Read an Excerpt
Where It All Begins
An Unsentimental Education
Forty-eight hours after my son’s birth, my mother gazed upon the red, wrinkled, gassy form of her first grandchild and said, almost like an incantation:
“Harvard … Princeton … Yale …”
Just like that, before he’d even pooped for the first time, someone had placed obnoxiously unrealistic educational expectations upon Elijah’s head. But when you come from a family where everyone went to college and more than one member has multiple Ivy League graduate degrees, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear “boola boola,” or some equally annoying equivalent, in the maternity ward. Note that Grandma didn’t wish the boy (who, until very recently, had been a fetus with limited educational prospects) health, happiness, or prosperity. His getting into an elite private university would provide all that automatically. It was the secular equivalent of the kingdom of heaven.
It’s probably a good idea for any kid to attend college, unless that child is LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, or maybe Taylor Swift, people who got their tickets punched in other ways. If Elijah were to be accepted, someday, to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, I’d kvell off my remaining hair. I’d also immediately begin to panic at the prospect of what the resulting debt would mean for his parents, a freelance writer and a painter with limited commercial prospects. If college were what the boy really wanted, I’d move mountains, or at least climb them, to make it happen. But my own experience leads me to want him to want more. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve found myself thinking differently.
“College ain’t so great, kid,” I said in that hospital room, in response to my mother. “Life’s about more than that.”
“I wish you’d come to that conclusion before I borrowed a hundred grand to send you to Northwestern,” Mom said.
She had me there.
With The Exception of 1983, which I mostly spent in the bathroom masturbating, my entire childhood revolved around one mission: getting into college. From age seven on, whenever I found myself having to fill out one of those “goal sheets” that seem to appear in front of you with disturbing regularity when you’re in school, I always wrote, as my primary ambition: “To get into the university of my choosing.” I also wanted to be a writer, but I thought you couldn’t possibly become a writer if you didn’t go to college. To me, they meant the exact same thing.
While kids around me were busy idolizing Axl Rose, Dan Marino, and Jesus Christ, I found myself hero-worshiping Alex P. Keaton, the character played by Michael J. Fox on An Unsentimental Education 15 Family Ties. It wasn’t Alex’s bowdlerized Reagan-era politics that attracted me, but rather, the fact that he shared my single-minded obsession with getting into college. Above all else, he was an achiever, a good student. College, sweet college, sat waiting for him at the end of the Principal’s List rainbow. That was where achievers achieved, where great minds thought alike, where the seeds of greatness germinated. When I saw Back to School at the Paradise Valley Mall in 1986, and Rodney Dangerfield exclaimed to the skies, “I’m goin’ to college! I’m goin’ to college! I’m goin’ to college!” I thought, Yes, yes, yes! Then I found myself disappointed that he wasted his college experience on throwing parties and hiring Oingo Boingo as the headliner. College, in my goal-diseased mind, was for studying and getting ahead, not fun.
In high school, I signed up for clubs that I didn’t like, ran for student council offices that I didn’t care about, and took AP classes in subjects that didn’t interest me. My ambitions were entirely focused. Not only was I going to get into the school of my choosing, I was going to get into the journalism school of my choosing. The desire to go to college got mixed up with professional ambition. By age fifteen, I’d become a self-righteous rocket of careerist obnoxiousness. My summers were spent at radio stations and newspapers, padding my résumé. I went to high school newspaper conferences, and became a reporter for the teen page of the now-long-defunct Phoenix Gazette. While members of my circle who actually knew how to be teenagers were off smoking pot and listening to decent music, I read elitist memoirs by now-forgotten New York Times editors, and thought that someday, I, too, would be a boring, cosseted, Upper East Side twit.
So when it came time to get into college, I knew where I wanted to go: Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, which had the best undergraduate journalism school in the country. I gathered my recommendation letters, traveled to Chicago, did my interview, and wrote my dopey essays with blind confidence. And then, one afternoon, I came home from school, opened the mailbox, and there was my early acceptance. I went inside, sat on the toilet, read it over and over again, and whooped with joy. I started making phone calls to tell everyone the glorious news.
I was goin’ to college, I was goin’ to college, I was goin’ to college!
Eight Months Later, I sat in a dark corner of my dorm room, my nuts tingling from excessive Everclear consumption, sobbing into my futon chair as the resident assistant rubbed my back, whispering useless platitudes. My experience at college had been thus: The guys in the room next door mocked me because I’d never heard the Public Enemy album. Then, for some reason, I rushed fraternity row so successfully that I actually got offers from two houses. But I wasn’t a frat guy. I was a sensitive artist, or at least a journalist with an artistic side. This wasn’t what I’d wanted. If anything, college seemed even more cliquish than high school, and there was no escape.
“MY LIFE IS A LIE!” I moaned.
Classes hadn’t yet started.
From there, my attitude didn’t improve much. Much of my freshman year, I was drunk and depressed, not understanding, for some reason, that alcohol actually caused depression. My sophomore year was even worse. I spent many hours walking the frozen, windswept shores of Lake Michigan and contemplating suicide, or at least dropping out. Meanwhile, I made some friends, helped start a magazine, did some okay work, drove into the city and saw some awesome midnight movies, and went to a really great Pogues concert in 1989. But that wasn’t what I’d expected from college. When I’d begun, I was happy and enthusiastic, full of school and dorm spirit, ready to take on the world. By my senior year, I was skipping classes in favor of dropping acid with punk rockers from Louisville.
The journalism school got me an internship at a restaurant trade magazine in Des Plaines, and then I saw what the mainstream working world was really like: boring and full of early risers. I wrote some columns for the school newspaper to this effect, which didn’t endear me to the dean’s office. There would be no honor roll for me at Medill. I’d spent my whole life trying to get into college, and I spent my whole time in college trying to get out.
Somehow, I graduated a semester early, and I decided to cash in my extra time by taking a cross-country trip on Amtrak. I slept for a few weeks on a friend’s couch in Bend, Oregon, and a few more weeks in a friend’s garage in San Diego. There were many stoned, meaningless days, hours in coffee houses playing backgammon, conversations with weirdos in the dining car. With the exception of a couple of mopey days where I watched an old grade-school friend have a Christian identity crisis in an on-campus apartment at Azusa Pacific University, I had more fun, and gathered more experiences, than I did in any one year of college.
Then I took the train back to Chicago to go through my graduation ceremony, even though I’d graduated in my mind long before. My grandmother wanted to see me in the cap and gown. These kinds of milestones matter in my family. So I got stoned and waved a plastic dinosaur bone around while Dick Gephardt motivated us, and then moved forward to a summer of shrooming and playing pickup basketball. Grandma would have been so proud if she’d known.
All that Bile aside, the fact that I went to college enriched my life in many ways. I took classes from at least two excellent writing teachers whose influence I draw upon even now. Some of my closest, and most loyal, friends come from that time. And it certainly hasn’t hurt my career. I made connections that helped a lot. One of my J-school teachers was the former managing editor of the Chicago Reader, where I ended up working as a staff writer for six happy years in the 1990s. From time to time, other people who I went to school with appear to give me a professional boost. There are reasons why you go to school, for sure. My naïve mistake was in believing it would be the key to my eternal happiness.
My son is seven now, and he and his friends have just begun talking about college. Their discussions usually involve two schools: UCLA, because they’ve taken some field trips there, and Barnett College, otherwise known as the place where Indiana Jones teaches. When Elijah talks about going to college, his ambitions mostly seem to be about wanting to learn a lot of different languages so that he can talk to people when he goes on archeological digs between semesters. In other words, he wants to be Indiana Jones.
This is a laudable goal, in many respects. Indiana Jones, though fictional, has an interesting life and is apparently something close to immortal. However, I want to remind my son, Indy did a lot more in his youth than just go to college. If you watch old episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which Elijah doesn’t because there’s not enough action, you’ll see that Indy, in addition to being well educated, also drove an ambulance in World War I, fought Dracula, and got involved in a lot of wacky old Hollywood intrigue, while traveling the world and meeting famous historical figures. He did a lot more with his youth than just go to college. But I didn’t, and it’s one of my major regrets. My determination to get into the university of my choosing made the early part of my life kind of boring. So now I want to bestow the following wisdom unto my son: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, sure. But do something else, too.
Excerpted from I’m Going to College—Not You! by Jennifer Delahunty.
Copyright © 2010 by Jennifer Delahunty.
Published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Griffin.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.