College is the great divider for the white middle class of this country. We’ve gotten to the point where we take education for granted: if you have enough money, you know you’ll be going to university. We’ve forgotten that so many people are robbed of the opportunities we have and we focus on the piddly details. We have been sucked into a vortex of materialism and false achievements. I wish I could tell every kid applying to college that the most important thing is not where you go to college, but the choices you make when you get there. The friends you choose and who choose you. The classes you take and the student productions you see, and the parties you don’t miss. I look back at high school and I see a kid told what to think her entire life — a guppy given three servings of another’s ideology every day, sprinkled mechanically into her fishbowl. I see a kid told to drink the college koolaid— and then, miraculously, didn’t.
People have been asking me where I wanted to go to college since I was twelve years old. Other than the obvious fact that, you know, a twelve year old has no f#$%ing clue, I knew early that the great deciding factor of your entire life was how you decided to answer that question. The answer was the culmination of everything you worked for, academically and otherwise. The answer was what you and your parents aspired to proclaim on Christmas cards. It was the best proof you could offer to yourself and to the world that you had grasped the most important vestige of the intellectual American dream. As I got older, though, I realized the not-so-subtle cracks in the façade. I began to see the ideas I was being spoon fed just weren’t true. I saw clearly that it was never a fair race from the onset, that it really doesn’t matter how well you did in school or how many sports you played. The only thing that matters is how you made yourself the most visible and star studded. The most disgusting human beings I know got into the best colleges. They received entry to the hallowed halls from whence we are told spawn the minds that will lead us in the next generation. And they do so because they decided early that they wanted to play the game and win. They chose to lose their souls for the tallest towers, for sushi lunches with authors, and for maybe a college ring with some shiny Latin letters they couldn’t decipher anyway.
College Fever came on in junior year. It was an unavoidable illness that everyone succumbed to. People at my school used to live in the college office — eat their lunches there, gossip, ensure that their essays were read first. Girls who were bullies in middle school suddenly became leaders of buddy groups for younger girls. There was an upsurge in cheating: suddenly, the history quizzes meant something, the chemistry lab results became grossly decisive. Every moment of every day felt like preparation for some nefarious judgement always lodged in our disfavor.
I did all the college trips. I saw the leafy campuses; I was told how I could major in both the flute and composting. I was told about famous alumni and how invested the deans were in whether I succeeded or failed. I filled out so many applications that I still find them on my hardrive and flash back in horror to 4 a.m. nights of my senior year. I stopped sleeping; I became addicted to coffee; and I developed a nasty tendency to attack people in my English class for their underdeveloped reading comprehensions. And I now realize that a lot of this is my fault: I should never have let it get that bad. But like everyone I know, this is what I felt I had to do. To modify Kate Moss: Nothing tastes as good as winning feels.
But winning isn’t everything. In fact, even better than winning sometimes is opting out. In the end I did go to college. But after all that hell, I decided to run away. In March I applied to a place called the University of St Andrews, a place on the chilly Scottish coast that is 600 years old that no one in the United States has usually heard of. I got in, went on spring break, came back, woke up one day and accepted the offer. It was beyond a long shot. I had visited, but I knew next to nothing about it. Scotland? Braveheart? Queen Mary? Britz? Accents? Different spelling? I was taking the greatest risk with the thing that was supposed to be the most important choice of all. I was supposed to lock myself in Massachusetts. I was supposed to watch the leaves change from my small liberal arts campus with friends that wore Patagonia and Sperry’s. I was supposed to go to a place fully entrenched in the American White Trajectory.
I got lucky. I took a chance; I ran away from everything that I had ever been told to want. Escape is a funny thing because you begin to see even more clearly the things that trapped you. You see the reasons you believed what you did and begin to see the impetus and roots of folly. I strongly believe that America needs to re-evaluate its collegiate entry system. It reinforces all the things that we are trying to teach our kids not to do: to cheat, to lie, to sacrifice everything because of someone else’s impressions of you. College is about having an essential life journey; it’s about going out on your own, learning who you want to be and how you can get there. It’s about discovering the basis of your life going forward; it’s a gift that is all too easily squandered on ulterior issues. Getting into college shouldn’t be about clamoring over your peers; it shouldn’t induce the kind of misery it does. In the end, all anyone really has is the person they become. And that person better be someone you’re prepared to live with, because no Yale diploma can make up for rotting from the inside out.
So if you’re applying to college this fall, think about how you’re going to do it. Pride is a good quality- it makes us feel worthwhile in our chosen paths. But the collegiate race is a perfect sign that something within the american consciousness needs to change. As my grandfather always said, the world doesn’t need smarter people. It needs kinder ones.