Thursday, April 7, 2016

On Getting C's

The Ivy League sent out its decisions this year. If I remember right, my incoming class at Columbia in 1999 had a 17-percent acceptance rate. The number for my school is now at around 6 percent.

I had a valedictorian mindset inasmuch as I wanted to be a straight-A student in the interest of attending a top school, but I did not have a valedictorian's talent. I went to a competitive magnet program, but my GPA barely cracked a 3.5, which I'm pretty sure was below average. My SAT score was a 1450, which was average there. I was the captain of my school's quiz bowl team, but one of its less talented players. I was the head of my school's archaeology club and film society. I was an interesting, smart person, but I doubt I would have gotten in without my choice to go early admission or my legacy. (My dad was the class of '68.) And I doubt my 17-year-old self, even with a legacy, would have made the cut in 2016.

I grew up in D.C. Here's my impression of meeting people in D.C:

"Hi, my name is [name]."
"Hi, my name is ---"
"So what do you do?"
"Well, I'm a grad student at UW."
"Oh, UW...Where did you go undergrad?"
"Columbia."
"Ooooohhh!!! Columbia...I went to [name of school listed anywhere in U.S. News Report top rankings, other than Harvard]."
"Great."

These last two lines can be replaced with:

"Oooooohhh!!! Columbia...I went to [sotto voce] Harvard. Columbia is a great school"
"Yep."

This is a short way of saying that I don't like D.C. and that there is a propensity in certain circles to judge individuals' ability/worth/social utility based on your performance in high school and the sociological position you occupied in your teenage years that was necessary for you to get into and pay for -- or the willingness of you or your family to go into debt to pay for -- a school in the top rankings of the USNWRCR.

I don't want to piss on my school, or ignore what my college years meant to me. There's a complaint that professors at these schools don't care about teaching, that they only care about their research. That wasn't my experience. Some damn top professors took time out for me and my classmates, and I still call and email some of them 13 years after graduation. A few kicked my ass on writing. I related more to my college friends than I have to any group of people I've been around in the years since. They had a similar personality and sense of humor. Contrary to the stereotype, most of us weren't protesters, and I would say most of us have a relatively healthy self-awareness of what we now call "privilege". The humanities guys among us just liked talking about novels, history, philosophy, movies and politics. We talked about The New Yorker more than Judith Butler. We shared an ironic sense-of-humor. My close friends from that time all live different lives and I still keep up with some of them. There's my old comic-book buddy who went back to do his pre-med courses after graduation and is now a doctor in New York, a rabbi who works as an activist for prisoners and migrant laborers, a lawyer at the DOJ, a professor in the Spanish department at Virginia Tech, and an editor of a graphic novels imprint at a major New York publishing house. They live interesting lives. They can all list me as their friend who is now writing a dissertation on Yugoslav animation. 

Those years were also difficult. I made friends, but had a hard time convincing them to go somewhere south of 110th Street on a Friday night. I also hated a lot of the people I was around.  My freshman year was one of the unhappiest years of my life. Top schools attract a lot of sociopaths who tend to make their presence known and I had two of them on my dorm floor. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was, who was worth listening to and who wasn't. I spent an insane amount of hours at gay clubs, talking to people at those places, making out with them, sleeping with them. Those years introduced me to people who knew very different lives than I had ever known. (Gore Vidal had that line about how gay life connected people from different classes that would otherwise never have met each other. He said it more elegantly.) I spent long hours on the subway traveling to weird corners of New York. That's where I did most of the reading for my classes. (All these years later, I recognize that I was a terrible reader.)

So, I am honest enough to admit that my family did pay for a degree, for the "Columbia" name at the top of my resume. But I also believe I got more than that out of my time there. Still, you always wonder about the alternative life, and I wonder if I would have been better off, 1. going somewhere else, and 2. being a different kind of high school student, the kind that doesn't care whether or not he goes to a top school.

I make it a point not to discuss my students in any detail, but I will say one of the most interesting students I ever had went to a competitive high school where he made a B average. He spent his teenage years reading books he liked to read and practicing in a pretty good rock band. (This barely scratches the surface of what made him an interesting/extraordinary student. I'm trying not to go into detail.) If he had come from a family a bit higher up on the income ladder, he might have tried a little harder and got into a higher-ranked school. Instead, he did what interested him, and that might not have been such a bad thing. He was just as capable as any of my classmates in college, and was a lot more fun to talk to than at least 90 percent of them. What made him different? He got a few C's in high school. I wish I had allowed myself to get a few C's in high school and I wish our elite schools would consider a few C's on a report card an asset. I also wish we didn't care that much about our elite schools. I wish a good college education was free for everyone, that professors were well paid, that no class had more than 15 students, that we figured out a way to balance our students' vocational needs with our humanist expectations, that we accepted, even celebrated failures, that we provided a threshold for a decent standard of living for every student/person in the country, that we abolished grades, that the originator of the U.S. News and World Report college rankings burns in hell for all eternity, that protesters at Columbia spent a little more time in the '00s trying to stop the school's expansion into Harlem, that Bernie Sanders becomes president, that more top students were taught a trade, that we could celebrate work and craftsmanship as an end in and of itself and not as a means towards status, that attendance at a lower-ranked school brought no one shame, and that admission to a higher-ranked school brought no one pride.

Back to my cartoons.

  

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