I didn't intend to be drunk when I went to register for classes, but I had only slept about three hours and the effects of the previous night had not worn away. I arrived on campus and parked the car in the first place I could find, no sense driving – campuses were made for those on foot. I immediately ran into a very kind and equally lost black family. I approached them and demanded they tell me where the hall was that held the event. While they didn't know, I then insisted the join me and we would find it together. I was worried that they, the mother especially – she had a keen eye and no-nonsense attitude, she bore watching – would realize that I was a mess.
As we climbed a fairly steep hill, we were greeted with a large tent filled with middle-schoolers and perhaps some junior high, it is far to difficult to discern age in females especially through just visual cues. I recommend obtaining through the black market sonic emitters that create a sound only those under the age of 20 can hear. It was then that I saw a campus police officer. It never occurred to me that with hundreds of pre-teens running around, he might have something other to look at than the drunken mess walking with an obviously lost family. I again felt the direct approach was the best approach. I stepped in front of his vehicle, a cigarette burning in my upraised hand.
The officer rolled down his window and leaned his head out of the window, but before he could say anything I shouted, “Officer! Can you tell us where we can go to register for classes? Is it this large tent?”
He looked over at the tent, shot a glare toward my adopted family and then proceeded to give me directions that were far too complicated for me to have retained in my state. I glanced over at my family and they were doing their best to look at the ground and not make eye contact. Still, I believe the mother picked up some of the directions. We started off towards one of the main buildings and at that moment an attractive woman crossed the street. She wasn't beautiful, perhaps not even pretty, but she bore heavy burdens and seemed to carry them well. I liked her instantly and by chance she had all the information we needed. The building was down the hill, but we had to register upstairs. The tent was for a non-denominational overnight religious retreat. We would be surrounded by tweens all day.
I approached the table to register and the hash I had smoked in the parking lot kicked in and mellowed my mood. Now I just needed some coffee. My papers were not in the box of very thick white envelopes that contained two thick books of exactly the same material. I did not realize this at the time, or I would have left when I had the paper listing my transferable classes. Luckily I ran into a former co-worker from the scammy online university to which I gave almost two years of my life. We chatted and I was able to observe the hodge-podge collection of mid-twenties kids finishing up their degrees and nervous adults, older than I, simultaneously terrified and exhilarated to be taking the real steps towards going back to school. It is one thing to browse online and “request information” later dodging calls from what are essentially education telemarketers. It is still retains this dreamlike quality that promises better days and brighter futures. Once in the cold halls of the actual campus, it becomes what all school is to the insecure – a series of social and intellectual challenges that one must overcome in order to be offered up for judgment and deemed worthy by not just employers but everyone.
This realization changed my whole perspective on my surroundings. I was familiar and comfortable in college settings. I used to work for a sales company that would routinely sneak onto campuses and sell things without even the decency to get a table and offer up a free t-shirt. Yet, for some this place could be a terrifying, overwhelming array of JUDGMENT. One had to be ACCEPTED into the program. The fear of rejection is literally the foundation for a relationship with a school and its populace. I remembered when I was younger feeling this pressure, but it never gripped me for long. I made friends easy and the flow of my life naturally drifts towards the weird, dangerous, and wild. It made the place seem far more vicious and cold than I originally thought upon my first visit. During the OPEN HOUSE I found it to be a clean and professional place and the admissions folks were warm and friendly. I had my daughter with me and she was being a far heavier critic of school than I could ever be at the time, so I felt it appropriate at the time to argue against her point. Still, though my vision was skewed, I could see past the bullshit and I realized the my 8 year old was more right than she may have realized. I needed some coffee or perhaps some of this little kids walking around had their Ritalin on them. I grabbed my enevelope and fled from the registration table, in search of the room with refreshments.
Immediately upon entering the room, I was grabbed about the shoulders by an older man and shoved in front of a table. He looked at me and although for the rest of the conversation he sounded like he was from western PA, he said in german accent, “Papers, please.” I handed him the evaluation of my transferable credits and he proceeded to evaluate my evaluation. The same nervous housefrau I had noticed lingering at the registration table was told she would only have two transferable classes out of a supposed fifteen she had taken. She tried to argue a few of them, but the school she attended lost their accreditation for her particular subject and this poor woman had not been aware. As she walked with her head down away from the table, the affable ROTC guy – tall, thick, spoke in a way that made him sound a little dumb – offered her an ROTC key chain and told her to help herself to all of the refreshments.
The two evaluators teamed up on me. One scribbled furiously on my paper with felt pen and two colors of highlighters, the purpose of which I have still not been able to discern. The other grilled me extensively about my background. He had taken a class at one of the schools, I asked when. “Oh before your time, lad, it was about ten years ago,” he said with a dismissive gesture.
“Cool, ten years ago was when I was on campus. We probably partied at the same frats. In fact, I think I remember you. You showed up at the cheerleader house in the toga with the case of PBR!”
He eyed me suspiciously, I must have gotten too close to the truth then he liked. There were a lot of older guys who visited the cheerleader house just off campus. “Ten years, huh? I was there in the fall of 1998, looks like you were there in Spring of '99. Just missed each other.”
“Oh, I was in basic training then,” I said and gave him the same dismissive gesture. The ROTC guy perked up at the words “basic training.” He was a very affable man and I told him how during my semester at school I beat up the various commanders in my ROTC class. He laughed in a way that told me completely understood as he was prior service and a war vet. When any vets meet, there is a brief – sometimes not-so-brief – discussion about the desert. It can be a simple swapping of situations survived or it can turn into arguments for or against certain military doings. Torture rarely comes up, it is generally distasteful to discuss amongst men who routinely discuss graphic sex acts, excrement, and death. The initial remarks were wrapping up as I walked into the auditorium full of about a hundred students or so. A woman was introducing a representative from the bank that had ATM's on-campus offering the student account. It was a terrible pitch and the fool tried to involve the students. He was the first one and it wasn't really important to anyone in the room at 8:30 AM. I wrote in my notebook, remembering the tables of credit card applications on campus during my first semester at school, “where's my free t-shirt?” About ten minutes later he offered the group a free t-shirt with an account or if you already had one. Although instead of bootleg t-shirts of copyrighted characters, it was a shirt with the name of the school on the front and the bank on the back. I had only to show my ATM card, but I passed anyway.
The surly police officer that begrudgingly gave us directions took the stage next. His first words were “We are police officers and we will arrest you.” I understand that he was trying to emphasize the fact that they were police not security guards, but his tone, his high & tight haircut, his goddamn smug face when he said it made me instantly not like him. He continued to talk about various ways he can arrest people, but he wouldn't say it again. He tried to make “We'll do what we have to do,” a tagline, catchphrase for his quasi-fascist speech about the mission of his public service office. Finally, I raised my hand and asked, “What does that mean exactly. When you say 'do what we have to do?'”
He laughed at me and gestured toward the crowd as if to say, “get a load of this idiot.” I merely looked directly at him until he finally, awkwardly almost, said, “Arrest you. We'll arrest you.”
“Oh, 10-4!” I said and felt like my class clown credentials were being considered for renewal with the snickers that followed. He then asked if anyone was going to be living on campus and he pulled out his notepad. None raised their hand and I glanced at the son of the family I arrived with, he had told me of his plans to live on campus. He was tentatively about to raise his hand, but he was the only black kid in the room and so I shook my head at him. Luckily he saw me or just decided to quickly put his hand down. The cop was smiling and talking quietly to a pretty girl in the front row about pepper spray. It is the policy of the school that no weapons be allowed on campus. The young lady had asked about pepper spray and the officer repeated the question and answered that women were indeed allowed to arm themselves in this fashion.
A voice from across the room asked, “What about the dudes?” He sighed and said that he wasn't sure, but it probably wasn't a good idea. I understood why the young man asked the question. If the ladies themselves are armed with pepper spray, some poor cheating bastard will have his face sprayed full of the stuff by a scorned woman. Perhaps even catch some sort of sexual misconduct charge! My God! The mere presence of the police officer was turning the mood of the room very dark and tinged with the sexual energies of the women and some of the boys perhaps, who cannot resist a man in uniform. I have a feeling this guy is going to be trouble.
Thankfully his presentation was over and we dug into the meat and potatoes of selecting classes. This person had worked at the University for 40 years and answered every question specifically and the mood of the room switched back to that buzzing excitement of the going-back-to-school mythos. I even felt it in my state of deep cynicism and terror at what had become of academia in a mere decade.
As the day progressed, the sixty or so people in the group were shuffled off to meet with their department heads and receive some personal interaction from those in charge of their programs. In my case these men were both in charge of the department but also in charge of the military programs as well. It was when I learned that since I do not receive 100% of the Post 9/11 GI BILL (the lion's share of my active duty time was pre-9/11), I was not entitled to have my full tuition covered. I had not begun to apply for financial aid and certain tax mishaps complicate the matters further. The undertone of judgment and sense that the world-weary, older students just don't belong all came crashing down around me. I felt that any moment the cop would show up and arrest me for vagrancy or loitering. I was ready to lie down in the grass and allow myself to be trampled by the youth in the tents at the top of the hill making abstinence promises.
Thankfully I was able to bum a cigarette off of a fellow student and veteran and we chatted a bit. It was really just inane bullshit, talking about where he had been stationed, being very cryptic about his job. Perhaps practicing what he would say to the girls, it was very good. I imagined many a freshmen dropping her panties for stories of intrigue and danger in a land that cannot be named for security reasons. During his talk, I realized that I had to at least try to salvage this situation as this actually is the BACKUP plan. That career as a male prostitute did not turn out quite as well as I thought. But it's fun, so I still do it for free. I spoke with a few very kind and helpful school officials and went about procuring financial aid. This is the real hustle in school. The extra financial aid that can somehow find its way into the hands of those attending school. It's used to buy computers, pay bills, even take vacations. The questions from the students change from meek inquiries, pleading for assistance to pay for college, to feverish, screaming demands for the reimbursement check. Some students choosing schools based solely on how much of the aid they can get back. It is a dirty business and one I would have liked to avoid. However, I had gone too far down the path. I was in too deep to escape now. I divulged all of my deepest, darkest financial secrets and the decision determining whether or not I can actually go back and complete some sort of degree and become a respectable adult would be made for me. They had broken me, I was humbled. I knelt at their feet and awaited my Judgment.