Friday Jukebox: Matt the Electrician’s “College”
Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.
At the age of 21, I dropped out of college for a lot of reasons I couldn’t explain and the very good reason that my heart would break if I had to live so far away from Jaybird for another whole year.
At the age of 22, I never wanted to go back and I was so incredibly glad to be free of all those reasons-I-couldn’t-yet-have-
At the age of 25, I finished my undergraduate degree. Not because I particularly wanted to, but because my new boss thought it was a good idea, and I wanted to soothe both my husband and the various parental figures in my life, who were becoming increasingly worried that I never would, and that I might thus someday end up POOR AND ALONE. (I had, actually, been poor, and had felt pretty fucking alone -- and while it sucked an awful lot, it wasn’t as bad for me as college was; but you couldn’t tell them that.) It was easier to go through a year of just about anything I was good at (no matter how much I hated it) than to watch them worry any longer. It was only a year. I never had to do it again. I was lucky to have a lot of good teachers that year, and a lot more ability to defend myself from the system. It was hellish, but we survived. (Seriously, hellish. I worked manual labor 10 hours a day for six months before my bosses let me sell stuff, and mixed manual labor / retail for 10 hours a day after that, before I went back to school. School was worse. I clung to every small and exquisite joy I could find in that year, because I’ve never been able to learn anything in a moment where I’m not happy; yet still, throwing all of those pebbles of ecstasy onto the scale… school was worse.)
At the age of 30, I was incredibly glad that my dream job was open to me because I had that all-important piece of paper. And I liked being back at college, as long as I didn’t have to be in the system itself. I thought of myself (still think of myself) as working in parallel to it, and subversively. I tell myself that I can help people who need what they’re getting more than what we’re taking away, by valuing what’s being lost, and supporting their efforts to hang on to it -- that overall I do more good as a (small, self-regarding, not-always-very-effective) anodyne than I would in overt boycott.
At the age of 32, I started seriously thinking about grad school. Libraries were what I wanted to do. If we ever moved away from where I work now, I might not have many options without a professional degree. Did I really want to ruin my life because I wasn’t willing to ruin my life? I was pretty damn pissed off that my far more competent and knowledgeable officemate was always going to have fewer options than I did, because she went into our profession straight out of high school, but, well. Not like anyone without even a master’s degree was ever going to convince higher ed administrators that college degrees are only one way of proving competency.
At the age of 33, I spent three days furiously writing applications to the three grad schools of my choice, listening to the song above on repeat almost the entire time. I played the game; I thought about what they wanted to hear and I followed all the directions they gave me. But I told them the truth, too. A few months later, I heard from my “reach” school: the one we probably couldn’t have afforded; the one I didn’t even write the additional scholarship essay for; the one I thought really cared the most about the stuff I cared about too. They sent me a letter offering me a full-tuition scholarship. I opened the letter at work. Just about five minutes later, I barricaded myself in my best work friend’s office and freaked out. At length. I could barely face going back to school. How the hell was I going to to go back to school if I felt like I was on trial the entire time? Obviously, I couldn’t take their money. My friend was patient with me. He told me I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to, but they offered me, in all my me-ness, that scholarship, not someone else. Was it maybe worth it to see if they meant what they said?
At the age of 35, I still hate school. I still have a year left. (Actually, a little more than a year. I had some horrible family stuff happen this year, and I need to rest this summer. Luckily, the three people in charge of letting me take a bit longer aren’t the kind of people who’ve been ingested by the system; and luckily, I’m not nearly as terrified of the system as I used to be. Being a grown-up does help.) I’m still exceptionally good at the things school asks you to do (both producing, and learning); I’m still the kind of person people point at when they say “it doesn’t matter what path you take through college, it matters what you put into it”; and I still feel, almost all the time, as though I am a knife’s edge away from letting the system grind me up and spit me out.
I do stupid things, sometimes, to stay on the right side of that knife. Tonight (Monday) I stayed up too late, read what you all had to say on the symposium posts so far, and wrote this essay. In four hours, I’ll get up too early, prepare, present, and record an oral prospectus of the twenty-page paper I have to write this month for one of my classes, and then walk half-a-mile to my real job. And even though I work in a college library, I’ll be singing along with Matt the Electrician every step of the way.