Monday, March 16, 2015

I Know It Because of My Learnings: College and You

There's things they tell you about what to expect from college, and there's things they don't tell you about college. There's some things they really don't tell you about college too, but I'll only briefly touch on my experiences of the "truly untold" side of college because I myself have a limited knowledge of what goes on behind the beat up double doors of higher education.

I went to community college, primarily because I was in that niche classification that modern students would refer to as "poor as fuck" -- jobless, living with mommy, straight out of high school -- and also because I was poor in the grade department throughout Freshman and Sophomore year in high school (due to the strain of family life and growing pains, which I will go into probably many more times down the line). And, because of my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, I had close to zero knowledge of how the cold, cruel world worked. I'd like to say I had some street smarts or enough common sense to get by a lot of things on my own. This was not the case. I was that special breed of sheltered teenaged girl that truly embraced being sheltered until the bitter, bitter end of adolescence. I was married to Jesus, had only had sex with my high school sweetheart to whom I was still tethered, and my wide, doey eyes were filled like saucers with the bright and welcoming light of a hopeful, predestined future.

College... well, it knocked all that bullshit out of my head and replaced it with the grit of stark, desert-filtered, educated reality.

It’s not the education itself that changed my world-view (although, yes, it too was very much that). Mainly, it was the environment -- nay, the ecosystem -- that catalyzed a change in me. I was a newborn clown fish, my gimpy fin waving lazily in the deep ocean waters beyond my coral-dense sea floor drop off. I was a young Lara Croft, venturing down from my sheltered ridge into the dark, lush jungles of an unknown world, my tight tank top clinging damply to my heaving bosom as my toned, fit arms bashed through the brambles and bushes whose sharp, pointed fingers threatened to tear my clothes away from my tight, sexy body at any moment…. I seem to have gotten quite off track here.

I was out of my depth, as it were, though I would never admit this to myself or anyone else. Because I so longed to be an adult. To break away from the overbearing embrace (more of a headlock, really) that my mother had on me and all things private in my life. She was the kind of woman who would regularly “do my laundry” so she could riffle through my belongings and read my diary. It had gotten to the point where I actually started writing outright lies in my notebooks to freak her out, so I could tell when she’d been nosing into my business. Again, I am getting off track, but this is somewhat important to why I was completely clueless in college. Because I had been so accustomed to a life that was laid out for me, scheduled and routine in every single way (read: prison), and I had zero friends since my family moved around a lot, and I was fat and unsociable… really, not a lot has changed, in the grand scheme of things, except for my attitude in all this. Well, some other things have changed too. But again, I digress. I barely even remember what my word prompt was….

Oh yeah, college.

First semester was a breeze, what with all the facts and figures from Senior year still relatively fresh in my head. I was the kind of person who actually paid attention in class, read the material, did the work (except math, I fucking hate math with a passion, which is kind of funny considering I now do math for a living). I thought I was so smart, because I loved writing and could literally push out an 8 page essay in 2.5 hours. Teachers loved me because I didn’t ask questions -- I listened, and always took an interest in the subject. It took a while even for me to realize that I was just a master bullshitter living in a small barn, and I was about to enter a rodeo full of more masterful bullshitters with naught but a spoon for a shovel. Very soon, my semester full of all A’s (which had, in fact, earned me a spot on the dean’s list for achievement) transitioned smoothly into B’s, C’s and D’s. I blame it on public transportation.

Okay, hear me out. From middle school onward, I lived in a small town with a population of less than 30,000. For storytelling purposes, we’ll call this town “F”, because it really starts with an F, and so does the word “fucktard”. All the kids in my school, were all the kids in the whole town. Literally. I was somewhat lucky in that regard -- I came from somewhere else, and had been many other places before, so I knew nobody and nobody knew me. The people from this town? They knew each other since, like, birth. And they were not by any means kind to outsiders, which I swear is the beginning plot of every single horror story that takes place in a small town. Sure, they were friends with each other, but more like frienemies. Sorry, I hate that word too, but that’s the only way I can describe it. People in F are only friends begrudgingly, because there’s nothing to do and nobody else to be around, so fuck it. I didn’t realize what it meant to have frienemies until high school, because my sheltered ass didn’t know people could be two-faced. It took me a long time to find genuine friends, and accept my link in the social food chain that was the educational ecosystem.

Anyhoo, while familiarity breeds contempt, it also breeds comfort. I was comfortable walking around because everything was a few blocks from my house. The high school campus, while dilapidated and grossly under funded, at least had enough sense to host some night time college courses that would help me work toward my A.A. (Lib Arts majors REPRESENT!!) I aced that shit like a badass, all while just walking a couple blocks to and from my house.  I was living the high life, grades were way up, stress levels waaayyy down (considering all the cruelest classmates from high school were either off somewhere getting jobs or living on campus at a legit college) and I was right on track to starting my future. I’d like to say this was because I was finally a responsible adult remaining accountable for my own classes and grades, but truthfully, it helps to be under the constantly vigilant eye of a controlling mother who only wants the best for you. As an aside, Asian students understand this dynamic a million times better than myself, but I can’t deny the influence a parent can have on any student’s grades. In any case, this was a tried and true system that I would have gladly continued well to graduation, and probably with honors.

What they don’t tell you about college is that off campus classes are limited. Most of what you need is on campus. The campus of my college was an hour away from my home, and I had no car or carpooling options. Transportation to and from the campus was limited to one bus line, during very specific hours which meant I had to work the schedule of my classes around what times the bus would be stopping by. This in turn meant 3 things: 1) it was now up to me to make sure I got to my classes on time, safely, and without bus lice, 2) there was lots and lots of waiting, and therefore lots and lots of chain smoking, and 3) I was about to discover that higher education, in spite of all its merits and qualities, is not for everyone.

Let’s start with the bus ride to school. There are a ridiculous amount of kids who’ve had to ride a bus to and from school at some point in their life; whether due to living in a secluded rural area or just being poor as fuck (REPRESENT!!). The average person has got to do it at least once in their life. I was lucky in that most of my life, by my parents’ design, I could either walk to school or be driven every morning. Since we’ve pretty much always lived in Southern California, weather always permitted. So, when taking the bus suddenly became a regular thing for me, a necessity I couldn’t escape, it was a wakeup call that slapped me in the face like a cold fish fresh from the market. The empty, dead-eyed stare of the driver was like the empty, dead-eyed stare of a tuna as its scaly mass caressed my face, leaving only the stench of the dreadful realization that this was now my life. And the worst part was, this was other people’s lives, too! ALL THE TIME! So many adults had to take the bus just to run an errand or see their family or (scariest of all) go to work every day. And there were high school- and middle school-aged kids from the same town as me, who took the same bus line every morning, Monday through Friday, to get to a school in a different city because the schools in F had such a bad fucking reputation that parents would gladly send their precious offspring on a screaming metal death trap full of piss-reeking vagabonds and welfare mothers with their snot-nosed babies every day. So even in my own less than desirable situation, I could see where I had been blessed. Thank whatever gods there be for my mother’s chokehold on my life, for there are horrors that should not be witnessed by the innocent. And thank Steve Jobs for the iPod, the only thing I possessed which helped me keep a grasp on my sanity through all the long, loud rides to and from school. It is a good day when you can be stuck in a cramped metal tube with complete strangers and not have to 1) make eye contact or 2) hear their stupid fucking annoying voices. I still have my bus ride mix in iTunes. I may just give it a listen, hopefully it wouldn’t trigger some hideous flashback.

So, let’s pretend we’re at the bus stop in F, waiting for the Vista bus to come by. I’m waiting, like, an average of 5-10 minutes. That’s 1.5 cigarettes there. Then from F it’s a 15-20 minute ride to the neighboring town of SP. We make 2 different stops there, for a total of 10 minutes inside the town. Then we take the highway to the next stop which is a transit town. Only one stop there, so about 2-5 minutes are spent altogether. We make our way to the first stop in the city where my college is, and that’s the government center. A shitload of people always had to get on/off there, so we would be waiting something like 15 minutes. In rain (which for some reason baffles Californians the way a fallen leaf will devastate a line of ants), we could tack on another 5 minutes. Then they’d tow us over to the college and my ride for the morning was complete. So if I round up the minutes, the total bus ride was 1.1 hours, and 1.5 cigarettes. Let’s add on another 1.5 cigarettes before class starts and I’ve already had 3 cigarettes. In the first hour alone. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where the Freshman 15 come from -- cause if you ain’t smoking, you’re in the cafeteria gorging yourself on their greasy and incorrigibly expensive food.

Okay, I’m on campus. Now what? Well, let me tell ya. In F High School, it took me roughly 45 seconds to get from class to class. Yes, the school grounds were small, and it helped that I had social anxiety fueling the muscles in my legs like a methamphetamine-hyped bunny rabbit. At V College, I could have literally been on methamphetamines and still would not be able to get from class to class that fast. It’s not even that the campus was that enormous (although, yeah, it kinda was). It was the layout. It was so confusing and everything was so weirdly placed. Not only that, but half the rooms/buildings weren’t even fucking labeled, or attached to each other. I’m positive this was mostly due to it being a crappy community college with minimal funding from the state, but on the real… how goddamn expensive can it be to commission the janitor to paint a letter and a number on the side of a building? So there I am, completely culture-shocked and standing like a zombie in front of the school map. Immediately I wanted to yell “FUCK THIS!” and peace out on the first stink-shuttle back home. But I closed my eyes and took a deep breath instead, and thought to myself, “Do this for your future. FOR SPAAARTAAAA!!” and charged ahead. Or some shit. Hey, I graduated from one of the worst rated schools in Southern California, how hard could a day in this hellhole be?

Apparently harder than I expected. There is sadly no word in English that perfectly describes the feeling you get when sitting next to strangers whom you feel would be easy to talk to, if only you were another person entirely. “Awkward” is as close as I can get, so it will have to do. When you’re sitting outside the classroom waiting for the teacher (or professor, I guess) to arrive, and you’re awkward next to some other folks, the easiest thing to do is just slip in some ear buds, put on some music loud enough to drown out all conscious thought, and light up a cigarette. You may have heard the phrase, “College is just high school with ash trays.” This is mostly correct, although in community college, most of those ash trays have been stolen or shat in. On average, I would smoke another 1.5 cigarettes before first class started, now bringing my total to 4.5. What a great morning so far.

Getting into the classroom is not too much better. Aside from the fact that some of the buildings look like they're about to collapse from so much termite damage (while others are clinically pristine and remind you of the lab from The Human Centipede), a whole range of emotions can wash over you when on the hunt for a desk. You want to sit close enough to the professor to get a good understanding of the subject, plus the philosophy teacher is totally fucking hot. But at the same time you don't want to be front and center where all the other students can see you and silently judge you from behind their Ray Bans, while crossing their letterman-jacketed arms and shaking their side-combed heads at how lame you are. Because apparently in college, everyone is Ferris Bueller. So you end up probably somewhere way on the left, 3 rows back. You know, right in front of the door, so you can make a quick exit and run to the bathroom before you vomit from nervousness. It's close enough to read the board, but inconspicuous enough that nobody would bother looking at you. (Oh, but they're still totally judging you. Trust me.)

Now there's the challenge of staying awake in class. If it's an interesting subject, and your teacher makes it fun to learn, and they happen to also be hot, it's pretty simple to keep your eyes and mind open. But if none of those things are the case (read: math of any kind) then may God have mercy on your soul. I remember showing up to my college Algebra class pretty much every single day, and yet I could not for the life of me pay fucking attention. I literally wrote the most creative and brilliant short stories while in that class, so I guess I can say I learned something, but by golly it was not Algebra. (Funny enough, I used one of those short stories for the essay portion on a final exam for another class I was failing in, and the teacher decided to pass me with a D. SCIENCE!) Aside from boring subject matter, pulling all-nighters or partying your face off the night before class can also affect your attention span. Neither of these were things I did very often -- in college, anyway -- but they are common activities of the American teenager, and it wasn't unheard of to see a few people slumping forehead-down at their desk. In situations like these, the professors would find ways to get creative as well. Ever wake up to the sound of a 15lb hard cover book slamming full force on linoleum? It might as well be the sound of an IED blowing up your mailbox because it can be quite a rude awakening.

Speaking of books, apparently the paper that college textbooks are printed on is made of panda skin, because they're expensive. The covers are made of rhino horn or elephant tusk as well, I think. How badly do you need to learn psychology? Apparently badly enough to warrant paying $160 for a book you'll only be using for 20 weeks or so. And resale value is a flipping joke, at about $0.20 on the dollar... really, you're better off risking your life finding a buyer on Craigslist, and even then at least if you get murdered your skin will go toward the next generation of rip-off text books. It's the circle of life, in a sense. Ah, the American way. If our public schools can't turn a profit off the nation's youngest and marginally poorest demographic, what good is education at all? I mean jeez, what are you, a Commie?

Which brings me to my next point. One thing they don't tell you (but is a well-known fact in society) is that higher education will undoubtedly make you more liberal, if not socialist in your views. For example, I was a freshman in college when good ol' Al Gore dreamed up the self-aggrandizing natural terrorfest that is An Inconvenient Truth (for which he received an Academy Award… and yet poor Leo can’t get a damn Oscar). We had a movie day in biology class -- yeah, they have those in college, too -- and since it also was Earth Day, we watched An Inconvenient Truth. Up until then I had been heavily brainwashed by all the conservative talk radio and other various climate denial propaganda that my parents were keen on, so the film hit me a lot harder than the average person. I wish I could say that I did a complete 180 then and there, forever changing my perspective on all things in the world, and adopting an eco-friendly lifestyle that permanently reduced my carbon footprint. Alas, it was only after a couple more years of studies in natural sciences and geopolitics that I finally realized and accepted that yes, climate change is real and mankind’s contribution to it could be easily reduced to an exponential degree. But the point is, I would never have matured to even that point, had it not been for higher education. Sure, I’ll grant that some of it was stuff they teach in grade school; being educated in F, however, left me mentally stunted and ill informed. Add to that the fact that I had to hide my newfound beliefs (bible thumpers call it “secularism,” I call it “based on facts”) from my uber conservative parents… in my case it truly was “an inconvenient truth”. Aaaaand now I’m officially a tool.

Okay, so the stress of learning new and frightening things that challenge beliefs that you’re raised in can have quite an impact on a student. In my case, I began adding a bit more cigarettes into my day. Let’s say, probably 3 more between the end of biology class and my next class, which was German. Maybe add one more smoke for good measure before that class, since I’m a Jew. We’re now up to 8.5 cigarettes.

The rest of my day would go on pretty much the same way: smoke and wait, enter classroom, bored to death, leave, repeat. On and on, for 8-10 hours a day. I would say I feel bad for the teachers, except they actually get paid to be there. It kind of makes me wonder how someone gets to the point where they decide to make a career in education. I mean, as kids everyone’s always thinking, “Man, I can’t wait to leave school and never come back!” But if you work there, that’s your whole life! And you still get homework, only you’re not doing it, you’re reading through other people’s, so it’s like ten times worse because half the time the students themselves don’t even understand or believe the bullshit they’re writing. Ugh, I’m rambling again now.

Anyway, the rest of the classes I have taken in college are a big blur… U.S. History, Women’s History, Film History, Music History (gosh, there’s a lot of history), Music Appreciation, Art Appreciation, Beginners Art, Beginners Weight Training, Beginner’s Sign Language, Italian, Spanish, English 101... Most of which I either dropped out of, failed, or passed but didn’t maintain enough interest to remember anything about the subject. As many other Lib Arts majors can attest, I like a lot of things, but none of the things I like can be made into a decent career. I mean, what can you do with a degree in Geology? Languages can be useful but when will I have the money to travel? And it’s so easy, yet surprising, to discover that the subjects you thought you were good at had merely been a scratched surface, and all that lies beneath is a jillion times more complicated than you care to learn. Before college, I thought I was good at writing essays. But I found that once I had to incorporate all these other elements and rules and methods into my essays, I lost all the passion behind my writing; so, while technically perfect, they were quite unreadable to the average person because they were very dry and uninteresting. You know that phrase, “jack of all trades, master of none”? That could pretty much describe my situation. I couldn’t bring myself to care enough about any one thing to be bothered to learn every little detail. I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy all the finite details of any single subject. So I ended up learning a little bit of a bunch of stuff, and to this day I can’t say I’ve truly accomplished anything. But I can tell you what all the layers of the Earth are called, and in seven different languages.

I can also smoke a full pack of cigarettes in a day, although that is an arguably dubious talent.

So there’s my college experience. I didn’t really cover as much as I wanted to, but honestly I went on pretty long here for a one-word writing prompt. There’s probably a lot of things I could add, and maybe one day I’ll write a follow-up… after all, if I had been told some of these things about college, maybe I wouldn’t have wasted so much time there. I probably would have just dropped everything and gotten a job, and perhaps I’d be closer to a legit career than I am now. Or maybe I would have gotten my shit together and actually made a real effort to pass and get my degree, and still be closer to a legit career than I am now. Who knows? One thing’s for sure: if I had to do it all over again, I’d submit this as my final essay. At least it would have been somewhat relevant.

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