During high school, I managed to forge an identity that I wore daily, like a comfortable old pair of jeans. An identity that I crafted more out of wanting to be different than simply being myself. An identity that revolved around my parent’s expectations of how I should be — not in the world, but at home.
My home life had been pretty insular. My parents, first generation Americans raised during the Depression, only knew what they saw on the news or processed from the court of public opinion. To keep my brother and me safe, and well-behaved, my mother made it clear: her opinions, and her way of doing
So my first week of college was a fright fest. Back in those days, we talked about “culture shock”: I was shocked from one end of the campus to the other and hurled over the library steeple. I found I had zero resources for dealing with 1500 new people with new personalities and new behaviors whose names did not end in a vowel. I tanked.
So what could have better prepared me?
I think a short course in understanding oneself would have served me well. A close reading of the self, if you will. A prolific reader, I was adept at close reading literature. But while I thought I knew myself, I realized pretty quickly at college that I didn’t. If someone had prepared me, somehow, for all the craziness, all the difference — maybe I would not have freaked out as much. If I understood that I was an introvert, and learned how to use that knowledge to my advantage, maybe I wouldn’t have tanked. As it was, I felt like I was surrounded by kids whose parents never punished them, so they were WRONG. All the time. Not a recipe for making friends.
Looking back, I compare my experience of going to college with having a baby. People love to talk about all the happy-gooey stuff, but nobody really talks about the physical pain, the exhaustion, the post-partum. If they did, no woman would ever get pregnant. But we have to know this stuff: we have to know that, when we get to college, we are possibly going to be intensely uncomfortable. We may question our own selves. Our strategies for dealing with the newness of things might take us to dangerous places. If we know this in advance, maybe we’ll be able to keep afloat. Better to know ahead of time that you’re headed into the deep end, and not the wading pool.