At some level, I knew I wasn’t going to make it.
They always say not to do any more studying the weekend before your prelims. After all, they aren’t the sort of test you can cram for – either you know the material well enough to write on it at length, or you don’t. And I plainly didn’t. So instead of trying to make something up, I spent the last weekend driving to Cincinnati to meet my third college girlfriend in person – which is sort of like talking about Johnny Unitas’s tenure with the San Diego Chargers, or Joe Namath’s stint with the Rams, but technically it’s accurate – and then did the two big tests on Monday and Thursday, broke up with my second college girlfriend over the phone on Thursday night, and left my apartment – and Nashville – for the last time on Saturday.
I would return a total of six times. Once later that summer to let myself into the laundry room to nap for a couple of hours en route to a long overnight drive (and to use up the last bit of money on my Commodore Card). Once in 1998 to graduate, and see my dad for the last time (though I sure didn’t know it at the time). Once in 2003, to show the campus to the woman I’d marry. Once in 2006, to reload with stuff now that I had decided I could legitimately claim the school. Once in 2012, which was my emergence as a very different person than the one who left, and once the following year to show that new world to my wife.
And that was it. I haven’t been to Nashville in nine years. And the Nashville of 2022 is a wildly different place than 1997, one that more than half the residents feel is headed in the wrong direction. The town that used to be “redneck Hollywood” has become a mad hybrid of Baptist Vegas, White Girl Instagram Valhalla, and Designated Caucasian Safe Space, not to mention the magnet for every internet-famous right-winger looking for a place where they think everyone will be like them. Not that the Tennessee Legislature isn’t encouraging that in a big way; it was always safe to say that at least middle Tennessee was a cut above being in Alabama, but right this instant, I think I’d almost feel better in Birmingham than returning to Davidson County.
Here’s the thing, too…I was never really in or of Nashville. None of the pro teams were there; there was minor league hockey, the same AAA baseball, and an arena league football team, but not Predators or Titans. There was the Sucker District down on 2nd Avenue, but nothing remotely like the scene now. There was nightlife on 12th Avenue, but it wasn’t The Gulch yet. East Nashville was “yeah I wouldn’t go down there,” not a hipster paradise. The local microbrews were Gerst and Jack Daniels Amber Lager. And most of my time off campus was spent at one of the malls or in the lobbies of the Opryland Hotel, not at Rotier’s or the Exit/In or the Bluebird or the Ryman or the handful of places that predate the It City. I wasn’t in Nashville, I was at Vanderbilt.
We have a really weird idea about what makes a “good” school. For most people, it’s become measured by the US News & World Report rankings, which is kind of insane – the college guide of a defunct right-wing news magazine as the arbiter of academic excellence. And yet, it makes sense if you think about it, because most of what we think of as “good” schools didn’t get that way for academic reasons at all. Quick, name a “good” school that’s renowned for academics without being bound up in the snobbery of the moneyed elite. You’ll come up with Berkeley, a couple other UCs, maybe Georgia Tech and MIT, maybe some place like Chicago that’s just a meat grinder. Maybe you’ll come up with one of the “Harvards” – Brandeis? Notre Dame? Howard? Morehouse? Berea? – but more than likely, you’ll think Ivy. Or Stanford. Or Duke, or Northwestern, or Rice, or…Vanderbilt.
Because until maybe fifty years ago, the “good” schools weren’t academically rigorous, they were just socially elite. They were what almost every college is now, what my undergrad certainly was: a place to have your WASP rumspringa before you have to begin your drudgery of a life if you aren’t inheriting the family fortune. And once it was decided that you had to have a degree to do any job that didn’t have your name on your shirt, it largely became irrelevant where you went, unless it was once of a blessed few. The running gag in the Valley is “Harvard, MIT, Stanford, CMU, and wherever the CEO went” but I’m sure every industry has it. The cult of the Stanford dropout is the proof: it doesn’t matter where you graduate from, it only matters where you got into.
With that logic, I shouldn’t have any problem claiming Vanderbilt. I got in, even as an undergrad…hell, they offered me 75% tuition plus $2000 a year in scholarship money. It wasn’t a full ride, but that shouldn’t have made a difference, and the fact that it did is a whole other post (and a decade of therapy). By modern standards, I have everything that is required to hang out my shingle for Vanderbilt, even though these days I only do so as a hopped-up sidewalk alum who happens to have a ring.
The thing is…Vanderbilt in 2022 is trying, in a way they weren’t in the 90s. They make an active effort to recruit for diversity. They make an active effort to improve the faculty. Pace the giants of my era, there’s no comparing the overall quality of the political science faculty in my time with the faculty now. None. Vanderbilt is actively trying to be a world-class university. Which makes things awkward, because of its location and its prior circumstances. By and large, it’s not hard to be a major prestige university in California, or Massachusetts, or even North Carolina. But in Tennessee? In 2022? In a time when the state legislature is actively advocating book-burning and is one step away from rounding up witches?
It has been stated over and over and fucking over, gah in this space that what Vanderbilt does really doesn’t belong in the SEC. There are no peer institutions there, no matter how highly Florida or Texas think of themselves. There are 13 (soon to be 15) football programs that have an ancillary athletic program and a state college attached. The apotheosis of the SEC is Alabama, which has expanded its student body by 50% since my day on the sole promise that here is a plantation country club where you can experience the magic of championship football every autumn and live the kind of made-for-reality-TV excitement that is sorority rush TikTok or have the kind of frathouse party life that never has to worry about what the “woke” think. And make no mistake, that was Vanderbilt for most of the 20th century – with the added prestige of being private and having a high enough tuition bar to keep out the Riff-raff.
Maybe they’re trying to do better now on West End Avenue. I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt. But what Vanderbilt does is a bad fit for its state, its conference and quite possibly for the future of America. And to be honest, it isn’t really working for me any more. Hasn’t, for years. I gave up my Vanderbilt twitter for Lent altogether – the one with more than a thousand followers, the one where I’m known by the handle to the whole college sports blogosphere, the one that ironically led me down a path where Lent might be a thing again, of which – and I didn’t miss it. I’ve barely been back. With the coming changes to Twitter, it’s only made me realize that Twitter-in-general might be something I can live without. But Vanderbilt sports means having to interface with the SEC, the absolute rock bottom of professional sports powered by indentured servitude and covered over with rah-rah and shady money (make no mistake, if your “Name Image and Likeness” athlete can’t make the same money in a generic black and white uniform, that’s not NIL, that’s back door payroll, and Vanderbilt can’t meet the SEC standard). And if I didn’t graduate, if I’m not there, if I haven’t got any friends from that era, and if I can’t even bring myself to be engaged with the baseball program any longer…?
I say all this, to say this: I will actually be in Nashville, on campus, at Hawkins Field, on the 25th anniversary of the very day that I left for the last time. As close to literally half a life ago as makes no difference. At a time when it’s becoming very real to say that I don’t know how many more trips down South I will be making in my life. I wouldn’t be surprised to look up in five or six years and say that I never really have a reason to go to Nashville again They say time heals all wounds, but I think it’s more that given enough time, things get buried deep enough that you can pass over them without a bump and it’s not worth digging them out again. Which, in the end, is probably the same thing. The sands are high enough to pass…as long as you don’t step in the quicksand. Which you never have to worry about if you don’t go that way in the first place.
Ten years ago, I thought I might have fished something out of the black hole that I could pull all the way out, clean off, paint up and sell back to myself for more than it’s worth. Now I wonder whether I’m better off just tossing it back down the hole and forgetting about it.