I’d never really failed before.
Everything had always been easy. It was still supposed to be that way. I mean, I knew that I was a slacker, but that shouldn’t have anything to do with it -- I was too intelligent to be fucked by the universe this way.
I arrived in Rolla at the end of August, 1988 a day after classes began. The guys with whom I was going to be living were amazed that I had the balls to party for a week and let it interfere with the first glimmer of my university career. But shit man, it was just a state school.
I’d never really worked before.
I started going to class. I was almost religiously devout in my attendance. But there were so many distractions. There were too many cool things I could do instead of thinking about my studies. I was spending time in the Curtis Laws Wilson library every day just browsing the cool books. I was talking to the one-fifth of the student body without Y chromosomes. I was driving around rural Phelps County getting to know a whole new geography of roads and land. And I was working a 20-hour-per-week job at a local grocery store.
On top of that, I was living in a house with enforced study times. I was supposed to be at my books from 1900 through 2300. And I was doing it. Mostly. I guess the fact that I’d never done any homework was coming back to bite me in the ass. I mean, there was that time in the sixth grade when I had to write my first paper -- I eventually did that and it was homework. But I was doing more homework every week as a college freshman than I’d done during my entire senior year of high school. And I was failing.
I’d never really been spoken down to by my teachers before.
After four weeks of the rigor of college life, I got the idea that I was in trouble. The professor of my easy class wrote on my exam that I was leaving more out of my writing than I was putting in. He didn’t buy that the rest of the stuff was dull. My engineering graphics TA wasn’t willing to stay late just because when the last other student was done, I was only halfway there. I opted out of Calculus I as my first math class (which the test told me to take) so that I could reinforce my knowledge of Algebra and Trigonometry. Damn…those classes turned out to be harder than my roomies’ calc. Only in chemistry was I excelling – with an average score of 37/100 I had the fourth highest grade in a class of 200. I was in trouble.
During the next week, I arranged to speak with my advisor (whom I’d never met) and some of my professors. They basically agreed that I was a loafer and that all I could do was get my shit together and study more seriously. But I was eighteen and had no idea what that meant. My decision came to me when the president of the fraternity where I was living – whom I’d grown to hate over the past five weeks explained that I didn’t seem “psyched.” He told me I was “de-psyched” and further that when the semester was over “de-psyched had to equal de-pledged.” I thought being in a fraternity would be great, but boy did it suck! I thought that being in college would be great, but boy did it suck!
I’d never really dropped out of school before.
In my adolescence I was a behavior problem at school. In the seventh grade I was suspended, and then in the eighth I was expelled. My parents and I had to find a new school district that would admit me. They all knew I was smart -- there was no doubt of my ability to succeed. I just didn’t want to. And they didn’t want me setting the school on fire. So I was escorted to the door. But I didn’t drop out.
Until the very moment when I decide to bail out, it had never crossed my mind that I wasn’t going to receive a Ph.D. in a science. And now I knew that I’d be putting cans on shelves for the rest of my life. I had decided to become a drop-out. I had lost.
I’d never really been afraid before.
When I decided to leave, I called Dawn. Even though we had an almost strictly innocent relationship, she was my first great love. I told her how I felt and what I’d experienced. There, in the little hallway off the living room of our house, I cried on the phone to the girl I loved and confessed what a loser I was. I knew that I was doomed. That call was easy. The next one was a call home.
My folks had busted ass to get their educations while working full time and raising a kid. My dad has a Ph.D. and my mom was a teacher. And I, their only child, was a loser. When I told my dad, he was completely reasonable. It turns out he misunderstood what I was telling him. He was less kind when I got home. I was afraid to make that phone-call, but I was more afraid of the looming future for the illiterate son of a motherless dog that I had suddenly become. It was the deep fear that soaks in and colors everything you see and do. It was a little nibble of the fear that I would suffer when my pregnant girlfriend (the second great love of my life) would dump me. But that was six years away and completely unknown. All my power and promise were shot to shit. I was officially a loser.
I'd never really been free.
I eventually got on with things. I had to pay rent at my parents’ house, but this was great. They didn’t have any power over me. I could come or go. I could take classes or not. I could do what I wanted. I just wasn’t ready for college yet. After working for four years, things were different. I went back, but to a different campus.
I was a nontraditional student. I was a man! (Before, I was a kid) And now everything was easy. When I had to read 400 pages over one night in grad school, it wasn’t some great burden to whine about, it was just something I did -- and it was interesting. Everything was! Once school was no longer an immutable destiny, it was fun.
Sure, dropping out of college is scary, but it is great too. YMMV
I wish I could go back.