I gave every sign of being the perfect college candidate. I earned a high GPA and graduated third in my class (out of 90 students, but still!). I had high ACT and SAT scores and I got into every college I applied to. I earned two scholarships, not full ride, but enough, with a little bit of student loan money, to pay for college on my own. I had been responsible with money, saving half of what I made working since my middle school paper route. I had never even tried a drink. I earned seven varsity letters (mostly due, I thought, to the small size of my high school; most warm bodies with at least three out of four limbs attached could earn a varsity letter in something.)
I was ready to go. I had a strong sense of restlessness, which I called senioritis. I couldn’t wait to leave behind little Vandercook Lake and its little ideas. College seemed like the city upon a hill, a place where my intellect would be valued, where I would do real work, where we students would all sit raptly and nod sagely while our bearded professors would blow our minds with deep lectures. I would possibly learn to smoke a pipe. My life would begin at Western Michigan University.
I had a couple of worries. My girlfriend headed out to Eastern Michigan University on the other side of the state. I had no car, so that would be problematic. I had a little nagging worry about my procrastination habit. All through school I got A’s and B’s, but constantly felt, as my guidance counselor would tell me, there was no reason I shouldn’t be getting all A’s. Any B’s I attributed to laziness. Most of the work of school seemed boring to me. It was a waste of time to do a long list math problems after I understood the concepts, or study names and dates that I would forget later. I did homework during breakfast, late on Sunday night, on the bus, during lunch, during the class before it was due. My B’s were due to this habit.
In August of 1989 I moved into my dorm. I shared a room with a good friend from high school . My friend had been a workout partner in high school. We were on the cross country and track teams together, and rode bicycles competitively (I did triathlons). We were so giddy with freedom when our parents finally left that we took off madly on our bikes that afternoon and got totally lost in Kalamazoo.
I began my classes with a little nervousness but a lot of enthusiasm. In December, my grades came, and I got a 2.75 (barely a B-). My parents gave me a pep talk in the garage and sent me back with the aim of earning a 4.0 the next semester. (But without their $50 a week spending allowance. They reasoned if I spent $978 on clothes in one semester, probably I didn’t need the extra money.) If I didn’t raise my overall GPA to 3.0, I would start losing scholarship money. The next April I opened my report card to a 1.92 (a low C), mostly due to my earning an F in Digital Logic. “What, are you on drugs?” my exasperated mother asked.
Now, having a tough first year of college ought not to rank in the great failures of the 20th century, like New Coke or the Clinton health care plan. But to go from award-winning college-prep high school achiever to mediocre college student in one year required significant adjustment in self image. The biggest failure, in my mind, was becoming average and insignificant.
I spent the summer in Germany as an exchange student and came back as an English major, transformed and ready to go, and did reasonably well the remaining three years of my B.A., though I never got that GPA above a 3.0.
What happened? Here is the list of things I have told myself over the years:
- It was my professors’ fault. Most of the freshman classes I took were “weeder” classes; big lecture halls, difficult material, designed to whittle down the true majors from the merely hopeful. Or they were general education classes taught by disinterested professors waiting to get to their real work of research. (I particularly remembered Heroes and Villains, a class in mythology, taught by a professor from the Medieval Institute who sat in front of 150 students and read from our book into a microphone with a monotone voice for two hours each week.) No one was particularly interested in my failure or success.
- It was my parents’ fault. They never prepared me for the rigors of living on my own and managing my own finances. I didn’t know, for example, that one could take out a loan to buy a car or a house. “Mortgage” was one of those big words old people used (you know, like, people in their thirties and forties). And they never let me drink, so I never knew how to do so responsibly. Plus they brainwashed me into the whole college/career conspiracy thing (see #4 below). And, and, and.
- It was alcohol’s fault. You know, for being so fun and available.
- It was my girlfriend’s fault. She spent an entire semester dumping me by increment, rather than letting me down quickly. It was like having a band-aid pulled off my hairy leg over the course of three months.
- It was society’s fault. My high school and American culture pushed me to pick a major that would earn me a good living. I decided in my sophomore year in high school to major in engineering, specifically electrical engineering, with some vague plans to work on computers or other kinds of gadgetry.
- It was my friends’ fault. I had the sort of friends where we looked out for each other in the sense of “perhaps it’s bad to lean out of a fourth story window to shout across the quad when you are roaring drunk,” not in the sense of “perhaps you should open a book if you want to continue being a college student.” I thought college would be the great academy, and it turned out to be high school without parental supervision or accountability.
- It was Taco Grande’s fault. With 39-cent tacos right next to campus, I gained 40 pounds in one semester. That’ll sap your energy right there.
I went from the respectable and eminently practical electrical engineering field to the possibly subversive and definitely unemployable goal of being a poet. (Ironically, my friends who stayed in engineering often bore the brunt of layoffs and downsizing these years since, and my career has been stable.) I did reasonably well, good enough to get into and finish an MFA and get a job teaching.
But my freshman year more than twenty years ago shook my confidence severely. Tainted, I no longer measured up to the idea of me. No amount of success since then has erased the self-doubt that developed that year. I was so sure I would succeed at whatever I decided to do, that I had to employ all sorts of mental gymnastics in order to explain my failure.
I never found a truly satisfactory explanation until I read about ADHD and the transition to college. Particularly, I am thinking of Delivered from Distraction by Hallowell and Ratey:
[P]arents and teenagers alike should know in advance how different a college or university is from home. The most glaring difference is that in most homes there is someone, like a mom or a dad, who deeply loves and checks up on the high school student every day. No one loves you at college, and not many people check up on you ever, let alone every day.
In my dorm, the Resident Assistants kept the damage to a minimum, but no one was there to tell me to go to bed, to get up in the morning, to go to class, to consume in moderation, to exercise. I imagine that telling my roommates that they needed to pay more attention to nutrition and sleep hygiene would have gotten me a kick in the balls.
What Hallowell and Ratey recommend is seeking a mentor, a senior faculty mentor if possible. I often say the reason I became a creative writing major was that there were no Friday classes, but it turns out the more potent reason was the professors I had. A couple in particular took genuine interest in me, stayed after class to talk to me, took me seriously, did not see me as a mere distraction.