I saw this line as a book title once, and I thought it really fit how I’ve felt so many times in my life. It all seemed important at the time. It’s not really important now, but it did really seem important at the time.
I think about that line a lot when I think about my college. Not my graduate experiences, which were each great but also extremely difficult at the same time. Now that I teach graduate students, I tell the students that if they don’t cry at least once a semester during graduate school, they’re not doing it right.
Undergraduate was a different story. I saw this list recently that asked what marks you as an American, and one of the things was that you say the words “college experience.” I mean that is drummed into you from the youngest age. College experience. College is the best four years of your life. The friends you make in college are the best ones you’ll ever make in your life. After that four years of college, nothing will ever top that. I mean that’s what we’re sold after all. Is that actually true? I’m sure it is for some people for at least a little bit of time after college but eventually the real life sets in and everything changes and flips around a million times.
At 18 though, you’ve been sold this and told this a million times. It all seemed important at the time. I worked extremely hard in high school at getting good grades but I didn’t end up going to the college I wanted to go to. I now work as an instructor at the college I had wanted to go to. But that’s all for another entry.
I graduated from the University at Albany in Upstate New York. I met the person who has been an extremely dear friend to me for almost 27 years at college but no one else in my life currently is from that time in my life. With very few exceptions, the people in my life are people I’ve met in the last 10 to 15 years and in the past five years, I’ve made some very close friends. When I mention where I went to college, if I ever even mention this to people, I say I went to college in Upstate New York. I hardly know anyone from New York, so this is usually sufficient.
Last weekend I went to visit another very dear friend who lives near Albany. I had taken the train through Albany and had wanted to poke around to my old haunts from 25+ years earlier. My friend was game, so off we went.
I always had a strange relationship with Albany, the university and the town. I had to live there for college but I wouldn’t have chosen to be there if it really had been up to me. I so thoroughly hated where we lived when I was in high school that the only solution I saw for that was to leave and any place was better than that place. Valhalla, New York, best seen in the dark or in the rear view mirror of your car.
I was ready to leave at 18. I mean I was ready to leave Valhalla five minutes after I started junior high school, so I was REALLY ready to leave when I was 18. The whole time I thought — I hate where we live and Albany doesn’t seem a whole lot better but at least it’s not HERE.
I remember the day it was time to leave for college really vividly. I don’t remember the drive up but I remember getting to this dorm I would be living and us just wanting to get my stuff up there and the people there saying that no, we’d have to wait a few hours. Finally we got everything up there and I met my roommate. I’m not going to write her name up here and I’m sure she’s gone off to have a new life but we were total opposites. No friendship really sprung up, but we were two strangers put in this room by some random system. She though already seemed to have a big group of friends up there. I didn’t really know anyone yet. Us sharing a room never really stopped being awkward.
That first night in the dorm was particularly hard. I remember that the phones in our dorm room had gotten hooked up incorrectly and we had to get extra long cords to correct the whole situation. I remember going to whatever Kmart or whatever large kinda box store retailer to get these phone cords. I remember going back to that dorm room really upset.
It was that time when wanting to be with your family wasn’t cool and wanting your parents to help you with things really wasn’t cool either. I guess that became my attitude too and was my attitude for a long time. Who needs your family for anything, anyway? I was 18. I had it all figured out.
Or maybe I didn’t. Certainly the people around me did. I was in a lot of ways still a child but I had a definite plan for myself and I really knew what I wanted out of life, what I wanted my life to look like.
Now if I’m really honest, I really did need my parents. The other thing that was always dragged was returning home from college. You went to college and stayed there. You didn’t wimp out and go back home. Only weak people do that.
Again, if I’m really honest with myself, I really would have just left or gone back to my parents if that had been a safe place, where they lived, if that place were even safe. I did not like having to share space. And I needed my parents a lot of the time. That made me seem weak at the time, but now I think asking for help is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do in your life.
College for me though was a tough couple of years. Academically, I was taught by some fantastic people, professors who really set me on the course that I’m on now and was after I graduated from college. But socially, I had an extremely hard time. My first year, I kinda fell in with a group of people who weren’t like me and kinda turned on me after a while. They were doing their own thing and I was alone. I inherently felt like I had really done something wrong in my life or that there was something wrong with me. My first year, my dad was paying my college tuition and he would toss me a few bucks to live on, that averaged out to about $7 a day. The people I fell in with got this strange idea that I was rich and I was ridiculed for this. It fed into how I felt, that life had just screwed me. I was cursed. My parents had too much money for me to get any kind of merit based financial aid at the colleges I had wanted to go to but here, I was much too rich. That was the great irony of it. I went to college with a radio and a not very fancy laptop. I didn’t even have a television until I was a senior in college.
I never really felt comfortable in that college culture, if I’m really honest with myself. To me it seemed really strange to party constantly and not to pay attention to your studies. One of the first times I took the bus home to see my parents from college, a woman on the bus said that the college experience would go by so quickly and it felt like an instant later, I was getting my diploma. All the partying and the drama seemed important at the time. To me though, it didn’t resemble real life in any way. No one in their real life abandons their responsibility to get drunk and party all day and then shames people who actually do care about their studies. No one does that. Engaging in that kind of behavior outside of college marks you as having really severe problems. I never understood why it was acceptable in college.
I spent a lot of college feeling like I was the only one who was lonely and confused and who really had nothing figured out yet and it would probably take me a long time to figure anything out. The message is always that you have to have it all figured out by your 20s. Once you hit 30, everything becomes impossible and forget your 40s. If you don’t have it all figured out by age 40, you may as well crawl into a hole and die.
No one tells you that the “college experience” is kinda just marketing hype and even if you have an “amazing” college experience, you will be confronted with the reality of having to go out into the world and having to manage all of that. Those friends you make in college, they may not be your friends five years later and you are probably not even going to live in the same city after college. Life is long with a lot of chapters and college, when it’s all said and done can be just this four year addition to high school if you go when you are 18, like I did. Through a lot of it, it felt like high school without parents.
Now getting back to Albany. I remember being truly intrigued by the place. It seemed to have a lot of history in it and some of places truly did look interesting. There were all of these signs of the old Albany, when it had been an industrial hub of sorts, when the city had been at its peak. There were all of these things around that said “Empire State” and had all of these plaques on it. It did seem like a place worth checking out or exploring. But at that age, at that time, going to downtown Albany to look at architecture just wasn’t done. I remember going to this noisy, smelly rock club in Albany called QE2, at the behest of a friend’s boyfriend at the time. I hadn’t yet picked up a camera or learned how to use it and I remember up the street where the club was, I saw a moderately tall building in the nighttime and I thought — that looks like such an amazing photograph. My friend’s boyfriend and his little friends were talking about some band being on MTV at midnight and how they had “sold out” and I was off staring at a building. I remember Bill Cunningham saying that he would go to church on Sunday and look at women’s hats. I was off kind of staring at photos I might take one day.
Right in downtown Albany, there’s this sort of manifestation of I guess you’d call it governmental hubris. New York’s governor in the 1960s was a telegenic fellow by the name of Nelson Rockefeller, of the oil baron/philanthropy/banking/world order controlling Rockefellers. Rocky, as he was called, had a lot of grand visions for the Empire State. He built the uptown campus of the college I went to, this sort of 1960s version of a futuristic space craft that looks sorta weird and dated now. Rocky’s first big project though was the Empire State plaza, a cluster of state office buildings in any area in Albany formerly known as “the Gut.” Rocky had cleared it out through imminent domain after a Dutch royal had visited the area. It’s kind of a sad story about what happened to that area, the old residents kicked out for this concrete bit of governmental hubris.
Again, I didn’t go to college with many people who would have wanted to discuss 1960s New York State politics with me.
Last weekend though, I finally got to poke around the plaza a bit, the entire town for that matter. I visited my freshman dorm and my dorm for the rest of college. It all looks exactly the same.
So you’ve stuck with me this far. Congratulations. Here are some pictures to reward you. I made Albany pretty. Thank me later.