Thursday, September 8, 2016

From the Archives - My First Week as a College Student


I have a kid in high school, which around this parts means I’m in earshot of a never-ending litany of worry, most of it about the near impossibility of getting into a good college (and sometimes about the near impossibility of ever getting a good job).  The latest fear is that even the second-tier, “backup” schools like UCSB are becoming too competitive for all but the very brightest students, blah blah blah.

If all of this is true, a good college is bound to be a pretty dull place by the time my daughters get there.  Nobody will know how to enjoy life, because they’ll have spent their teen years taking six AP classes per semester, studying like fiends, doing extracurriculars like cleaning public latrines “to look good on their applications,” and spending what little spare time they have worrying. 

But then I look back at my own college years and think, nah, students will never change.  When I was a teen my mom assured me that college had been much easier, and less selective, when she was a student, but I can’t imagine it.  There was nothing especially elite about my generation of students; we were your basic run-of-the-mill hedonists.  For some this took the form of partying; for others, sports; and for many, excessive sleeping.  (Yes, when I transferred to Berkeley I encountered a stronger work ethic, but we were still basically hedonists.)  And isn’t that part of the point of college?  To be hedonists for four years while earning an accreditation that will last a lifetime?

To celebrate this, and because I don’t have time to write this week, I’m posting another essay from my archives, chronicling my first week as a UCSB student.

First week of college – September 19, 1988

The line streamed up the block and disappeared into a building.

“You know, like, I’m already starting to miss people at home.  Not like my parents or anything, but you know, the people I’m close to,” said an attractive girl.

A girl with green eyeshadow said, “Like, our living room is nice, but it just isn’t that fun, you know?  Like, it’s kind of boring.”

A short guy in a Top Gun type jacket, sporting aviator sunglasses against the overcast morning glare, looked on, literally too cool to speak.  I stood by, tuning into various conversations taking place around me, trying not to look like Nipper, the RCA dog craning to hear the Victrola.

“You know, I’ve worked hard in school and I think I deserve a nicer car, you know?”

“I hate dorm food.  Let’s get Chinese for lunch.”

“I’m majoring in Psychology.  I don’t know why; maybe I’ll be a psychiatrist.”

Inside the building, I received a number, like at Baskin-Robbins.  I got number 31, and they were helping 37 … so I had 94 students ahead of me, all of us waiting to sign up for phone service.  Once through this line, we had to line up again in front of one or another card table to sign up for a long distance carrier.  Why only one rep from each phone company?  I had no idea which one to choose and a shorter line would have totally carried the day.

I made myself comfortable—as comfortable as you can be just standing there in cheap shoes on a hard floor.  Not far off, a guy was having an enthusiastic conversation with a pretty young thing about absolutely nothing.  God I envied him.  I don’t know a soul in this college town of Isla Vista, unless you count my new roommates, who have somehow talked me into getting the phone bill in my name—something my old friends in San Luis Obispo had expressly warned me not to do.

A girl in a Coors Classic t-shirt said, “You think we should ride our bikes there?  I don’t know, I might fall off.  I haven’t ridden a bike since 6th grade.”

“You know, it was like, right before the prom, and I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Oh my god, I have got to do something.’  So I ran to my hairdresser and said, ‘Just do something, please!’”

“You know, you should just take it easy until you’re all settled in.  Just take a minimum load, 12 units.  You’ll see.  At least, that’s what my counselor says.”

I drifted in and out of oblivion, stirring slightly to witness an MCI representative harassing a Sprint representative for making up facts, which to the best of my knowledge he had been doing.

“It used to be, like, really perm-y.  Now it’s just sort of curly, not curly-curly.”

I envisioned myself on a date with one of these girls.  “Just don’t open your mouth, and we’ll get along fine,” I imagined saying.  Then it dawned on me that the girl might do well to give me the same advice.  I stifled a shudder.  At least, I think I did.  Can you stifle a shudder?  Did anyone see?

By the time it was my turn to get a phone number, I felt as though I knew everybody in the room personally.  I held for each and every one of them the same respect reserved normally for McDonald’s associates and the operator when you dial 411.  I once again became acutely aware that I was at one of the finest learning institutions in the country, in some very sharp company.  I began to feel intimidated.  I was nowhere nearly as outgoing and poised as my fellow students.  What could I talk about?  The dramatic turn of events at the recent road cycling World Championships?  The fact that I live in La Loma, the lowest-rent building in I.V., a place so cheap that I’m among the only students there, the rest being factory workers who—based on how early in the morning I hear them revving their engines in the parking lot outside my window—must commute a great distance?

Lacking my own car cut my conversational topics in half, so considered describing some of the interesting rental cars I drove this past summer, or the ’52 Ford pickup I drove while working at a clothing factory.  As I left the building, my phone number receipt clutched firmly in my hand, I resolved to brush up on my social skills.  My worldly roommate speaks fondly of his success with the ladies, which he attributes to lying about his age.  Perhaps I shall consider this technique.

So began my first week in I.V.  When my mom and the landlord (that is, her husband, not my real landlord) came to see me off, I gave them the full tour of my quaint little apartment.  Imagine my shame when my own mom accused my happy home of being “a pit.”  Surely the thin layer of protective scum left by the previous tenants would wash right off, and the black widow hanging from the ceiling could be considered a pet.  I admit that I was initially slightly dismayed by the poor condition of the apartment, but that was before the landlord (the real one, my landlord) assured me that the previous tenants had lost their entire damage deposit.

The place did come equipped with quick-release window screens, as well as a somewhat stocked kitchen.  The refrigerator is sporting some well-aged pickles, and some organic-looking sprouts I have yet to identify.  Dried seaweed and brown rice, along with over ten varieties of ramen, comprise only a fraction of the delicacies lining the cabinets.  And the aspirin!  This place is replete!  Every cabinet in the house has its own jar, so I’ll never have to walk more than ten feet for aspirin again.  I feel baffled by my mom’s apprehensions.  I’m very excited about my new home and I can’t wait to meet all the neighbors, especially the children, who seem so energetic and vocal.  I’m sure their parent will have great stories to tell.  And I’m looking forward to chatting up the maintenance woman to find out how our apartment complex got its very own golf cart.

And yet, ever since I got here I felt that something was missing from the college life I’d expected.  I just felt kind of empty inside.  And then, on the third day, it hit me:  classes!  That’s right, a college institution as old and venerable as overpriced textbooks and frequent intoxication.  For some reason, UCSB decided to start classes on a Thursday.  Perhaps this was to give new students a chance to hit their stride, and balance all these new responsibilities:  freedom, housekeeping, hangovers, and operating the local Automated Teller Machines, which in many cases differ from what students used in their hometowns.  (Fortunately, these students will have plenty of opportunities to practice with these ATMs, and believe me, they will.)

I showed up for my first-ever college class five minutes ahead of time like a good boy, and immediately panicked because nobody else seemed to be around.  I automatically assumed that the temporary, unofficial schedule I was using (after losing my final, official schedule) was incorrect, and my college career would begin with a humiliating screw-up.  But to my surprise, the Teacher’s Aide (or whatever TA stands for, if anything) arrived with about ten seconds to spare, headed to the front of the room, sat down, and proceeded to stare blankly into space, seemingly on the brink of delirium.  The six other students who had arrived sat patiently in their seats, being careful not to slouch, and behaving perfectly, perhaps for the last time in their lives.  Looking at the TA, all I could think was, “She looks like she could use a cup of coffee.”  As if on cue she said, “I need coffee,” and left the room.  She returned a moment later sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup.  Did I mention this was my Environmental Studies TA?

She had prepared well for this first class.  She delivered her lecture with the poise and polish that indicate she’s given it many times before:  “Well, it looks like almost nobody is here, so there’s no point in going into anything.  But I want to say this is a great class, and I’m sure that’s why it’s so full this quarter.  I think.”

French class didn’t go so well.  I’d tested into French 4 but wasn’t nearly up to the level of the others, and right after class the professor demoted me to French 3.  I won’t miss her.  I will, however, miss this really cute girl with a hairdo like a tumbleweed.

On the way biking home I was accosted by a gentleman who came running out into the road holding out a piece of paper.  Instinctively I grabbed it, and it turned out to be a flyer.  It seemed a local chapter of a Greek leadership society was putting on a free event designed to broaden students’ social horizons.  The event was described in a touching free-verse poem:  “It’s not that far/ And they’ve got open bar/ You won’t have to drive a car/ To go see the party czar/ The liquor king/ The master of malice/ The hero of hedonism/ It’s EVIL EDDIE!/ At the original house of fun.”  Ah, the Delta House at 6515 Pardall, a building almost as elegant as La Loma.  Apparently, the fraternity would be hosting this event as a display of its benevolent leadership in the community.  After reading a list of the activities and hospitality planned (“beverages, snacks, sex, drugs, and rock & roll”), I was disappointed at having to miss it.  Laundry Night with my roommates had already been planned and I wasn’t going to let the guys down.

Well, I should wrap up this report.  I’m about to acquaint myself with the final puzzle piece of my college experience:  studying!  This is another collegiate tradition I’m hoping to keep alive, if only in my own tiny realm.  Wish me luck!

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