I actively applied to three undergraduate institutions – Vanderbilt was the one I wanted, Alabama was the safety school, and there’s the one I ended up attending. Obviously, if I had it to do over, I would have taken the 75% tuition scholarship Vanderbilt offered, but for whatever reason, I didn’t feel like I could go somewhere that hadn’t really made much of a run at me when I had a full-tuition offer from a school that had been in my mailbox twice a week for two years.
And yet, there was a brief moment when I actively thought that Alabama would be a better choice than where I wound up. Which, well, no. Not a chance. To go from a gifted magnet school of 200 to a state university of 20,000 would have been an abject disaster, even before taking the Machine into consideration or the fact that I would be fitting myself even more for a life in a small and stagnant pond. Tuscaloosa was an hour’s drive away. Mostly the same TV stations. Hell, some of the same radio stations. I wound up going to college closer to home than I’d gone to high school, but even so, one county over wouldn’t have made enough difference.
But in retrospect, even though I was a horrible culture fit and never should have accepted my offer, my undergraduate institution was at least surmountable. I didn’t have to work appreciably harder at the academic side of things – sure, the papers were longer and I had to type them in WordPerfect and print them out, but I figured that out by the end of the first semester (the one good thing about calculus is that it didn’t have a lot of papers to write). Other than that? I’d been using the UAB library as my high school library for four years, and took nothing but AP classes my senior year, so it wasn’t a huge adjustment. And it was still Birmingham – there was nothing new to discover, but at least I knew where the malls and the grocery stores were.
Over this past summer, while the blog was down, I did play around with the notion of “what if I’d gone for UC San Diego?” I might could have gotten in, back in 1990, and might even have gotten some sort of scholarship. I could probably have established residence with my aunt, although I don’t know how the rules worked on that, and I would have at least had someone to go to for a home cooked meal and laundry help in a pinch. Maybe the system of residential colleges would have given me a more scalable experience than twenty thousand in undergrad. Maybe…
I remember corresponding with a dear friend far away in 1992, discussing my discontent, and she wrote that most colleges are pretty well equipped to help young men thrive and survive (I suspect there was feminist snark in that statement that I completely missed) and if mine wasn’t, she could only offer two words of advice: “persevere” and “transfer”. Nevertheless, it’s entirely conceivable to me that I could have found myself somewhere farther and better – Berkeley, Columbia, Brown, maybe even potentially (oh god) Stanford – and run headlong into the fish problem, and realizing that a solid if wounded shark in the Alabama pond would be a minnow in the ocean of a top national university. And I can completely see myself having a condensed version of my Vanderbilt experience, flaming out, and falling back to Earth in a way that I never would have recovered from.
There is an edit, in other worse, where I needed to achieve gradual escape velocity. Going too far too fast would have only resulted in a truly spectacular flame-out. And I’ll buy that, certainly. For someone who has lived for years by the credo of “things can always get worse,” a Lucifer-grade fall from heaven is entirely plausible.
The ironic thing is, a small residential liberal-arts college with division-III athletics is probably just what I did need. It’s certainly what I re-imagined for myself while I was there. In fact, the current state of my undergraduate alma mater, with its twee on-campus stadium for non-scholarship regional football, is just exactly the sort of institution I probably would have survived and thrived at almost anywhere else. Except for the minor fact that I actually did go there, and it was nothing of the sort, and I suspect deep down hasn’t changed at all where it counts.
It’s tough not to reflect on this in September, when the beginning of school has always been the pivot point of my fiscal year as student or employee or football fan. But there’s no fixing it, there’s no solving it, there’s no having it over again. Like so much of the black hole, all there is for it is to lay the plywood over and put up the safety fence and the orange cones, and make sure to go around rather than falling in. I suppose it’s human nature to look over once in a while and see what’s in the hole, but it doesn’t do any good to stare into it.
I’m getting better at that. More than it may seem. I don’t know that I’ll ever get well, but who ever really does?