It was obvious the world had changed. Something very different was going to take its place. Geopolitically, it meant the end of the Cold War, the formulation of what some called the New World Order, and a brand new archvillain named Saddam Hussein. And into this brave new world, in August 1990, I started college. I’d been dreaming of that moment for the better part of twelve years.
It all fell apart in eight days.
Move-in day was August 25. Saturday. Unpile the laundry hamper full of stuff, the wipe-off board and the answering machine, meet my roommate in person (whose last name was a straight-up racial slur, in the heart of Alabama, the poor bastard). Registration for classes was Monday or Tuesday, I don’t remember which. There was actually some sort of organized square dance Wednesday night, which was a show, and then Thursday was the first day of class.
Unfortunately, I think I botched the whole “embrace the value of liberal arts” thing – I took some sort of honors seminar about technology in the 20th century, Intro to International Relations (first course for the major!), a German course (may as well, while it’s fresh from high school!) and Calculus II. I have absolutely no idea what the hell I was thinking there. In retrospect, the best thing I could have done was actually take a math-based statistics course (as opposed to the social-science variety, which consisted mostly of learning how to operate SPSS-PC rather than understanding anything about how statistics were used in the social sciences). Instead, I plunked myself into a 4-month ass-beating at no additional charge.
If that were all that happened – a couple of dubious course choices – there wouldn’t be much to talk about. But Thursday was also the first day of fraternity and sorority rush. Having gone to all six of the summer rush parties, I felt like I had a pretty good sense of what was going on. Of the six fraternities, I felt there was one with which I dovetailed perfectly, so I didn’t put too much thought into the others. It was the “smart” fraternity. The others were, in no particular order: the utter drunkard slackers, the snotty rich kids, the Confederate Army in exile, the hapless wannabes, and the generic jock huge-pledge-class-of-last-resort crowd. At some level, I must have thought it would naturally work out – after all, once you set aside commuters and adult studies students, and scratched the vast majority of the varsity athletes, fine arts majors, and international students, literally every other guy on campus was in one of the fraternities, and it was obvious where I ought to be slotted.
Basically, the way it worked was that for a couple of nights, you would go around to the various houses – the first night, every house for a half hour, the next night, more or less where you liked. After that, you would get invitations back to the houses that really wanted to recruit you, and then bids on Sunday, which led to a riotous drunkfest Sunday night with all the fraternities and sororities and their new pledges down on Fraternity Row. The only hiccup in the process would be if you somehow failed to get any invitations for Saturday night.
Saturday afternoon, I was hanging around my dorm room, as instructed. My roommate had already gotten his bid – there was nothing to keep fraternities from giving out bids the first day, unlike the strictly regimented system the sororities used – so I was left to my own devices. And I got a knock on the door, and it was the rush advisor, who told me he didn’t have any invites for me. And then – odd what you remember from half a lifetime ago clear as day – he actually said “Maybe you should get off campus for a while.”
That was Saturday, September 1…the eighth day of my college career.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have been at the registrar on Tuesday morning (Monday was Labor Day, to allow the pledges to sleep off their inaugural hangovers) and withdrawn from classes. I think Bama was on the quarter system, and I certainly could have been enrolled in time for the Tennessee game – of course, heaven alone knows what would have become of me in the land of the Machine, but that’s another story altogether. Or maybe I punt the semester, take some classes at UAB to kill time, work on actually finding and applying to the right kind of schools, and start fresh the following fall.
Half a life ago, though, I didn’t know what I know now, not by a long shot. I didn’t grasp the extent to which independents got frozen out of the system, nor the degree to which the college offloaded the whole of life outside the classroom to the Greeks. I just knew I needed to grasp for something, quick. And as it turned out, I knew a girl in the freshman dorms from Governor’s School a year earlier, and she said her roommate had a crush on me. And, like any immature enneagram 6, I was helpless in the face of a girl who expressed an interest, and I gladly took the plunge. Six years later, my first big group of Internet friends would know her as “She Whose Name We Dare Not Speak,” the girl whose obsessive sense of jealousy got combined with my own insecurity to prevent me forging the ties with other people that might have carried me through the ensuing four years without developing the aspect of a genocidal maniac.
The moral of the story is twofold. One is to avoid making snap decisions in a moment of panic or weakness, without a full consideration of the issues and problems involved, because you will invariably do something dumb in the course of your freakout. The other is something I would have known if I’d paid more attention to Kenny Rogers growing up: know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.
I can tell you this, though: I’d send any child of mine to the University of Al-Qaeda, all expenses paid, before I’d ever let them enroll at Birmingham-Southern College.