On Missing The Trapeze

I arrived on the campus of my future college the summer before my senior year in high school ready to participate in a prestigious academic camp. I was ready for six weeks of intellectual enrichment; little did I know all of my learning would take place outside of class when I had my first serious crush.

His name was Scott, and we were both declared philosophy “majors” at the camp. Along with a handful of other nerds, we spent our days sitting in a circle, reading old texts, and pondering the meaning of life with the depth of experience accessible to a 17 year old. While pretending to think deep thoughts during our reading sessions, I tried to make sense of this intoxicating sensation. What had started as long talks in the library had progressed to listening to pining REM and Natalie Merchant songs in his dorm room, vague conversations about teenage alienation, and dreams of future academic accomplishment.

Like so many summer romances, it was a true whirlwind. Six weeks of self-discovery and little more than a peck on the cheek. A little more. We parted after six weeks in high emotional angst. There were the occasional letters to follow, full of vague phrases and suggestion. There were hollow invitations for visits that never went realized; the three hour drive just seemed a bridge too far in our limited scope of vision. And there was a final telephone call, on the day of my high school graduation, full of awkward silences built on un-acted upon feelings and the entropy of a school year.

And so it was with some interest that, fifteen years later, I receive a friend request over Facebook from my old crush. It would have been impossible to decline the invitation to peek into the past and what might have been, and, as it turns out, it was a reminder that what was once so alluring can turn out to be so different. My crush was now a professor of film with an interest in trapeze. That’s right: trapeze. Difference does make the world go round, which, in the case of a trapeze artist, is good, I guess. We were, however, two very different people, to say the least.

Perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind, in the heat of that summer before my senior year of high school, I dreamed we would end up going to the same college. After all, at 17, he was the only other gay person I had ever met. I knew that was not meant to be at some point during my senior year, but, the next fall, I was back on the same campus, ready to start my college career. I unpacked my bags for a few minutes after my parents dropped me off, and I couldn’t help but remember the brief romance the college had offered me just the summer before. Little did I know it was the closest thing to a romance the campus would ever really offer me.

The naive dream that we might meet and rekindle whatever we had — and even I wasn’t so sure — didn’t happen, but, in an odd twist of fate, I did end up rekindling a relationship from that academic camp. On my first day on campus my freshman year, as I rounded my dorm building to walk to the book store, I encountered my roommate from the camp. Brad, in his trademark sunglasses, was walking right towards me, and we both couldn’t believe we were seeing each other. Brad turned out to be my closest college friend — funny, smart, and the strongest moral center I’ve ever encountered. That friendship turned out to be the best thing the college ever gave me. And, so, the academic camp did give me a life-changing relationship, just not the one I might have predicted during those hot summer days.

And, honestly, at my weight, it’s probably best I’m not up on a trapeze.

On the College Experience

Once a season, I receive a glossy, thick magazine from my alma mater. Splendidly and colorfully designed, I’m treated to probing think-pieces from professors, photo articles from bright-eyed students in some third world country, an inspiring message from the college president, class news and updates, obituaries, and a last page essay from an important alum. The periodical paints the picture of a kinetic hive of progress, learning, adventure, and contemplation nestled safely inside a cocoon separate from the real world.

It’s not necessarily a place I remember.

I’ve always taken great pride in my alma mater. It has an excellent academic reputation, and is the most prestigious academic destination in my home state. I relished those factors before, during, and after my time there. And, indeed, I received an amazing education, many facets of which have only slowly revealed themselves over the stretch of years since I walked the campus.

Still, as I thumb through the seasonal magazine, looking at reunion pictures and large throngs of alumni gathered at weddings and other such events, it strikes me that my college experience shares little in common with those glossy magazines, with the perfectly manicured campus, the almost painfully cute (and ironic) tire swing on the great lawn, and the pictures of students lounging about, debating Greek philosophy while slurping on milkshakes.

Academically, I excelled in my major and minor, but, even in those classes that I loved, I never had the Dead Poets Society moment, where the underlying beauty of the subject material roused my passion and drove me to tears. Rather, I was interested in the subject, dutifully worked to please my professors, and took varying degrees of interest in my assignments and projects. I took no less pleasure in not having class, playing ping pong or basketball, and sleeping in.

Socially, I made one amazing lifelong friend, but my life isn’t filled with fraternity brothers, as we were reminded again and again that it would be. Lifelong bonds, plural, were not made. Rather, with one noted exception, college seems like most every other life pitstop: you meet great, nice people and, over time, you drift apart, if not technically, at least in substance. It doesn’t take away from the experience, but it does undermine, to a degree, its allegedly transformative nature.

And, as for the college years being the best years, I always want to ask the people that say that if all-night study sessions and mediocre term papers really trump a great job, a nice income, and personal, social, and financial freedom. To me, it’s a no-brainer.

I’m willing to bet lots of folks like me peruse their college magazines with something resembling alienation. The whitewashing effect can be disorienting. Certainly colleges want to put their best foot forward; it is, after all, really about publicity. Nevertheless, surely there is a cost when the narrative colleges advance about themselves materially diverges from the experiences their students have. And, yes, no college is going to publish an alumni magazine featuring a story about how Katie got dumped at Friday night’s party, or how Ben has already put on the Freshman 15, but maybe we should tone down the life-changing, world-beating rhetoric just slightly. Very few college students will make any noise in their respective academic fields, and, for many, it’s not a social nirvana. For all, however, it is a time of growth and change, and that growth and change doesn’t always translate into a PR-ready photograph with needy children from South America.

Increasingly, colleges have to sell themselves, and certainly selling the college experience, as commonly understood, is part of the deal. And, there’s really nothing wrong with that, as long as we remember that many students are walking different paths. The importance of those individual stories, those journeys of real progress, change, and, yes, education, outweigh the images we put forth as “the” college experience. To not remember that, we shortchange ourselves and the actual impact of the institutions we love.

 

On Belonging

This weekend, I toured the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The campus is a National Historic Landmark for good reason; it’s 340 acres of enormous, awe-inspiring buildings, sports fields, hedge rows, iron gates, monuments, memorials, and last but not least — mascot Bill the Goat.

The students were returning to campus to begin classes this week. It took me back twenty years to a time when I eagerly awaited the start of the new school year. I loved my college; it was an amazing four years. In hindsight, I would change only a few minor things about my college experience, but there is one decision I made that I genuinely regret: joining a fraternity.

Social life on our small campus was dominated by Greek life. Six fraternities, three sororities. Weekend nights (and many weekday nights), the Greek houses were alive with parties. Early on in your freshman year, THE question was not your prospective major but rather the fraternity or sorority you would pledge.

I knew I wasn’t into the drinking and the partying, but I liked the idea of being one of the guys. When I was accepted into a fraternity, I was excited. Over the next two months, that excitement turned into frustration, then resentment, and then anger. I had not realized the hazing that I would endure as part of the initiation process. Never violent, it was, nonetheless, an awful experience. I lacked the capacity to see the hazing as a funny game played by the upperclassmen on the freshmen. Sleep deprivation, humiliating “games,” inane responsibilities, mock military lineups, and total control over your time, I was completely miserable. We were all miserable, but no one brought up quitting. No one thought about questioning why it was necessary that we crawl around the fraternity basement with an imaginary ceiling only two feet off the floor. Maybe we were all worried about the implications of quitting: a social death. On a small, isolated campus, there was not a worse fate.

My pledging experience ended only once the administration became aware of the hazing and stepped in to stop it. We were initiated, but upperclassmen grumbled for a long time that we had missed out. That, somehow, not going through the hazing made us less-than-full members of the group.

My regret isn’t joining the fraternity as much as it is not having the strength to walk away during the pledging process. I wish I had had the strength to call out the upperclassmen on their behavior and simply quit, to recognize that the process was not consistent with my values and how I thought people should be treated. But, I was 18, and, more importantly, I wanted to belong.

Wanting to belong is a powerful force, more powerful than most of us are ready to acknowledge. It feels good to identify with something larger than ourselves. And, often, it is a good thing. But, this compulsion to belong to the group, to be “one of the guys” is also how unfair, unethical, and sometimes illegal behavior gets overlooked. Abuses get excused. The weak are picked on. Hurts are passed on from one group to another, one generation to another, all in the name of tradition or honor or some other bullshit like that.

I tried to change the system when it was my turn to be an upperclassman in the fraternity. I actively worked against the other fraternity members, telling pledges all the “secrets,” preparing them for “surprises,” and doing anything else to make their lives easier. The pledges were thankful at the time, but, the following year, they turned into some of the worst hazers I ever saw. They went along with the program, even though they professed to hate it. I guess the pull of the group, of belonging, had erased their memories. The group, with all its attendant power and social significance, justified the behavior, the mistreatment of others. It was a cycle of abuse.

A few years after I graduated, my fraternity was kicked off campus. When I learned the news, I said good riddance in my mind, my fraternity swag long abandoned. Ultimately, it was all stupid stuff, most hazing is. What’s not insignificant, though, are the mental gymnastics most folks engage in to excuse the bad behavior, all in the name of belonging. In the end, I learned that it’s great to want to belong, but it’s even better to know when you don’t.