On this hazy morning I imagined typing a post describing why the idea of attending college is so fraught with negativity for me.
I guess I’ll divide this story into parts, the first of which is my life before I was 15 years old. So both my parents were “college educated”. (I put the phrase into quotes, because it is a status symbol in our society, regardless of what effect it actually has, per se.) My father was a lawyer from a Jewish family. My parents met when my dad was still an undergrad.
I only mention this because, like millions of suburbanites, attending college was part of the unconscious mythos of what life was all about. It was just part of the course of life. Those who didn’t go to college were of a rougher, blue-collar, breed. Part of distinguishing the higher class, to which we in my family were supposed to belong, was graduating from college. I wouldn’t have been able to phrase it so at the time, because this truth operated at a largely unconscious level.
But college was also a type of initiation for my dad (I had a bad relationship with my mother, so most of my ideas about life had to come from my father). He held his college experience in a sort of awe. I believe he encountered many people who were smarter than himself.
So this is how I understood college until I was 15 years old. Now 15 is a very important age for me, since it’s when my mystical qualities began to emerge, although I couldn’t have known this when it was happening. I had previously been dependent on my environment for my identity. That environment said that I was a secular math-and-science whiz — there’s a TV show I’ve seen recently called the Big Bang Theory which derives its humor from this type of person. That’s what people thought I was. This shell of an identity lasted until there were things, outside of people’s prejudices, which forced me to believe I was different — say, both more and less than a secular science nerd.
So at fifteen my ego began to break apart. The core reason was that I had thought my science-nerd identity was enough to get me through life, when it wasn’t. I detected this fact in the way a revelation often comes to a fifteen-year-old boy, through being rejected by a pretty girl.
It wasn’t the specific girl per se but the realization that I was very deficient in important ways. I fell into a kind of despair. In reaching out for help I approached one of my science teachers, whom I liked pretty well, and he gave me an answer which I found very disappointing. He said that if I was having trouble now I shouldn’t worry, that by the time I got to college everything would be okay. He said it in a friendly voice and I’m sure he meant well, but I had a strong impulse coming from within that said he was wrong.
You should realize that I was coming from a dysfunctional family which was recently divorced and was destined to make the rest of my teenage years a sort of living hell. So in the cases where many might seek guidance from their loving parents, it was exactly this lack of loving parental figures which forced me to try to find guidance elsewhere.
But in public school that guidance was lacking, too. I fell into a funk. The best thing the school did for me after that was to distribute The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger. It’s weird that a school would hand out a book like that, because it would seem that it’s their way of conceding that they let many lonely students fall through the cracks of the established structure of society. But it was good for me, because it gave me a new identity to wrap myself around in the wake of the collapse of my previous one.
I had two problems with my science teacher’s suggestion that I wait for college. One, it seemed like a somewhat ignorant answer to suggest to a tenth-grader to just wait for three years and then everything will get better. What was I to do in the meanwhile?, was the all-too-obvious question. It just seemed like the wrong thing to say even if it were true, that things get better in college. It was the kind of thing which someone who didn’t know too much about human nature would say. It was the kind of thing which someone who had had the same problems I was having in high school would say if he had himself escaped them by going to college.
I think the difference between myself and my teacher was that I thought my problems were real, that is, deserving of immediate attention and of satisfactory solutions. I think he thought they were temporary grievances which were not to be attended to. He certainly couldn’t attend to them, but I wondered whether anyone who had attended college could attend to them either, or whether everyone had just escaped the issue by forgetting about it at college, where ignoring it was the point.
I just didn’t want to ignore the issues of my personal crisis.
What I’ve said is more of a condemnation of public high schools than it is of college, but the whole school was run by people with college degrees. No one in that school could help me. It was an upper-middle class school where the norm was to attend college afterward. To give you an example of the prestige of my school, I know at least two of members of my class went to Harvard, and several others went to M.I.T., Princeton, and the like. I grew up in a prestigious college town. So college was not a distant mystery, but the very livelihood of several of my classmates’ parents.
The story of my rejecting college — if that is indeed my story — is one of bucking expectations rather than fulfilling them, as for example, a poor rural town might not expect to see too many of its children finding their way to a four-year college.
I did not want college to be a place of escape, where the serious issues of life were simply not taught and not addressed. And I feared, and still fear, it would be just that.
I’ve told the story up until I was fifteen, but not much more. That will have to come in part two of this essay, God willing ( I honestly have no idea what God is willing, but I feel I’ve typed enough for tonight, and I think I would benefit from extending this essay, but maybe I won’t be motivated. So, as I said, God willing.)