At fifteen I was so overwhelmed by my personal crisis that I stopped doing any homework for which I couldn’t see the purpose. I wanted someone to answer the bigger questions for me. It is this schism between the kinds of things I really cared about and what the school was teaching which began to characterize my understanding of schools generally.
But my opinion of schools is not without its consequences. For example, I live, rent-free, in the house of a retired biology professor whose life was paid for by the college he taught at. We have often argued about this matter. His position about me is that if I had attended a “good” college I wouldn’t have had the messed-up experiences I had at the “inferior” institutions I actually attended. While his theory is clearly rather protective of the college system from which he came, it’s still nonetheless one of the most important questions of my life — what would have happened if I’d been accepted to, and proceeded to attend, a “good” college?
I’m going to attempt to pick this question apart, both for my own sake, that I might achieve greater clarity, and for the sake of the impersonal masses, for whom college is equally daunting.
The preliminary question is how to get into a college in the first place. Ever since my personal crisis at age 15, my chances of getting into a “good” college declined relentlessly with my grades. There are two things which affect your pre-college admissions criteria, your ability and your motivation.
Ability is derived from two sources, inner and outer. Inner ability is innate intelligence and talent. Outer ability is the quality of your environment, which again has two parts, the physical and the emotional component. A household with no food, for example, is a physical detriment to your ability to perform. A household with no parental support is an emotional detriment. I had the food. I didn’t have the love. As far as the inner component of ability, I am blessed with formidable intelligence, although I now understand that it’s proportioned in a largely imbalanced way, such that I’m extraordinarily good at some things and yet somewhat below average at others.
The second factor is motivation, which requires a kind of inner faith in the goal itself. I certainly suffered a severe detriment to motivation. I didn’t believe in high school, and no one I knew was able to convince me to believe. There was something missing. The question is whether I might have received this missing something, had I persisted enough to be able to go to a “good” college, if there be such a thing.
People have a habit of saying that you must jump through a few hoops in order to get to where you want. But my inner sense is that unless each hoop is of intrinsic value, it reflects a dishonesty running through the whole system. I can, however, jump through tedious hoops if I really believe.
But why would you believe in a system? The answer is, you can’t. Only if you find real human role-models can you believe in the system from which they came. But I found none.
I want to invoke the image of the Cross, again, here because my true sense of what was good and right began to diverge with the possible identities people had laid out for me. All of those identities included a college education, but no one from the college-educated sphere could address the inner pain I felt. I was ripped apart. It hit home when all my friends left.
My self-esteem was very low, and I simply burned for something better than what was around me. I blamed myself of course.
So which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did society fail me by failing to ignite the inner spark of desire in me? Or did I simply fail myself in that, by the time I was supposed to apply for colleges, my grades were far too low to get into “good” colleges? Would a “good” college have saved me from the turmoil I have since experienced, because I might have been surrounded by intelligent and competent helpers who might have shown me the light when surrounded by a sea of darkness? Who can say. I doubt it.
I invoked the image of the cross before. Maybe it seems strange that I would invoke that image. But it’s not. One consistent thing about my life since my spiritual crisis is that I do not believe I did anything wrong, even if its against society’s wishes. When the pretty girl rejected me at age fifteen, I felt I was correct in abandoning my original life track. I started working out in the school gym, for example, and I joined the cross-country team. I hadn’t read Henry David Thoreau, but when I refused to do my schoolwork it was nonetheless in the spirit of his writings — if you can’t see the reason for doing something, you shouldn’t do it. If everyone just followed orders then no wrongs would ever be righted. And yet by the time I was 19, my grades were so low that I couldn’t expect to be admitted to the kinds of schools others had expected I would go to.
So high school ends and I have no idea how to lead my life. Up until then it’s easy, because high school defines your life, and attendance is mandated by the government. But that in that critical moment when it’s over, the crucifying question, what do you do? presses in.
Part of why college is so unattractive to me is that it seems like it divides society into classes. Those who attend college are society’s darlings. Those who don’t are tasked with what seems like a more fundamental question though: What do you do now? (Click here for accompanying video)
Stay tuned for Part III, God willing!