosm of humanity.
Y’see, although I wasn’t conscious of it, in the back of my mind, whenever I saw children misbehaving, whether it was cheating or bullying or not sharing their toys, I thought, “Oh, some day, you’ll have to grow up. Some day you’ll be in the real world, and the real world won’t tolerate it.” But when you get to college, guess what? You’re an adult. And that’s horribly depressing, because you learn that terrible little children have become terrible big adults, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.
But before we put on the Cure and compare cut marks, let’s break this down a bit more, because this thunderbolt of reality conveys some important lessons.
#5. People Are Less Good/Bad and More Sane/Insane
I used to think the world was divided into good and bad people. Things were black and white. As I got older, I acquired a deeper appreciation for shades of gray, but that’s not the point of this entry. College taught me that before I could judge good and evil, there was a more basic inquiry that needed to be addressed: Is this person batshit insane?
By living with your classmates 24/7, college affords you an insight you didn’t have in high school. For example, you might think some girl who criticizes another’s clothes mercilessly is just mean or cruel. She’s surely that, but if you see that same girl wearing a ratty bathrobe every day for an entire semester without washing it, while spending whole days in bed and subsisting on Diet Coke and candy bars, you realize something else: She’s a loony. I can actually think of two girls from the floor of my dorm alone who fit that description. (Amazingly, I only hooked up with one of them!)
College was the first time I realized that people were walking around with scars I knew nothing about. Injuries and illnesses that shaped everything they did. They weren’t making objective decisions of right and wrong as they went through their day. They were acting reflexively to prior pains and current neuroses. Learning that, it got a lot harder to simply call someone a childish jerk who needed to grow up. (Don’t worry, I persevered and found a way, ultimately creating a mean-spirited Web series and a caustic Internet column, but you get my point.)
#4. Weasels Succeed
There’s always that guy in high school who is just smarter than everyone else. He doesn’t need the teacher. You put exams in front of him and they’ll come back with 100s every time. And then there’s that other kid who sits in the front row and raises his hand a lot. He constantly asks, “Will this be on the test?” and then he gets a copy of an old exam from his brother’s best friend’s sister to prep. That kid gets 100s all the time, too. I didn’t mind getting inferior grades to the smart guy, but the other kid always pissed me off. I was pretty sure his grab-ass, bullshit games wouldn’t work at the college level.
They totally worked at the college level.
To be clear, I’m not talking about hard workers who arguably are the most entitled to their success. I’m talking about crafty little weasels. They end up doing even better than the hard workers, because college is not some test whereby qualified academics recognize true quality the way a psychic reads an aura. It’s a machine, like government bureaucracy or your future job. The only thing most people care about is getting it done. You can be that sniveling little busybody whose greatest talent is just getting the 411 on exams, and that, alone, can propel you to greatness. Or take a privileged little student whose only talent in college was instantly memorizing all the names of his fraternity brothers. Do you know where a skill like that will get you?
#3. Everyone’s Still a Cultural Philistine
One of my biggest expectations for college was meeting people who shared my passions for comedy and films and music. I mean, college radio was where the cool stuff got played, right? Student filmmakers and college cinemas flourished on every campus. I thought that once people hit college, they magically became more sophisticated.
Well, there was a college radio station and student cinema aficionados at my school. There were freaks and artists, but here’s the thing I didn’t realize: The people who see the demanding movies and want to talk about them, the people who search for obscure music and study the nuance of the classics, will always be in the minority. They’re the freaker artistic fringe. College, like most of society, is filled with bland people whose favorite author is John Grisham, favorite movie is Forrest Gump and favorite band is the Spin Doctors. (That’s the ’90s version of being obvious and boring. Today it would be, oh, I don’t know, Stephenie Meyer, Love Actually, and Coldplay.)
I went to college at the height of grunge, but the best way to get an audience (and women) was to play really bad, extended jam hippie funk or join (God save us all) an a cappella group. Yes, just like Andy Bernard on The Office. I can’t tell you how absolutely spot-on that character is. My campus was flooded with guys just like that. But no one except me and my freaker friends called them tools. And we did. Over and over. And it was fun. But most people didn’t, because most people were just like them, minus the ability to sing three-part harmony to Billy Joel songs while smiling.
College is no different from the high school that precedes it or the real life that follows: If you want to find the special people, you need to look for them. As an aside, I have to note that, ultimately, the Internet did a better job of fulfilling the promise of college by giving easy access and a worldwide pool for similarly interested people. And much like college, you can do a lot of it without leaving bed.
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