I’ve never felt so courted as I did when colleges started sending me and my sister letters and brochures during our senior year of high school. At one point, mid-fall, I hauled a stack of mailers that was nearly three feet tall out to the recycling bin. Whereas I imagine previous generations of women agonized over the finding the perfect husband at 18, my classmates and I agonized over finding the perfect college. For those of us on the honors/AP/IB fast track of elite education in Atlanta, it was a kind of holy grail we chased after, plowing through chemistry homework while our classmates smoked joints at Lake Burton.
I went into college sincerely believing it was going to be the absolute best four years of my life: a distillation of the most engaging and empowering moments from high school, minus all the stuff I didn’t like. We would have profound philosophical discussions under trees. I would discover my passions. I would meet my soulmate, and my best friends for life. I would study abroad and speak perfect French. It would always be autumn. I would emerge from UChicago like a maroon and gold butterfly: complete. Ready. Automatically ushered into a high-paying job that I found satisfying and enjoyable.
I wonder if it was dumb to have such astronomical expectations. But then I think back to that huge stack of mailers: all the artfully designed brochures, created to sell the most glorious possible image of each school. (It finally dawned on me that they only interview you for the brochure if you had a super great time at your school, and you like to talk about it.) And I remember the frenetic enthusiasm of all the adults in my life who had gone to college, and how much fun they had. I don’t believe they were being disingenuous with us. Trying to encourage and motivate us, they chose the rosiest of their memories to talk about.
For a long time, I felt terror at the idea of expressing any shred of dissatisfaction with UChicago. I had worked my ass off to get in (f*ck you, AP Chemistry). It cost a fortune; it was my big, expensive decision. I needed to defend my choice of schools: my special, fancy-pants school in the North. And the bus ride back to campus from Midway airport, through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago, underscored what an absurd privilege it was to be there in the first place. To have any complaint whatsoever seemed heretical, disgustingly entitled: like sending a lobster tail back to the kitchen at a five-star restaurant because it had a spot on it. And I realize that this entire post may come off that way: the complaints of a girl who can’t see just how good she has it.
But what if in spite of this real privilege, my classmates and I also experienced something truly negative? I wonder how much of my anxiety, fear, and self-doubt is unique to me, is a gender issue, and is the result of an environment like UChicago. It would be a cop-out to blame all of my insecurities on the school. But what if our lobster tail has actually given us food poisoning, and we have been retching up the results of our college experience ever since? Just how much of the culture at UChicago is genuinely toxic, but escapes scrutiny because enough students assume their bad experiences are “just them?”
I assumed my bad experiences were a character flaw: maybe I didn’t have the guts for the school I chose. Maybe if I’d been a little smarter, I could have sorted myself out. After all, the unofficial motto was “where fun goes to die.” But I expected that I’d actually have a great deal of fun not worrying about mere “fun.” No sorority frivolities or sports-related debauchery for me. Oh no. I was at school to learn. I was there for my kind of fun: feeling important. Never mind the fact that genuine fun, things done purely for their own sake, are actually a hugely important part of life. Maybe I should have done the Scav Hunt after all, if I hadn’t been so tunnel-vision focused on grades. (And that brings me into a fairly common complaint about difficult schools: we might have really enjoyed learning if we weren’t so busy studying.)
I suspect I chose UChicago precisely because of my anxiety. I didn’t consider myself Ivy material, mostly because I developed a distaste for math. But I craved, more than anything, to feel smart. And when I got the “thick envelope” in the mail that fine spring afternoon senior year, I felt like I had gotten an official seal of approval from the universe. If I could get approval from a high enough source, I would be forever safe. Golden. Congratulations. You are good.
When I arrived in the fall of 2007, I beheld the strangest collections of characters I’d ever met in my life. I saw students who were supposedly brilliant, but were completely miserable. By the time I left in 2011, I couldn’t shake the feeling that if we were really, truly, intelligent, we would have figured out a way to make ourselves happier. In fact, I realized how incredibly easy it is to be unhappy: to be surrounded by resources and opportunities, and miss out on them all together, pooh-poohing things in order to feel important.
I divided up my classmates into five distinct groups:
I. Those poor kids. The ones who were obviously suffering, who were obviously miserable. Stressed out, lonely, unhealthy, homesick, painfully awkward. They moved about the campus like wraiths. Like unkempt children in need of a sandwich and a hug.
II. Insufferable hipsters.
III. Econ majors.
IV. The eternally busy. Emotionally attached to their workload, their all nighters, their piles of Red Bull cans and 5-Hour energy bottles. It gave them a sense of purpose, belonging, something to talk about. Perhaps the hamster wheel brought them such satisfaction because it staved off painful questions about why they were working so hard in the first place. These were the ones who wore the t-shirts with slogans like “where fun goes to die,” “where the only thing that goes down on you is your GPA,” and, perhaps the obvious warning I should have heeded: “you will be unhappy here.” (But, you know, in a way that actually makes you kind of happy.)
V. The all-inclusive UChicago experience. The kids for whom it was always autumn. Or perhaps more accurately, always Scav Hunt. College life was one nerdy adventure after another. I felt jealousy toward these kids, for two reasons: they were enjoying themselves, and presumably, they felt smart.
God. All I wanted was to feel smart.
In some ways, that’s really all I want right now. To feel accomplished, like I achieved something worthwhile, especially in the eyes of the baby boomers who may be writing my paychecks again in the near future.
Please. Please look at my resume and validate my existence. Sense that I have done the work, that I have jumped through the hoops of fire, that I deserve something beyond an unpaid internship.
But even more than that: tell me how smart I am.
I expected that I would graduate feeling, at very least, confident, and with some idea of what I was Going to Do With My Life. I didn’t expect to have the same experience that my parents did at the University of Georgia in the 70s; I had chosen to eschew typical college “fun,” but I thought that I would feel better because of it, more focused, driven, and capable. I don’t think that’s asking for a ton, especially not after all the time and money invested. But I shook Zimmer’s hand with a feeling of abject dread and utter incompetence.
I believed that if I just had good enough grades, the job offers would roll in the same way the college mailers did. Never mind seeking experience, building skills, or even better, building a community. The numbers were what mattered. (Why get an internship, or volunteer, or get to know people when I could memorize these Russian verbs? Russian verbs I have since forgotten?) On the one hand, that seems ludicrous. On the other hand, that’s the game I sincerely thought I was playing: you get the brand name degree, and then you coast. You do all the work at once, and then, you are forever rewarded with lucrative work.
Such was not the case. Cue collective panic and feelings of failure from much of the class of 2011 (and 2009, and 2010, and I suspect, a good deal of ’12 and ’13, if I’m not overstepping my bounds). So I received a very pretty piece of paper with a red faux-leather cover and a gold phoenix on it. And an overwhelming need for validation.
There’s no doubt that I had anxious tendencies before I ever set foot on campus. But they reached previously unknown heights during the four years I spent on it. I attribute this to several distinct experiences of loss.
The first was a loss of community, and that meant an overall loss of perspective on what was healthy, normal, and typical. We were in an environment saturated with “smart” people, but many of them were used to being the only “smart” person in their home community, and coming to campus created a serious identity threat. I suspect a great deal of hostility cropped up between classmates because of this. UChicago students are notorious for their antisocial tendencies; we had little sense of what was really going on with each other. We heard each other’s pithy remarks in class. We didn’t see the quantity of tears spilled into boxes of Hutch sushi, sandwiches eaten alone in the A-level. Hours and hours spent scrolling through Facebook and wanting to drown in Botany Pond. I have heard it said that we run into trouble when we compare our raw footage to other people’s highlight reels. U of C kids are very adept in the cutting room.
In place of a community of friends, I resigned myself to one toxic partner for three years; someone whose feelings of jealousy and insecurity tormented him, and eventually tormented me as well. Over time, I did make friends who supported me. But I suspect this process took a while because most of the time, we were just too tired, too busy, too apathetic, too competitive, too bitter to really take the emotional risk of making friends.
The next loss I felt was that of my spiritual life. The “life of the mind” seemed to have very little patience for matters of the spirit. Granted, my Christian faith had been heavily tinted by feelings of uncertainty and judgment beforehand. But it was still a source of identity, structure, comfort, and meaning. Over time, however, I came to regard my spirituality as something degenerate and shameful, a kind of superstitious crutch that exposed me as incapable of rational thought. I began to disregard my direct experience, gut feelings, and warning signs from dreams. In general, I trusted myself less. I took my opinions less and less seriously, doubting my ability to form them in the first place. When a recent acquaintance described me as “analytical,” I just about laughed in his face. At school, I had felt about as “analytical” as a hippie woman shaking a tambourine.
I started to buy heavily into the mythos of objectivity, of rationality, of the materialism that I have since seen brilliantly and gracefully debunked by scientists and spiritual teachers alike. The result at the time, though, was to cut me off from what was actually a profound source of information and power, albeit one that went discredited and unrecognized. Religion in particular could be approached in three ways: as a historical artifact, a body of literature, as an ethnographic eccentricity. But to embrace it as a way of experiencing and interacting with the world seemed pathetic, absurd. I realize now that it took a great deal of guts for my classmates who, sincerely and unironically, observed Shabbat, Ramadan, Lent, Imbolc. Later on, I realized that quite a few of my classmates clung to their belief in their own rationality with more dogmatism and fervor than some of the most ardent Born-Again Christians I have encountered. To this day, I am stunned at how easily some people believe they are not influenced by their own feelings.
(Veganism did a surprisingly good job of replacing the identity and structure I’d felt I’d lost. But I still had a strong feeling of emptiness and disconnection. Eventually, I did take advantage of meditation workshops offered by the school, and that helped initiate a slow return to meaningful spiritual practice.)
Finally, I lost my love and excitement for art. As a child, my notebooks were full of magical creatures and an endless rotating cast of characters. I loved drawing, designing things, inventing whole worlds. Drawing gave me a symbolic language I could use to process grief and loss, it gave me a chance to stretch my creative muscles when I felt bored at school. It was a way to get to know and explore myself, and a way to know other people, across time and cultures, on a non-verbal, holistic level. As a kid, I didn’t know precisely why art mattered to me in the way that it did. That occurred to me later, when I realized once again how severed I felt from something that used to be a source of power and support.
I did the coursework for a minor in visual art, but never followed through on getting department approval, because by that point, I had given up all together. The need to look and sound smart, to have something intellectual to say about everything, to analyze a piece of work to death–had completely supplanted the moments of genuine fascination. In the fall of 2007, when I saw Hamza Walker’s curated exhibition Meanwhile in Baghdad at the Renaissance Society, it made my blood run cold, in the best possible way; the commentary he gave my class made my head spin. But by the time Trisha Donnelly put up four measly drawings in the same space in the spring, I had lost the confidence to say that I thought it was the dumbest shit I had ever seen. In some ways, I’m impressed with the job I did convincing myself that I cared about art that meant nothing to me at all. While Mucha, Miyazaki, and Moebius whispered to me tantalizingly from a distance, I dared not touch, almost as if the staff of October would personally show up at my dorm room, and spit on me if I did. Needless to say, the stream of sketches that used to flow freely onto all paper within my reach dried up completely, and has just recently started to return.
With these three major supportive factors gone, my self-esteem dwindled to the point where by the winter of my “fourth” or senior year, I began to feel afraid to leave my apartment.
I suspect that at some point when I was a kid, I began to shift away from the things that piqued my curiosity, and toward what would bring me the most praise from adults. I have come to crave praise, to thrive on it. What confuses me the most is why I seem to have lost the ability to declare myself good enough for myself. There are certain things I miss about being a kid (Pokemon, Halloween, making s’mores in Girl Scouts), but what I miss the most is assuming that I will be able to do things, and eventually, be good at them. Perhaps UChicago was the last stop on a train line I’d been on for quite some time. And perhaps I have become the ideal employee after all: capable, but unconvinced; willing to go to great lengths, for low pay, to prove myself.
I resent that the first thing I feel when I think of college is a sense of embarrassment and loss, and not my appreciation for the buffet of ideas and brilliant minds I had access to. Part of what is so distressing about this process is not that I didn’t gain any skills or abilities– in fact, as I’m writing this, I’m remembering more and more of what I learned and gained. The kicker is that I seem to have lost the ability to activate and make use of it. I’m like a robot without batteries, or an unplugged computer: the risk of failure keeps me from switching myself on. I was shocked to realize that in the jobs I worked after graduating, I gravitated toward the easiest tasks, the ones with the least risk of failure. I felt lost without any more feedback than “well, they didn’t fire me this week, so I guess I’m doing ok?” I’m not sure which is more threatening: to actually be a profoundly capable person, who doesn’t realize it and feels timid and paralyzed; or to have never had any real ability, to have been shepherded along by money in a system that gives every kid a trophy.
To feel this way is like being stuck on an island because my custom-built yacht went down in a storm. Or like having a special kind of hangover one only gets from drinking the rarest and finest of wines. Again, it’s the food-poisoning from the lobster tail: a special type of insecurity that comes from having been heavily invested in, and feeling terrified of not being able to make good on that investment. It’s also, fundamentally, a feeling of great entitlement. “So you feel like a failure because you didn’t have fun at your notoriously not-fun college, and you didn’t get your super perfect dream job at 22?” Well, yes, actually, because I really thought I would.
It’s possible, and highly likely, that my education heaps status and privilege upon me–and I just don’t see it yet. I admit potential myopia here. At this point, it’s too early to tell whether my time at UChicago was worth it, and I would be lying if I claimed to have gotten nothing out of it. But it was also not remotely the experience I expected, the one I bought into. It was a rich experience, to be sure. It was absolutely not a palatable one.
Ironically, it may propel me to greater success precisely because of how unbelievably bad it felt. The biggest conclusion I take away from it is that without the health of the body, the strength of the soul, and lightness of the heart, the “life of the mind” is frankly, one big intellectual masturbation session, hollow and useless; it preserves the feeling of elitism that rakes in cash for the university (I am never going to buy those stupid f*cking Kant socks. I will not be donating money this year, don’t give me that “Honor Roll” bull crap). If anything, it is a screaming reminder of how badly I need my “power sources” in order to engage all the intellectual material I’ve been exposed to. Raw information and ideas are not enough; I need my community of friends, my spirituality, my creative outlets, my direct personal experience. And those things, taken together, have been doing a remarkable job over the past year of reviving the parts of me that felt deadened and numb. For as much anguish and embarrassment as I’ve felt about college, I also feel a great sense of excitement moving forward. And that means a lot more to me than gargoyles.