Last week I flew to California to celebrate the wedding of my college roommate with about 20 of our old friends and take in a college football game. It was great to see my college buddies and catch up with what they’ve been up to over the almost twenty years since I graduated. The addition of spouses and children really added a sharp kick of reality to the proceedings, but it was fun to see little xeroxes of my friends running around chasing frisbees and footballs while the adults reminisced.
I have returned to Stanford many times since graduation, but for the first time this trip I was struck by some strong pangs of regret. Don’t get me wrong. I was also filled with pride to be associated with the good works that are coming out of that institution. As I walked around campus it was easy to see the investments that are being made in cutting-edge thinking on issues of environmentalism, sustainability, materials science, computer science, entrepreneurship and medicine. My regret stemmed from the fact that I didn’t take better advantage of my time there.
I wouldn’t trade my college years for the world. California was the fine grit sandpaper that rounded off the edges of a reactionary redneck Reagan Republican teenager by exposing me to issues, new ways of thinking and, most importantly, people that I had never encountered in my provincial past. Some things have taken several decades to get through my thick skull, but I think I’ve come a long way from the dumbass who hung a rebel flag in his freshman dorm room. In a dorm that adjoined Ujamaa, the African American Studies theme House. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
But I wish that I had focused more on my academic experience. Sure, I graduated with Honors in History, but I only became a History major after running smack dab into Linear Algebra and Organic Chemistry in the same academic quarter. Faced with the grueling grind of a “techie” curriculum ahead of me, I realized that because I had taken the History track of the required freshman Western Civilization courses, it turned out that I was already almost 1/3 of the way to satisfying the requirements of a History major. Suddenly, Ta-daah, I was a member of an academic department.
I guess it’s normal not to remember many details of your coursework, unless you are supposed to be building bridges or performing brain surgery. But I find I can’t remember much at all about my academic experience, and I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a single professor who remembered me five years after I graduated.
I was more focused on the interpersonal experiences of college life: the parties, late night discussions about music and politics in the hallways of the dorm, attending sporting events and soaking up all the entertainment opportunities that being a twenty-something in the Bay Area had to offer. Again, it was an amazing experience I recognize that I was blessed.
On the whole, I skated through academically. I rarely started studying before midnight, partially because I didn’t want to miss out on what was going on in the various rooms of my dormmates and also because I felt it was important to project some effortless image of never needing to crack the books when anybody was actually watching. I took classes on Zen Buddhism, Human Sexuality, Automotive Technology, Astronomy, Windsurfing, Sailing, Golf, Tennis and Volleyball.
I signed up for a lot of hours every quarter, so I found myself finished with all my graduation requirements with two quarters left in my senior year. Did I take advantage of these six months to stretch myself in new academic directions or begin graduate studies? No. I stayed up later every night, rolling out of bed just in time for lunch, taking my food tray back up to my room to watch CHiPs, Love Boat and Fantasy Island every afternoon. Then I’d usually fix myself a pitcher of lemonade and Southern Comfort and pretend that I was some sort of a charming Tennessee Williamseque alcoholic writer while I worked on my honors thesis for a couple hours.
What a waste! By being so academically lazy, I denied myself the opportunity to possibly discover something that really moved me or that I was really good at. Those two “gut” classes in Automotive Technology and Astronomy? They were actually very rigorous courses taught under the auspices of the Engineering and Applied Physics departments, and I enjoyed them immensely. They were also the only two A+’s that I earned during my college career.
But did I pursue them? Did I try to explore areas of academia that were foreign to me or that stimulated me? No. Instead I retreated back to the world of the 15 page paper where if you could write persuasively and stick to your thesis, you could pretty much coast by with an A- in just about every History class without cracking half the books on the reading list.
I never took a single creative writing class to learn to use this gift of gab for good instead of mediocrity. I didn’t even take any classes in the English department at all, denying myself access to the incredibly talented and passionate instructors that I heard all my “fuzzy major” friends rave about.
What the hell was wrong with me?! I realize with profound regret that I could have written for the humor magazine and hung out with some of the funniest, most entertaining people I have ever met. You’ve heard of them. Their names roll up the screen at the end of “The Simpsons” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”
Instead, I passed my days buying history books which still reside in boxes in my basement, their virginal spines unbroken despite several moves from house to house. I’m pretty sure I haven’t read five historical books for pleasure since I graduated eighteen years ago. What makes me think that now I’m finally going to bust the hymen on “Labor Unions and Economic Determinism in Brazil and South Africa Between the World Wars?” Oh wait, I wrote that one. It was my honors thesis. Now I know I won’t be reading it. Unless I forget to refill my Ambien prescription.
Obviously, I’ve lost some of that ability to stick to my thesis. Now I write to entertain myself and possibly a few deranged feed-reader readers. I just wish I’d started earlier.
Stanford was a gift that I should have embraced and squeezed every bit of opportunity out of. Then I could have shared it with others instead of just looking back with regret. Actually, it’s not even regret. It’s full-on remorse, because that implies a sense of guilty responsibility and a greater feeling of personal pain and anguish. I have nobody to blame but myself.
Sorry about that $80 grand in tuition, Dad. It was really more like a cover charge.