Chapter I: How Did I Get Here?

colllegeNote to readers:  What can I say?  A lot, apparently.  This started off as a simple post back in January, but it was a slow day on the work front and it was too damned cold to go outside if I could help it.  As a result, I found several hours later that I had run on for better than 3,600 words about how I was a lousy student in college and lived to tell the tale…and I hadn’t even gotten around to getting kicked out the second time or how it came to pass that I did get a college degree.  The first draft was such a hot mess that I let it sit for nearly a month before mustering the courage to come back to it. After looking at it again, I decided that the first part – 2,900 words – was not so much about how I screwed off in college (though there’s plenty of that) as they were a general recounting of how I’ve been “different” from way back. I could – probably should – have simply pitched the whole thing over the side, but since I’d wasted so long writing so much I decided to at least post the somewhat intelligible part as Chapter I of what may – or may not – be a series of posts about my youthful indiscretions (the ones I can cop to anyway).

Readers of a certain age may enjoy the result as a trip back to the 1970s and any parent of any child can now console him or herself with the words, “At least I’m not Austin’s parent.”  No matter what, that’s true.

I mostly look for ways to differentiate myself from David Brauer (and, I suspect, he from me), but I found a kindred spirit in his confessional about his failure to graduate college on schedule back in the 1970s.  In my case, it took 7 years, three institutions and the assistance of an entire village of friends, mentors and family to get one under-achieving slacker his undergraduate degree.  But for that assistance I suspect that I, too, would have been a long time going back to finish.  I’ve bored my family and friends many times by recounting my college career so why not you too.

To understand how I came to be a such a classic college fuck-up, I think you have to go with me back to 8th grade and my 4th period science class presided over by Ms. Behle.  Ms. Behle and I didn’t like each other from the start: she thought she knew something about teaching the principals of scientific inquiry and I – the son of a physicist and the younger brother of a brilliant engineer-to-be – thought I knew more.  We knocked heads on everything from the correct form of a thesis statement to the proper way to clean out test tubes.  Looking back, I’m sure I was a HUGE smart-ass and she was probably a long-suffering nice lady just trying to herd another class of hormonally challenged teenagers through another year of blandly dumbed-down curriculum.  At the time, though, she was The Man or as close to it as I was willing to come to it in the confines of the Parkway School District in a safely suburban part of St. Louis, Missouri.

Because gym class was just before science, I often found myself running half-dressed from the locker room to the third-floor science lab during the 5 minutes between periods.  On the day that turned out to be an inflection point in my life, I came barreling down the hall with seconds to spare only to be stopped at the door by Ms. Behle who insisted that I stop and put on my shoes before entering her classroom.   Convinced that this was nothing more than a tactic to keep me in the hall long enough to make me officially tardy (and thus eligible for another detention which I was starting to earn with depressing regularity), I jammed my toes into my shoes, mashed down the heels and ducked in just under the wire.  I sat down (then – as now – I was a backbencher) and promptly took off my shoes (“They were uncomfortable!” he protests almost 40 years later).

Needless to say, Ms. Behle quickly tumbled to my Shoeless Joe act and kicked me out of class – again.  Getting kicked out of class meant a trip to the vice principal and – inevitably – a call to the parents.  These were not experiences one particularly enjoyed as my parents were very much old-school (pun intended) on the topic of education: the teacher was always right and surely any child of theirs was smart enough to figure out that being in school was a way better alternative than how they had spent big chunks of their formative years. Thus, when I presented myself at the school office and the guidance lady said, “Are you here for the entrance exam?”  I said “Yes!” even though I had no idea what she was talking about.  An entrance exam for anything – the Foreign Legion, the merchant marines, a roadside work gang – seemed like a better idea than how my afternoon and evening was otherwise likely to shape up.

It turns out that I had wandered into a one-hour screening exam for one of the local prep schools – St. Louis County Day (for Twin Citians, think Breck, Blake or St. Paul Academy but all boys, coats and ties, class size about 50).  As I found out years later, the class of 1977 was such a pain in the ass by 8th grade that the school’s administration was somewhat worried about whether they’d burn the place down before graduating.  Their solution was to kick out the ten worst troublemakers at the end of 8th grade (unless, of course, their family had a lot of money) and replace them with bright young things from around the city who might raise the classes’ overall average of scholarship (or at least be less prone to pyromania).

As background, you should probably know that in my youth I was a demon at standardized tests; there was something about #2 pencils and questions that could be asnwered by filling in little bubbles that put me in a zone.  That narrow idiot-savant ability, coupled with a lot of recreational reading (assign it and there’s was a 1-in-10 chance I’d read it; tell me it was “too advanced” or otherwise put it on one of the high shelves out of reach and I’d near kill myself trying to get a hold of it), meant that I had a broad if spotty vocabulary and an ability to extemporize (read “bullshit”) on almost any topic regardless of actual specific knowledge thereof (hence my eventual job, hence this blog, hence this posting).  These “skills” made me a test-taking machine.

My “plan” that day worked far better than I’d hoped.  I not only avoided a session with the vice principal and my parents that day, the whole incident apparently fell through the cracks (or maybe the faculty and staff of Parkway North Junior High were simply quietly supportive of any idea that might get me out of their hair).  A few weeks later, my parents got a letter inviting me to participate in a day-long testing session at the school itself. Needless to say, since they’d never heard of CDS, my parents were surprised by this invitation and chose to believe – as only a parent can do – that my “initiative” in wanting to get a better education for myself was a sign of maturity beyond my years.  I didn’t have the heart – or the guts – to tell them the real story until I was well into my 30s and even then my mother simply refused to accept it.

As an aside, my mother, bless her, loved me so much that she twisted my entire long period of juvenile and young adult delinquency into a consequence of either 1) me being “bored” with school because I was just that smart or 2) brain damage caused by whatever most recent event – falling out of a tree, getting hit with a golf club, a bar fight, rolling a car, etc. – had sent me to the hospital for more stitches and x-rays.  I kind of suspect that my father, who had spent the best part of his youth trying not to be caught standing next to guys like me, knew better as early as 6th grade when he was summoned to school to retrieve me for writing an explicitly pornographic mash note to my teacher, but he mostly kept his suspicions to himself.   For years, my father considered the words of one of my many ER docs – “We x-rayed his head and we don’t see anything there.” – to be a good knee-slapper.

But I digress.

Bada-bing, bada-boom, Bob’s your uncle, the longer tests went well, the interviews were survivable and the next thing I know I’m one of the ten or so shiny freshmen who joined the CDS Class of 1977 mid-journey.  We were all scholarship kids, we were all bright and we were – mostly – thought to be better behaved than our predecessors.  I got curious about us a couple years ago and tracked done most of my cohort on the web: a couple of my classmates had gotten legitimately rich, a couple were professors and one appears to have gone into the Air Force where as best I can figure he actually had his finger on the button (and may have helped design the button to boot).  Overachievers.

I was definitely not an overachiever in high school, but I did devote a lot of time and effort to the all-important topic of “fitting in” to my new surroundings.  The kid who started freshman year in clothes purchased at great cost by his parents from the boys’ section of Sears quickly figured out the three acceptable shades of corduroy Levi’s that one could wear (and that they weren’t sold at Sears), what the right labels and rayon content were right for sports coats (no label at all was the best and zero rayon) and how to slouch in a world-weary way from class to class (God forbid we get excited about anything or let on that there was something new under the sun).  Couple those changes with some modest athletic ability that gave me teammates and – eventually – friends and I fit it pretty well.

In fact, I looked pretty damned good – on paper – to a college admissions officer.  I had very high SAT scores, a relatively high class ranking, athletics, extracurriculars, recommendations, the works.  In fairness to me, I got a lot out of my CDS experience and I’ve come to believe that getting kicked out of Ms. Behle’s 8th grade science class was one of the best things that ever happened to me.   I applied to 8 colleges, got into all of them, and decided where to go based on where my best friend was accepted (we roomed together freshman year).  Strong decision making skills at work there (though it was perhaps better than my first thought to go where my girlfriend was going; she thought that was such a stupid idea she broke up with me).

In truth, however, I was an academic disaster waiting to happen.  What looked like discipline and focus to an admissions committee was in reality a wonderful support system provided by my parents, a healthy fear of their wrath, a very intimate high school environment in which likeability counted for a lot (trust me, I didn’t pass two years of calculus on brains) and simple dumb luck (it is a miracle that I – or more horrifyingly someone else – didn’t die some Friday or Saturday night during my junior and senior years of high school).  I had no idea why I was going to college other than it seemed like the thing to do and better than the alternatives.  I was interested in everything and nothing in particular and I found the idea that people would go to class when there was still beer to drink and drugs to ingest charmingly quaint.

Given the attitude I brought to it, it’s probably not a surprise that I loved college. In my first five minutes on campus I found myself in the middle of a huge rave (before we knew to call it that) in the courtyard of my dorm organized by one of my classmates who – brilliantly – took his hundred dollars in expense money given to him by his parents and bought 5 kegs of beer.  He charged everybody $5 and made something like $5,000 that afternoon that became the seed money (pun again intended) of a thriving drug dealership.  When I expressed my admiration for his performance in this matter, he leaped into my arms, licked my cheek and shoved a bong shaped like an ape (“It’s a King Kong bong!”) into my hand.  Fifteen minutes into freshman week and I was drunk, stoned and had a kid from New York named John Wayne was vamping like Fay Wray in my arms.

Hey, it was the ’70s.  If it makes you feel any better, later that afternoon I met my wife.

Freshman week gave way to the first week of classes, fall gave way to winter and I gave way to just about anything that came out of a tap or a bottle or was distributed in a baggie.  During all of freshman year I attended exactly 17 classes including initial meetings, exams and finals.  That count doesn’t include the two times I was sleeping in a classroom (because it was too far to go back to my dorm room) and the professors didn’t feel the need to wake me (I snored way less in those days).  I made it through all of fall water polo and most of the winter swimming season before concluding that sports was interfering with poker, sex, drinking and drugs to an unhealthy degree.  There was always a poker game in the kitchen or at one of the frats, there’s was an open bar somewhere every night of the week and at least once a week John or Terry or Curtis or Ted would say something like, “Try this and tell me what it does.”

And, while I’d still managed to pass a majority of my courses (5 out of 8), three were marked “I” for incomplete which I explained to my parents “happened all the time.”  As I was the first member of my family to attend college (my father put himself through night school after he was married and working), my parents accepted this with the same loving trust that had kept them turning a blind eye to my earlier transgressions. It was simply beyond their conception that one of their kids would fuck up the chance to do nothing but study whatever interested them and to learn from people who’d spent their lives becoming experts in their fields.

Sophomore and junior years were actually worse (or better depending on your point of view).  I can’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure I maybe passed another five courses in each year.  I do remember that my hall mates at one point reported me missing because they hadn’t seen me in three weeks (my girlfriend lived in a much more convenient dorm).  I remember being arrested for organizing a party that we held in our freshman dorm rooms without informing their current occupants of our plans (that year’s freshmen had such a low sense of humor).  I also remember being shirtless backstage at a Neil Young concert, but not quite sure as to why or how.  I remember working a lot at the school cafeteria (dubbed the “Ratty” for both its hygiene and its menu) and my sense of accomplishment in mastering the “cups and garbage” position on the dirty tray line.  And that the TV version of Battlestar Galactica sucked.

That’s about it.

Needless to say, my collegiate administrators were not persuaded that either my analysis of Loren Greene’s portrayal of Adama nor my ability to keep up on cups and garbage even when Big John fed the line constituted scholarship (though if I’d thought to recruit a faculty member to sponsor an independent study project on either topic they might have flown) and thus “suggested” that I “re-evaluate my attitude toward academia” for at least a year.  If, at the end of that period, I thought my attitudes had changed I could re-apply for readmission.  This development, in the form of a stiffly worded letter from the Dean of Something or Other, came as shock to my poor trusting parents and I’m convinced that the only reason I’m here today to tell the tale is that I was 1,500 miles away when my father got the news. And, in what may be proof of the divine and that she cares for fools, I was 3,000 miles away when he got the second such letter (but more on that later).

As you can imagine, at this point in my life I needed another brilliant plan similar to the one I came up with back in 8th grade that saved me from the assistant principal and my parents, a distraction that would fool them into thinking their darling boy wasn’t a complete cock-up.  Turns out I’d been working on one even before I knew exactly why I would need it.

In short, my ass was saved by the mother of one of my best friends.

Tune in next week…or next month…or maybe never…for Chapter 2 of the long, tortured story of my youth, how I lived to tell the tale and how not to be a role model for your or anyone else’s children.

Same bat channel, same bat time.

– Austin

13 thoughts on “Chapter I: How Did I Get Here?

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    You have opened a vein sir! I know what all the cyberspectators are thinking: “Proustian” !! (Although like just about everyone else I stalled on about page 40 of astmatic wordsmith’s celebrated opus back in my distant college days.) Proving once again a youthful f**k-up can master adulthood. Well done. Await volume Two.

  2. Dennis McGrath says:

    It is (with apologies to the Bard) a far, far better thing you do now than ever you have done before. Reminds of so many good memories from my Catholic boyhood. The father of the sodden drunk down the street who predicted that both his son and I would be shot before the age of 21. Or the time when, as a 138 lb 17 yr old, I was beaten so brutally by an adult thug the neighborhood feared that I stumbled the 10 blocks home in my blood drenched white sweater only to have my dad beat the hell out me again for getting involved with such awful people. Or when the other 5th graders made fun of me on the playground for not getting math and an older nun stepped in and said: “Some day the world will hear the bellow of this dumb ox.” Faint praise indeed though the original quote was about Thomas Aquinas.

    Looking forward to part 2, but don’t turn J D Salinger on us.

    1. Dennis –

      You and I must be related somewhere in the past. Two of my maternal uncles died in bar fights, my paternal grandfather was tree-shade mechanic who hopped up cars for moonshiners in northern Mississippi and once, in first grade, when I was getting the crap beat out of me by a girl a teacher thought it was about the funniest thing she’d ever seen. Gotta be some shared ancestry somewhere.

      – Austin

  3. PM says:

    Ahhh, the daisey’s. I do remember them fondly. But, I think that jon has perhaps sold short the gap between Parkway and CDS–after all, CDS is a school that was featured by Domhoff in “Who Rules America?” (http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/) as one of the great bastions of WASP culture, having produced some 4 US Senators. ….

    And, despite that dress code, I never saw such a sloppy group of guys! The coats in particular were always unbelievably ratty.

    1. Yes, PM is a graduate of our arch rival and well-acquainted with our foibles. And, he is accurate in describing us as sloppy. Almost every boy in each Class (Class VIII was 5th grade, Class I was 12th) wore Levis corduroys (no jeans allowed), Docksiders (no sneakers), button-down shirt, one of their father’s ties and the same jacket day after day. Usually, we just kept the same tie – it was never unknotted, just loosened enough to slip over our heads – and jacket in our locker and put them on each morning. I wore a lot of checked flannel shirts and a striped tie so I was not ever voted “best dressed” in any my high school years.

      Generally, the faculty was fairly relaxed about enforcing the dress code, but one teacher – Mr. Duncan, a math teacher who had one side of his body partially paralyzed in a car accident – specialized in the “top button must be buttoned” rule by grabbing a student by the hair and lifting him up on his tiptoes until he could get the button done up. You could generally avoid him because the sound of his metal leg brace clicking down on the floor and then dragging across the linoleum carried a long way down the hall, but if you weren’t paying attention or if he was lying in wait behind a doorway (which he actually did), you were screwed.

      – Austin

      1. PM says:

        Yes, you guys were masters at subverting the intent of the dress code!
        (were socks required?) And there seemed to be a thing for old tweed jackets….)

        We had no dress code, other than clothes were to be in “good repair”, so too many holes in the jeans were out.

        1. “Colored” socks were required and jackets were generally either blue blazers or tweeds. I had one particularly hideous corduroy jacket that I wore most of sophomore year. And, yes, we tried to be as slovenly and sloppy as possible while still technically in compliance with the dress code. The all-girls school next door (the schools has since merged) required students to wear skirts and blouses, stockings and closed-toe shoes with heels below a certain height. The young ladies were not as slovenly as we were but had their own running battles with their faculty (which was much more strict than ours). Skirt length was always a hot spot of contention if I remember right.

          – Austin

          1. PM says:

            “The girls from the institute….”. They did indeed dress much better than you guys!

            I knew some guys who would go to the Salvation Army store and get particularly hideous old suit coats….

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