One of my earliest memories of college involves showing my freshman year roommate what I had smuggled into the building on move-in day. Among my possessions, my parents and I had trucked in a pair of blue, plasticine beanbags, and it was after my parents left that I picked up one of the beanbags and asked my roommate if he noticed anything different about it. He said that he did not, so I opened up the beanbag and showed him: inside I had stashed a red plastic bong, perhaps my most crucial possession of all.
Recently beginning work as a teacher at a private school, the majority of whose students plan to attend college, has led me to reflect on my own college experience at large, asking questions such as: what did this experience mean to me? In what sense did it matter, and in what sense was it trivial? Going forward, would I encourage my own students to pursue a college education? Why or why not?
Looking back over my own experience, it is clear that the first two years were devoted almost exclusively to waste. During these years, I drank gallons and gallons of cheap alcohol, smoked marijuana, and occasionally took other drugs; attended parties in absurdist, neon outfits; and expended countless hours attempting to forfeit my virginity. Back home from these outings, I binge-watched YouTube into the evenings’ wee hours—I still sometimes do this—and I signed up for joke classes in order to satisfy meaningless credits. As the height of the playfulness of these experiences, I once partook in a massive game of Humans versus Zombies which eventuated in a friend driving me—one of the game’s final survivors—around a school parking lot while a band of zombies chased our car.
It is not as though some part of me did not realize these experiences’ wastefulness. Reviewing photos of myself from early on in college, I notice a puffiness to my face, an overall heaviness to my being: these were the result of the marijuana, alcohol, and my eating habits, themselves the result of some deeper malaise. My grandfather died my freshman year; my parents were locked in legal battle with each other, and I felt caught in the middle. At some point in the midst of my freshman and sophomore years of college, I began to ask myself: what was the purpose of this experience? What was the purpose of my life? Did I deserve the amounts of money and resources being spent on me?
I don’t want to come across as though there was not beauty in the absurdity. I remember an evening at the end of my freshman year, the final night of an annual concert series then called Llamapalooza. Believe it or not, Toots and the Maytals were playing, and I shepherded into the crowd two friends who had taken LSD. Additionally, we carried in a circular, cushy chair, in which my two friends sat while I stood over and protected them from the travails of the crowd. I was romantically interested in both these friends, and I remember feeling a kind of power and grace as I stood over them, wanting to make sure they imbibed a safe, comfortable experience. We all watched as fireworks went off overhead. In the midst of the frivolousness and decadence, I can remember dozens of instances of this kind of simple, wordless camaraderie.
The experience that signaled a fundamental mood shift in my college journey was when, between my sophomore and junior years, I traveled to Mexico and for the first time witnessed real poverty, undergoing intellectual explorations that connected this poverty to my own wealth. Through this experience, I became jaded and sullen, returning home believing myself and my compatriots undeserving of the material exorbitance we had been given. In response, I grew serious about my studies, but serious in a manner that signaled my belief in my own unworthiness: in order to earn my right to the life I had been given, I needed to perform academically.
The following year consisted of late-night reading in my single dorm room, often exceeding the texts I had been assigned in class. I lost weight, grew isolated and arrogant, and developed an identity as an intellectual; I was often confused for a Philosophy major even though my major was English.
Underneath these behaviors, I think there roiled insecurities I did not yet have the resources to resolve: I was still a virgin; I longed for a purpose, but did not yet know to what I could devote myself within college walls. Ranging for something of significance, I began diligently writing fiction and went on to win the school’s fiction prize; still, the entire college experience had begun to take on a hue of surreality for me, as though nothing I did mattered in a tangible way. As I write this now, I believe my experience in Mexico bore the genesis of my adult self, the man who longs to give deeply and creatively to others; so long as I dwelled within my college campus, I intuitively recognized this kind of service as impossible.
By the start of my senior year, I’d begun to resemble the man I am today: I’d shed the hollow, angular physique of my junior year, returning to rock climbing, eating better, and going outside more. And while I had established myself as an intellectual heavy-hitter on campus, I’d also gotten laid: I had begun to learn that the lifelong insecurities I’d experienced with women were misplaced, that I was simply what they call a late bloomer.
College became a successful and healthy place for me, and by the time my senior year was over, I no longer wanted to leave. In some ways, I still don’t: there is a warmth to remembering my final college days, and I think it is no coincidence I have always found myself returning to educational spaces, whether as a student or teacher.
Still, my current students’ ambitions of college attendance lead me to review my own experience as a whole, and to ask: what did this place resemble for me? What did it teach me?
First and foremost, college taught me play. College was an environment in which to meet friends, socialize, experiment with drugs and sex, and let out large quantities of the energy that had been contained while living with my parents. Of course, I didn’t know while actually in college the degree to which I still lived in containment—my experience was very carefully constructed in order to appear liberating while still imposing boundaries and limits. Nevertheless, at least for a time, I believed I was free: I believe this subjective experience was more important than its objective constraints.
Too, college was a place for me to discover my interests and purpose, a yield not disconnected from play. Through taking a variety of courses, I found that I really did like reading, writing, and thinking, and specifically thinking about a certain kind of thing, which is why I majored in English and minored in Philosophy. Additionally, I discovered myself as a teacher, becoming a tutor at the school Writing Center and, after I’d graduated, returning there to tutor professionally. Through the experimentation college encouraged in a variety of disciplines and passions, I found work that continues to feed my soul.
By virtue of hardship, college also taught me my values: it taught me that perhaps there was a reason I did not lose my virginity for what felt a long time, perhaps there was a reason I did not feel inclined to drink or do drugs to the extent that some of my peers did. If as an adult I am skeptical of waste, then it is because I am in touch with the ways in which life matters, is precious: my body should not be used in ways that do not respect it or the bodies of others. It took until years after college that I could see the benefits of this attitude, but those benefits remained—the contrast I met in college provided a mettle against which to test and discern myself.
And, finally, the experience taught me my tremendous fortune. Not only do I mean this in terms of finances, for my college was a private one and I exited without student loans; I mean in terms of having the experience at all, for the Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the college experience of millions of students throughout the globe, and it seems unlikely to me that with the climatological changes to come many more students will experience what I did. The wastefulness, the garishness, the foolishness… such were the symptoms of a kind of dream now removed, a peculiarly American dream and one whose hallmark is that we believed we deserved it. In possession of such a designation, why not be wasteful? Why not be ludicrous? Why not throw, have, and eat our cake too? If nothing else, I am grateful that I had the experience I did, because it will now live with me as a memory as I steward my own students into the future—a future which may brook very different kinds of both purpose and play.