Most people regard their college years with some degree of fondness, holding onto them with unique reverence. They’re the formative years of adulthood, after all. In the abstract, the same basic platitude applied to my experience. Those four years definitively shaped me. But that’s in the abstract.
My choice of university boiled down to its respectable showing in the US News and World Report rankings. The selection process – if it can be called such – was marked by a combination of apathy and misguided values (both mine and my parents, who had recently divorced). There was no campus tours, no sit-down discussions, no consideration of the best fit. The school in question was, by statistical measure, the best one I could get into, and therefore, it was the one that I would go to. Ultimately, its selection was largely irrelevant. I doubt I would have had a different experience anywhere else. If anything, its location close to home turned into a saving grace.
I suppose I was a little excited about going to college, though I was never quite champing at the bit. My high school years were hardly glorious, but despite my general nerdiness and inability to attract the opposite sex, I was a genuinely happy kid. I had a car, no real curfew, and a close-knit circle of friends (so my teenage self foolishly believed). Senior year was altogether inconsequential and thus, fun. Sure, at times, I did buy into the idea of college. I had seen too many movies not to. I could figure out what I’d do with my life, what I would want to do with my life. Maybe even get laid in the process.
The problem was me, mostly. I’ve never had the capacity to fake being sociable, and college requires that (or the real kind) from the outset. To some degree, you have to be enthusiastic about people and places and things – all nouns, really. About being there. Call it open-mindedness, faux sincerity, whatever. College was where people methodically knocked on every door to introduce themselves to one another. Where kids literally called attention to themselves before sitting down to the lobby piano. I wasn’t ready. It all seemed so contrived, so lord of the flies.* I didn’t question the sincerity of people’s intentions, but I was turned off by the means.
*College was also where my dormmate wondered aloud if playing a guitar indiscriminately would attract female attention, then watching as it came to fruition. Full disclosure: I brought my own guitar to the dorm with thoughts of learning to play. It left my closet once. Eventually, I sold it. A real microcosm.
My dormmates were friendly but astonishingly inconsiderate even for dormmates. In our cell of a three-person dorm room, they had guests over everyday. Conveniently, their friends lived just down the hall, allowing them to stay in our room into all hours of the night. One had his girlfriend, who did not go to our school, living with us around four days a week. It was impossible not to feel claustrophobic. They did the normal things dormmates did as well, blasting their music, taking my things from the mini-fridge, and so forth. The fact that they thrived in the environment while making my living situation miserable, appeared to me as no small injustice.
My time in classes was slightly more tenable, though not always. People I had no relationship with inquired about my grades, presumably to brag about their achievements, or to feel better about themselves. I remember distinctly asking a question once about proper citation formats, and being mocked by a couple of kids loud enough for me to hear; their basic accusation that I was taking things too seriously. It was as though I had traveled back in time to a fictional version of high school, with cliques and cool kids and all the bullshit I had managed to avoid the last four years, or at least turned an ignorant eye to.
I soon felt marginalized, much of it having to do with the living situation. I retreated, becoming a loner in all aspects of my collegiate life. It happened quickly. Following an initial period of awkward meals with the dormmates, I began going down to the cafeteria by myself – that is, when I wasn’t using my meal plan to get a to-go lunch and dinner. I went straight to class and back, deviating only to visit the campus arcade or linger at the library. I didn’t attend a party, sporting event, or anything else the first year, a remarkable accomplishment considering the freshman environment. I’ve always been solitary to some degree though, so it didn’t feel unnatural. That was my excuse.
I was never hostile to my dormmates, who seemed blissfully unaware, both to my despondence and to their role in it. One of their friends rhetorically wondered aloud whether I was bothered by their sitting on my bed every day hours on end, jokingly mentioning they were breaking wind constantly: a fitting mix of obliviousness and disregard. I took to returning home every weekend. My mom worked a few miles east, and I imagine her own emotional fragility led her to enable my unhealthy isolation. I became a dorm commuter. I hung out exclusively with high school friends at home, though the growing infrequency of those outings provided another source of consternation.
I took out my frustrations by punching my pillow every once in a while, likely confirming my dormmates’ suspicions that I was a budding serial killer. I remember so little about that first year, not in the hazy way that memories go, but in a less innocuous manner, as though I had drifted through it. Weirdly, I still felt disappointed when they openly discussed their plans to room together the following year. It bothered me greatly that each thought of the other as a desirable roommate and friend. I basically wanted to be right about being unhappy; instead, I was being both aggrieved and ignored. In retrospect, I just had nothing else to hold onto. The fact that I was excluded only reaffirmed my failure.
The lost year set a tone. I took a job at a campus cafeteria the following year, but it was an alternative to a healthy social network, rather than a manifestation thereof. I didn’t complain when I regularly got assigned the 6 am shift; I almost failed a class because I fell asleep literally every lecture. Work came to be another means of social avoidance. I was jaded, my perspective skewed. I didn’t see my future roommates as potential friends, despite immensely improved living situations.* I overlooked the female co-worker who seemed receptive to my presence. The classmate who offered me his number so we could hang out. None of them registered as real possibilities.
*With one giant exception – another story for another time. My second year dormmate and I did attempt to attend a movie once, but in another representative moment, it was sold out. He was a little crazy too. Once, when he thought I was out of the room (and not under the covers), he berated himself incoherently. Faking that I ‘woke up’ oblivious to his outburst was one of the more awkward moments of my life. …Then again, I was punching pillows.
College destroyed my sense of belonging, uprooted my self-ease. Rather than seeking comfort in familiar circles, I challenged those as well. I recognized the shallow nature of my high school associations. People I had next to nothing in common with, who had qualities I didn’t respect, who seemed to be friends only because we were quasi-friends with the same people. And unfair though it may be, they didn’t recognize my unhappiness. The fact that I felt (this not unfairly) that I was a better friend to them hastened the demise of many of those relationships. With the benefit of selective hindsight, I was engaging in healthy introspection, forging more meaningful friendships. At the time, it didn’t feel that way.
Over those four years, I managed to find outlets for my frustrations, none particularly successful, most unhealthy. I walked into town frequently for matinees alone.* I blogged. I pulled my hair out compulsively, aiding father time. I chatted online with strangers, ironically listening to their problems. I guess responding allowed me to cope with my own helplessness, and connect with others in a way I couldn’t in my own environment. But most on the other end were teens, and I came to recognize the creepiness. I played online poker, moved onto online casinos. But that ended when I lost a couple thousand dollars (most of a financial aid disbursement) in a three day span.
*Okay, that’s harmless, and I still do that.
Mostly, I repressed it all. I went home just about every weekend. I attended class, did decently, got my degree. Clearly, my problems were nothing compared to the real issues people encounter in college, let alone the real world. Stripped of any perspective beside my own, however, my college experience was a genuine nightmare. I was depressed. I felt completely alienated and also stuck in a world I wanted no part of. Those four years of my life are surreal. I didn’t partake in a single social event, didn’t make a single friend. I feel no attachment to the school, no sense of loyalty or pride or belonging, and definitely not nostalgia. I was barely there.
But college did shape the person I’ve become. I put up with a lot of shit that first year, and compounded the issue by mentally withdrawing. But it was in that environment, in that misery, that I came to recognize what I held as important. It was under those circumstances that I shaped a standard for behavior and people that I still retain. Most of the decisions I made then were detrimental to my well-being. But I grew up as a result. Thing is, if I were placed in that same position today, I wouldn’t come close to withstanding all of that again. I’d like to think that it’s not that I’m too weak for a second go-around. It’s the contrary: I’ve become a stronger person, a better and more assured one.