So classes started here last week, which means the campus is once again overrun with undergraduates, including a big fat herd of new freshmen (somewhere around 10,000 of them, I think). Even though this campus is many times larger than the one I where I attended undergrad, and even though there are more incoming freshmen than there were in my entire school, seeing them still takes me back...
Ten years and a couple of weeks ago, I moved into the MacNaughton residence hall at Reed College. I think I learned more and changed more in those first few weeks at Reed than ever before or since. The transition to college has to be stressful for everyone, but it was brutal for me. Not all bad, but all dramatic. I didn't sleep for more than an hour or two at a time for months. I ate sporadically and badly. I made some expectedly stupid decisions about how much to drink and with whom to sleep. I learned new vocabulary words such as "dental dam" and "gravity bong."
Mostly, though, I realized things about myself that I'd hadn't ever had reason to know, growing up where I did. I learned that I was shy. I learned that I was poor. I learned that for many people my age, "work" didn't mean a waitressing shift, but a night with the books. And I looked all around me, at these kids who'd gone to private school and been to Europe and were the second or third or fourth generations in their familes to attend college, and I felt completely and totally inadequate.
I freaked completely out. I knew I wouldn't make it, I wasn't smart enough, I wasn't savvy enough, I didn't have the background I needed. I knew they'd see right through me and know I was a complete fraud as a college student.
And I see that same panic in these kids' faces, even if it isn't really there in most of them. There is an occasional kid, brow furrowed, studying a campus map, with the wrong backpack and dressed too nicely, who I want nothing more than to stop on the sidewalk and reassure. Because I remember those first few weeks at Reed so clearly, and being somewhere as big as this university has to be so much worse. It would have been so nice, back then, to have someone tell me it was going to end up OK. I also remember getting up, going to class, forcing myself to talk to a few people, and it all slowly getting easier. I had the extreme good fortune to fall in with a crowd who weren't judgmental about my background (people who are still among my best friends today), and although I've never forgotten that I come from different stock than many (even all) of those friends, it really just doesn't matter anymore. At least not most of the time.
I've read a number of books and essays about transitioning from working class roots to middle class adulthood (most notably Alfred Lubrano's Limbo), but I've never read anything that characterized at all realistically the abject fear I felt when first faced with the class difference between myself and my new college peers, or made any suggestion of how to deal with it. Has that book been written? Should I write it?