Friday, 10 September 2010

On being 20, and very stupid

My life seems oddly resistant to being written about at the moment. I sit down and .. no. Nothing.

There was a really lovely piece about Cambridge by Patrick Barkham in the Guardian this week, though. I went to Oxford, not Cambridge, but much of what he described was very familiar, how alien it all seemed, the beauty and the grandeur and the oddity, the brash groups of public schoolboys radiating entitlement, the freaks, the pockets of normality. Then I read an interview in Vogue with Rebecca Hall on the train talking about how she had forged intensely intimate and lasting friendships when she was at Cambridge. They were wound, she said, into the fabric of her life. Many - most, even - of my friends feel the same about their university years.

I wasn't happy at Oxford. I still feel viscerally uncomfortable going back there, the sun catching some ancient piece of honey stone, a chilly autumn morning with flotillas of bikes bowling along the High Street, those improbably perfect lawns, leave a hard stone of sadness in my chest. I remember it as one of the hardest and loneliest times of my life and it's strange because I can see now, could even see then, that there was much I should have absolutely loved about it. The company of clever, funny people; the extraordinary history of the place, the tolerance, encouragement even, of eccentricity, the peerless resources for finding out about pretty much anything you could wish. Why didn't it work? What went wrong?

I always used to attribute that to being in a long distance relationship. I was disappearing every weekend to take the ferry to Normandy, or to pick the CFO up from Heathrow, queueing for hours in the evenings to squabble on a public phone in a corridor with him (ah, youth of today, you will never know the peculiar brand of homicidal despair that sets in as you queue behind some garrulous girl with an extended family and a seemingly inexhaustible phonecard, or the strange frustration of watching your credit tick away as you both sulk, silently, absurdly, on either end of an international line). He was insecure about me, I was defensive and frustrated, we were miserable. We fought constantly, cried, hurt each other. Then from the end of my first year, I was ill, bald, shell-shocked, making trips to the hospital in London and to the shrink, taking drugs I couldn't drink with, drugs that made me fat. In my third year, the CFO got skin cancer and needed surgery. It was, unquestionably, tricky. I have often, glibly, credited my degree to Prozac, and I do think I would not have survived, succeeded, without it.

Recently, though, I have come to the realisation that I might not have managed to be happy there even if circumstances had been different. And, though there is much you could criticise in Oxford, I think now that my unhappiness was largely my own fault. Quite simply, I didn't have a propensity for happiness then. I wasn't even trying to be happy, or content. I wanted to be interesting, exotic, different. My model of relationships was based on 37, 2°, my model of higher education The Secret History. I was, to put it mildly, an idiot. I feel rather sad, and even more exasperated, when I think of my younger self. I put a lot of time and energy into looking chic and aloof - all Agnès b and Gauloises, French boyfriend, car, frequent absences - and none into being content, or making friends. It seems so sad, in retrospect, such a waste. I can count on the fingers of one hand the parties I went to in three years. Imagine! Little surprise, then, that I made few friends, or that even fewer have survived. I wouldn't have wanted to be friends with my 21 year old self. I was wary, defensive and sad; risk averse and no fun whatsoever.

God knows, it was a peculiar place though, brittle and unforgiving in parts; a place of terrible food, non-existent pastoral care and intellectual machismo, of four flights of stairs to the nearest loo and feeding the college vegan "Champignons à la grècque" (aka a small finger bowl of shrunken, brined mushrooms, like something from one of Ramses II's smaller organ jars) four times a week for three years. I had some spectacularly unsympathetic tutors, one of whom still haunts my dreams occasionally. I just looked her up and could not suppress a shudder at the photograph. "X is keen on introducing undergraduates to medieval and early modern history" says her biography, blandly. Well, yes. If by "introducing", you mean "inducing a profound phobia of all things medieval into a generation of unsuspecting youths, using a combination of scorn and arbitrary terror". I only rebelled once in her tutorial, refusing to read an essay, mutinous and tearful, but it was talked of in hushed tones by my contemporaries for the remainder of our course. Others were a pure delight, urbane and funny and kind as well as breathtakingly clever - Ruth Harris I completely adored, Martin Conway, Leslie Mitchell. Brilliant was more or less a given (with the exception of a couple of retirement candidates for whom the college system operated as subisdised sheltered housing), but kindness was far rarer and more precious.

It was odd, too, to be in a place where people fought over books, hid them, scrambled for attention. To be among people who were not only clever, but who made no attempt to hide it, to dissimulate, to pretend not to care, should have been a wonderful thing, but I found it alarming. "Hard work was fetishised" says the Guardian piece. It was, I think, at my college too, and I didn't know how to deal with that. Join in? That didn't quite fit with the idiotic persona I was so intent on constructing, but I was too beadily competitive not to want to do well. My first year was a terrifying scramble, always too late for the critical textbook, or the vital article that could only be found in some far flung basement library in Summertown, and my second passed in a fog of tricyclic antidepressants, swimming through treacle to go and sit, dreamily, in the history faculty library as the dense print of journal articles on the cabinets of Queen Anne jiggled around on the page in front of me. I was not as good as I knew I could be, should be, and it scared me. In my final year only - thanks, as I say, to the power of Prozac - I think I got some clarity and focus back, studied things that actually fascinated me, regained a degree of mental agility, found some intellectual confidence. I wrote about non-conformism in the eighteenth century, about fin de siècle, about the art and literature of collaboration, found an outlet for my galloping francophilia.

But even then I had a tiny, dull, life. I remember watching other people covetously, enviously, as I sat in libraries or walked through college, fascinated by their rhythms, the comings and goings of their friends, their bags of crisps and cans of Coke, riotous laughter, stories of parties or punting. I made watery porridge in the microwave every morning at 7 while I took my shower, worked all day, breaking for something small and virtuous to eat, came back to my prettily decorated and desperately quiet room, prepared myself minutely calibrated meals of vegetables which I wrote down in immaculate writing for my shrink, called the CFO, read a novel, slept early and long, wore earplugs on weekends for the inevitable noise of festivities. It was a half life, a quarter life, a terrible waste.

So. I went to Oxford and I got a great degree. I think I earned it; I worked and thought hard for it. But at the same time I missed out fundamentally, wretchedly, stupidly in my years there. Meeting people now who have forged something far warmer and more lasting than a piece of paper from their time at university makes me terribly wistful. I try terribly hard now not to repeat that particular brand of idiocy. I found a photograph of my pretty final year room recently. I came fairly high in the ballot, which allows you to choose your room, and mine was large, and light. The photo shows my bookshelves, carefully chosen mugs, a Nabis exhibition poster, Keith Vaughan pencil sketch, a bunch of crimson parrot tulips, a tiny kilim, a pretty bedspread. All outwardly lovely. But looking at it I remember how utterly lonely that room was too. I think I'll pin the photo up somewhere to remind me to embrace the chaos and live a little.

Did anyone else mess up their university years as badly as me? Best years of your life, or utter ratshit? I'd love to hear.


Rhodri said...

Mine were odd. I was utterly single-minded about where I was going to go, and what course I was going to do. And when I got there I spent barely any time doing anything university related - either work or socialising - and just plunged headlong into London Stuff. Forming bands, going on ill-conceived tours of UK and Europe, coping with band members having nervous breakdowns, relationship meltdowns. It was like having a new family. And so coursework became a distraction, and fellow students were people I chatted to briefly before going off to do something else.

So yeah, I wasted university years, in that I scraped a 2:2 in Music to get an improbable BSc, and I probably only made two friends during those three years who I still see with any regularity. I curse the fact that I skipped huge tracts of lectures given by brilliant people who now, with the benefit of hindsight, I hugely admire. I also kind of wish I'd had that strong university community experience, like, a campus, with a really strong arts dept, rather than a university sprawled across several miles of London that was basically a technical college with a Music dept bolted on to it.

But in terms of the years themselves, it was all rich, heady stuff. Loads of STUFF happened. And they were rich for you, too, innit, but just in a different way. I think it would be weird if your years 18-21 weren't emotionally vivid in some way or other.

It's tempting to look back and wish you'd done things differently, but a) there's not a lot you can do about it, and b) the people who you notionally *envied* were undoubtedly looking around at other people thinking "God, I wish I were more like them." Even me and you, heh.

Twangypearl the Elastic Girl said...

Oh, man. In my final year, all my friends had left, and I used to eat prawn sandwiches that I bought in M&S in the back stairwell of the Arts block.

I think the point is made.

(Word verification: hearse. Well played, Blogger.)

Alison Cross said...

You should have come to Glasgow University with me ;-)

I wasn't particularly clever and remember with acute embarrassment my Moral Philosophy lecturer giving me a dressing down for plagerising an answer to an essay.
How did he KNOW?! I asked myself as I left his office, face aflame with shame.

Note to self: Make sure that work being copied is not written by the lecturer in question.

I had so many plans about Who I Was Going To Become when I left uni, none of which I became.

Maybe that's the reason I don't keep up with the lovely people that I was friends with back then. Maybe they remind me of how I have failed to achieve much of anything

Nicky said...

Spent anxious times fretting about not being gorgeous compared to the other girls, pined over inaccessible boy-men (gay/handsome/smart) and worked sporadically to eventually scrape a 2:2. The saving grace in my final year was meeting my now-husband, a junior admin for the Civil Service at the time. He realised he'd need to push me to get any sort of degree, stopped me from flunking completely and built my self-esteem and self-confidence dramatically. It's our Silver Wedding anniversary in 10 days. I met him on a local train platform. It's an odd world.

I have a few friends from University I'm just re-contacting, and it's a strange and slightly surreal experience. We've known so little about the last 25 years of each others' lives, yet we know each other so intimately in other ways. I'm not sure it's the right thing to do, and I feel shaky and sick about doing it, but I don't want ever to regret not doing something so I'm giving it a go.

Betty Herbert said...

Aahh, you capture my university years with unnerving precision - and also my slight nausea at Patrick Barkham's article.

Unlike Mr B, I was not enchanted by the manicured quads, bedders, porters and formal halls; I was horrified by them. I have never felt so infantalised in my entire life as I did in Cambridge. I was made aware of the College's disapproval of my phoning Herbert every night, or having him stay every weekend, while all around me public schoolboys got themselves obnoxious and vomity. This, apparently, was considered acceptable behaviour; having a non-Cam boyfriend was not.

I look back now and see how difficult I made life for myself for those three years - rather than entering the stream, I sort of wedged myself sideways across it. What I didn't understand at the time was how insecure all those barfing Rahs were feeling, and what a grown-up I looked to them (H and I bought our first house during my second year).

And, yes, I had a huge chip on my shoulder. I was utterly baffled by the privilege I found there, and that certainty that life would be alright. I did as you did: put my head down and worked like crazy, except I didn't really engage with the material I was ploughing through. I don't think I really felt like I had the right to care about it.

If I had my time again, I probably still wouldn't socialise with all those little David Camerons, but neither would I wish away three whole years of my life. It makes me sick to think about it.

Laura Jane said...

I had a couple of goes at university.

I was the first person in my family to complete high school, and my mother used to joke about me attending the WA Institute of Technology (W.A.I.T.) - "she went to WAIT to get a brain and she's still waiting". Always the put-down.

I fell madly in lust with a gorgeous 24 y.o fellow student. We used to go home for long...lunches. I failed 2/6 subjects. He didn't. I carried on with what subjects I could.

I picked up with another fellow student. We clicked strongly, and I was much more studious and was about to resume after a catchup/makeup semester or two when I was offered a job as a professional dancer!! ooh la la! Too good to miss! SO I left that course. And the fella. He was the path not taken. But I'm pretty happy all up with the bloke I have been married to (for 25 years as well). I doubt he is THE love of my life, and for many years I worried about falling totally in love with a stranger, when things were lukewarm between us, however he is the one I have made a life with, and nothing is perfect, but jeez we are enjoying each other alot more in the last 5 years.

I returned to Tech to study analytical chemistry and lab science after 2 years as a dumb blonde dancer (yes, really) and topped the course. Worked for 1 year, had first child, then a second child who turned know how.

At the age of 41 I re-entered university to become a midwife, and you know how that turned out!

I start my new job as a community homebirth midwife next Monday. I couldn't be more thrilled.

This was such a poignant post, Em. Once again, I send cyber hugs to you, and your 20 year old confused, shy and sad self.

Its never too late to have some fun, y'know.

nappy valley girl said...

I love this post. So honest, and full of poignancy.

I spent my university years putting everything into my relationship with my boyfriend - now my husband. Which was great at the time, but it meant I didn't make any close girlfriends to speak of (my remaining friends from that time are blokes that we both hung out with in the pub). I didn't work hard and also didn't do half the things I intended before I got there - write for the University newspaper, act in plays - because I never put as much effort into that as I did in getting pissed and going clubbing with my boyfriend and his mates. So, although in some ways it was a wonderful time, I do have regrets.

Mrs Jones said...

I completely missed out on the 'proper' university experience by having such a turbulent home life while doing A levels back in 1981 that I ended up with seriously shit grades that would take me as far as poly in Coventry. So I didn't bother applying anywhere. It took me about 15 years of working in the real world before I decided perhaps I should have gone to University and so started doing a part-time degree in Archaeology. We were all mature students and it took 7 years. But it did feel like adult education classes rather than the kosher university experience. I became friendly with most of my classmates but I don't see any of them now although I don't really mind. I'm used to not having many friends.

I did enjoy the learning, though, so much, in fact, that I decided I wanted to continue with an MA but do it full-time for more of a real university experience. I got into the Institute of Archaeology at UCL (on account of achieving a First) but even then I only had to go up 3 days a week and I lived at home all the time. So it still wasn't the same. Plus I was the oldest student by far in all my classes which made it tricky to socialise. I was the one who had to make the effort to talk to them as they weren't going to bother with me otherwise. Needless to say, I've not kept in contact with any of them although I do occasionally come across them in the media - one of them managed to inveigle herself onto Time Team (long legged blonde lovely that she was/is) and so appears on the box, and the other crops up in archaeological literature.

To be honest, although what I went through was not the traditional head off to university at 18, live away from home for 3 years, make life long friends, discover drink and sex that it is for many people, I think I got more from the way I did it, because to start a degree at the age I was then (33) and then start a postgrad degree aged 39 meant that I was there purely for the academic study and not the socialising side - and that I did love. I truly believe that I would have totally cocked up a degree if I'd gone at 18.

Korhomme said...

I went to a redbrick many, many years ago and studied medicine. It was more an exercise in expanding the memory than personal development. I didn't enjoy it much. Later, I did a couple of courses with the Open University; much more satisfying, some contact at the tutorials, but not a 'full blown' experience.

the polish chick said...

most of my close lovely friends are from my high-school years. very few from university. my original university years turned out to be a year. i only went back when i was in my late 20's, thank the good lord for that, and enjoyed myself immensely while looking with pity at the trembling 18-21 year old set.

and i wouldn't beat myself up too badly over it, if i were you. i think the 20's are meant to be a miasma of self-hatred, limited self-awareness and a constant state of unfavourable comparison with others. i could brink myself to the brink of depression just from hearing a snippet of someone else's conversation which made my life seem so dull by comparison - and i do mean a snippet. not even a whole conversation.

hurray for the 30's!

stellatexrecipes said...

This melancholy piece reminds me of my time as a postgraduate student at York. Minus the drugs.

Since, as an American, I spent a pretty penny in order to study there, I regret not having made more of my time, a rare respite from the wage slavery that has kept me marginally melancholy since.

What Possessed Me said...

Christ. You just described my time at Harvard, minus the long-distance relationship and chic outfits. I can't even go back there, so much does it smart to remember what a miserable, self-conscious, self-righteous, diffident little fool I was. Of course now I'm perfect - thank God for that.

Lindsey said...

Oh Emma, what a beautiful post. You write so elegantly, and so eloquently, and your particular brand of bittersweet melancholy nearly always brings a tear to my eye. Bless you.

My student days were riotous fun, as they should be - I ditched my specs, got contact lenses, had lots of sex, made brilliant friends that I treasure to this day and read A LOT of books, oh the luxury. My 20s were a joy, it's late 30s I'm having problems with...

Jessica said...

Explaining this period of my life would certainly upset my parents.

There were high grades, loud music, work success, and a girl who was falling apart in the midst of marriage, drugs, parties, a job that paid well but wasn't satisfying, and pressures from inside and out.

I was sad, frustrated, tired, and felt like a failure whether I succeeded or not. And in the end it ate me up and wore me down to a point of internal stagnation, followed by collapse.

A school of artists usually means a school of eccentric, self-absorbed, reclusive or sociopathic people. It makes for an interesting social atmosphere. Interesting here meaning kind of scary. The person I remember most fondly was a 60 year old painter I had a few academic classes with. She and I got along so well, and loved discussing things like the ethics of art. We lost touch mostly because I was too busy falling apart to maintain my few social links. I still think of her sometimes and wonder what she's doing.

I had no "close" friends in school. A few "friends", but I was also too busy being self absorbed, eccentric, self-loathing and reclusive.

While I don't regret going to the school I did, (it was a very fine education, and I had mostly excellent teachers,) it is not a period of my life I could call at all a happy one. I burnt myself out, completely, during this time. Near the end I had no more motivation. It was one of the darkest times in my life.

So you're not alone there.

Europasionaria said...

This is a beautiful post. Thank you. I've been deeply moved by it. I also used to feel miserable then, it's something about this age I think. I wouldn't want to go back.

Nicole said...

Ah, and here was me thinking I was the only one who wasted my uni years. A huge number of people told me those were the best years of my life, and it was a deeply scary thought at the time, since I was utterly depressed and miserable.

There were good things - I met my partner, I made a couple of good friends that I'm still in contact with - but I spent a lot of those years lost in depression, self-loathing and an alcoholic haze. I didn't take nearly as much interest in the things I was learning, or the city I was in (Paris; I wasted so much time in Paris, it's terrible) as I should have done.

It's only now, in fact, that I can go back to Paris without feeling slightly sick because of the memories; I guess I've finally exorcised them. I passed my exams, though I don't remember taking most of them, and scraped together a good enough degree to be able to get a job afterwards. I do regret not making more of my time there, building the kinds of friendships that other people seem to have done from their uni years. But our uni was small, utterly lacking in any sort of pastoral care, and full of fucked up 18-21 year olds who'd run away to Paris and found that their problems came with them, so it was a deeply unhealthy environment for lots of people. Even if I'd been sane, it might have been a difficult few years.

Anyway, I'm just rambling now, so I'll stop - your post was a timely one; this was actually something I'd been thinking a bit about recently, hence my creeping out from the shadows of lurkerdom; I hope you don't mind...

Siobhan said...

I was incapable of being happy when at university too.

Stuff happened of course, I was homeless for a bit, I had a nervous breakdown, my university boyfriend was (and still is) almost certainly on the Autistic Spectrum, which coloured how he dealt with it when he was propositioned by his flatmate in a desperate bid (by her) to escape the domestic abuse she suffered from her boyfriend.

I also had to leave at one point as I had chronic fatigue syndrome.

But basically I was annoyed and annoying. Annoyed as I hated not being the brightest, having grown accustomed to being among the brightest in all my classes; and annoying as I presumed no one would like me and that I did not want to be liked by them anyway.

I spent my first two years pining for a (much older than me) musician and poet who lived in Sheffield, writing bad poetry and going to esoteric gigs.

I did go to parties but they were wasted on me for the most part as I considered myself better than the people there (ironically because I thought they were all snobs).

My university was amazing. The support I got when mugged, depressed and unable to leave the house, sick and unable to leave the house and without a house to leave were amazing. It was that coupled with intense stubborness that allowed me to get a degree. The experience was half lived though. I held myself back.

I have a few good friends form that time. Ones who have amazing patience, ones who took me to lectures when I was ill, or took enormous vodka bottles form me when I was stupid. And there were good times, a few moments that really were excellent and which I really do hold as cherished memories.

But I think I really wasted the years from about 11 - 24 on a silly persona.

Wow that was long - basically this post hit home - event the bit about the competition. I hated it but wanted to win. Having said that I work in a university now with no illusions of it being a second chance but find I am doing a lot of the things I did not do then. But you are definitely not alone in feeling you messed up the opportunity of university

WrathofDawn said...

Oh, lord! Did I mess up my university years? Do bears shit in the woods?

I didn't go straight to uni from high school, as my father had had to retire early on disability, so the money he'd expected to have saved for us to go to uni wasn't there and I was terrified of getting into "all that debt" by getting student loans. So I got a secretarial diploma from the local (crap) business college and worked in insurance offices (kill me now) for a couple of years before realizing that I really did want to go to university.

Entered the education faculty. I didn't quite fit into the 18-20 demographic, although I was only slightly older. I had already been out in the work force and had the responsibility of paying rent and bills and such without mommy and daddy footing the entire bill, so some of their bahaviour seemed far more immature than the narrow age gap would support. But I had friends already there and can't say it was an unhappy time for me, although I didn't engage in the life on campus quite as much as I could have. But by the end of my first year, I realized that I did not want the degree for which I was studying. Now I love kids. And I love teaching. That light bulb moment when the other person "gets" it and you had a hand in facilitating that? Fabulous. However. I realized straight away that I do NOT much like public school teaching. (Public as in North American public - free for the public - every kid and his dog can go there - not the kind you have to pay bundles of $$ to attend.) Liked the kids, but all the other misery that goes along with it, not so much.

I couldn't see the point in getting a degree I didn't want, wasn't clever enough in math to get a science degree, and couldn't see the point of cruising for a year experimenting with courses (stupid, Stupid, STUPID!!! That's just what I needed!) So I dropped out after finishing my first year and drifted back into office work, figuring I'd pay off that year's worth of student loan and regroup and figure out what I really did want to study. But of course, I met a man had babies and didn't go back to uni. The job front hasn't worked out badly, although the man turned out to be a spectacular mistake. Luckily, the babies were a good idea. I have an interesting job that I love and it doesn't pay too badly and the kind of freedom that only the single with grown children have.

But here's what haunts me. During my final French exam, my professor, who hadn't really said much to me the entire year, asked if I intended to teach French. Then told me I had a knack for languages and that he had been very impressed with my progress during the year and that I should consider a career in languages. Had he said this earlier in the year, I would have had time to mull it over and consider switching faculties, but this was the very last exam and I had already made up my mind I wasn't coming back for a second year.

And I walked away and went back to office work. And here's the other thing. I love languages. I sing in a symphony choir that regularly performs work in other languages and I absorb the lyrics like a sponge and have no problem with the phonics or remembering the translations of what we're singing. While others my age are struggling and complaining bitterly over strange vowel sounds and oddly consenant combinations, I'm like a kid in a candy shop. A foreign language is like a puzzle to me. A happy, warm, fuzzy, fun puzzle that fascinates me.

I do believe I missed the boat on that one.

wv - bersemar - Which I just know is Belgian for "she who writes eloquent post aka The Waffle"

Nellig said...

Totally cocked it up at a midlands redbrick. Emerged with a 2.2 and sleepwalked into a series of stupid jobs.

What embarrasses me most about my younger self is my lack of imagination. And backbone. And failure to act on gut feelings that turned out to be right all along. And general dreary timidity.

The Polish Chick put it perfectly.

Ann said...

I wasted my time too - I felt so guilty about going there (last of four children to leave the nest, boyfriend at home) and not really sure why I was there (I fucked up my A levels, so had to go to the kind redbrick who'd still take me with only B, B, & C to my pitiful name). I too, was so put out that I was no longer the best - quelle horreur!

My boyfriend was a racist, stupid, controlling mind fuck idiot, and I would treck from Manchester to London every other weekend, just to sit around the mechanics whilst he worked, missing out on fun with girls who were patient enough with me to never tell me to fuck off and get a life. Every row we ever had was "because of the distance", "because we miss each other", not, "you're a philistine bigot and I'm not, we are fundamentally unsuited but both too stubborn and lazy to do anything about it". Thank God I am not a teenager anymore.

3 years of huge phone bills and half a student loan spent on Virgin West Coast later, I got my 2,1 and returned to the smoke. 6 months later we broke up, and freedom was mine, and immediately ensued "Why, oh why oh why did I miss half the parties my friends went to, on behalf of an idiot?", Ah, takes one to know one.

Any event that it supposed to be the "best" (uni, school, having babies, weddings) can just create such expectation that when we can't attain it, we feel like total fuck ups.

Thanks for another incredible post.

frau antje said...

Started and ended with police, may not do transitions too well. Chaos and subject matter were embraced. Was a great age for getting to know men. Watching someone else start out this month, would imagine my advice is best kept to a minimum.

Helen said...

My imaginary therapist will be delighted at our progress now that I've read this post and the echoing comments.

I was an utter tool in the university years. I'm so glad to hear that many of you were, too.

JustaRabbit said...

I worked my ass off to get into a Very Important Science University. Once there, I discovered boys, oodles of them wanting to spend time with me. So I proceeded to spend my first year just passing my classes, as there were no grades that first year, and not attending lectures.

Second year came round and not attending lecture had become a habit and I couldn't catch up with everything based on what I was supposed to have learned the first year. I worked all the time on homework, but still wasn't really learning much and totally lost all my self confidence and most of my friends due to a boyfriend who didn't like my friends.

Third year was even worse, just remembering the sadness and despair when I would return to my little pink dorm room at the end of the hall. Walking home from lab in the dark, hearing everyone dining in the warmly lit dining hall chatting so happily, not feeling at all a part of any of that. Not being able to join in, since I didn't know them any more.

Fourth year I finally failed out first quarter. Weekly visits with the dean sorted me out and got me back on track academically. Enough that I had suddenly graduated with 2.2 equivalent, without feeling like I'd learned anything, had no marketable skills, had not an ounce of self-esteem and could only count ex-boyfriends as friends.

Twelve years later, going anywhere near campus raises my heartrate and brings on waves of sadness and despair.

jessb said...

Ah, bless you for bringing us all out of the woodwork to confess our guilty university shame secrets and help us to see we aren't alone in them! Things got better for me once I got to my post-grad years (you'd hope so - I've ended up in an academic career so if it was still shite, life wouldn't be looking good!) but reading your uni experience felt like reading a memoire of my own undergrad years (although yours still sounded more internationally glamorous and film-noir-esque with all that Gauloise smoke!).

Here's a wee something that I think is rather fabulous to (hopefully) bring a smile to your face:

And hey, take heart - you did write something today - and it was beautiful. The other words will come...

Truf said...

Hmm,lets see - foreign boyfriend, long distance calls, waiting at airports - check. But the setting is in Moscow, just after the perestroika, dormitory rooms full of cockroaches, no food in the shops, midnight feasts when someone got a parcel from home, spending nights listening to bad recordings of underground rock&roll and arguing about politics... Definitely the most romantic time of my life, although felt homesick and had a spectacular breakdown when said boyfriend dumped me. Just wish I appreciated it as much then as I do now!

Anonymous said...

I scraped into Oxford and thought that was all I ever had to achieve in life...from there everything would fall into place.
Turned out that Oxford was full of all the boring people who smelt a bit funny, from every school in the country.
I spent the first year with an older boyfriend who lived in London and I managed to be in the same city as my classes about once a fortnight.
Then, aged 20, I fell in love with a dreadlocked 31 year old who lived in Oxford and knew all the cool people who ran massive illegal sound systems.
I basically side-stepped my entire University years by concentrating on DJs and dealers 15 yrs older than me and a 'tribal collective' who put on raves.
Until my finals came along and I had to work 11 hours a day, seven days a week for ten weeks to get a 2:1.
Then I wondered why a £50,000 job didn't just come and find me.... whilst I was sitting on the dole and going to acid house parties.

Three years later it all turned out OK and I wouldn't change my life experience for anything. But I can't help thinking that I missed a massive opportunity there.

Linda said...

I went to a religious school in the States and even there I lived like a recluse. I did make some friendships which have lasted but oh how I wish I had it to do over again. I would have tried for a different school and I sure wouldn't have gotten a BS in nursing. I hated every minute of it in school. Why didn't I figure out that I wouldn't like nursing once I graduated? I have no idea. Oh to have the wisdom of hindsite then. I was so unsure of myself.

Grit said...

the first, yes. pointless. year 2, i decided to blow the money the state gave me for an education on drink and cheap laughs. that was a good decision.

basically, it supports my argument that school gears you up for uni, and kids do it because they don't know how to argue otherwise.

the second stint, oxford, one year, mature student, when i did argue back. i was older and confident. i loved it.

not surprising, another reason why we home ed. if my kids go to uni, good luck to the tutors. because home ed teaches kids how not to uncritically accept stuff they are told; to argue their corner; and make their unique way in the world.

(promo copy end)

Kelley said...

I never would have thought of the "utter ratshit" description, but indeed, that's what it was. Most people I know adored college. I loved school, I was a brilliant student, and then I completely wasted college.
I hated it with such a visceral passion that I've actually FORGOTTEN almost all of it. As in: I cannot summon up a memory, no matter what material I am given.

I ran into a woman at the store this am, actually, wearing a Rice ring (prestigious college in Houston, TX: yes, my degree is good, but I wouldn't ever let anyone I care about go there).
I said, oh, hey, I went to Rice also. She said yes.
Kelley, right?

SHE KNEW WHO I WAS. And I swear that I've never seen her before. I honestly have NO memory a few close friends and my husband. I feel like an idiot, a defensive idiot, and also sad for having lost what was apparently the chance of a lifetime at four years of crazy fun memories.
I was so glad to read your post when I came home. I feel less alone!

Prong Two said...

I had a brilliant time during my undergrad: parties, forging life-long friendships, finally feeling like I belonged somewhere. But then I made the horrific mistake of marrying my (unbeknown to me, gay) college boyfriend and jetting off to graduate school in Montreal where I had a spectacularly shit time. Highlights include:
- not making any friends
- failing to take in ANY of Quebec culture
- feeling crap about myself because my new husband wasn't interested in bedroom activities (hint: he was fucking his professor instead)
- worrying so much about finances that I wrote my entire thesis while wearing my winter coat, mittens and touque lest the hydro bill become too high.

What a maroon.

Christina @ Fashion's Most Wanted said...

That's terribly sad that you didn't enjoy yourself. What a beautifully written post, I was almost there with you.

I went to St Martins for about five minutes until I was offered a job in a record company. I partied my way through my entire twenties and thirties and had more fun than should be humanly possible. I have kept all the same friends, with a few very welcome additions on the way and they are all wonderful. I love staying in now, unsurprisingly! I need a rest.

I think you have to embrace the chaos and go for it. I love your writing so much, happy or sad xx

Betty M said...

I am sorry that you had such a miserable time I know My callow student self would have had you down as impossibly glam simply by virtue of the French boyfriend and would have probably been too shy to socialise with you.

My closest friends from university remain close friends however not my only friends by any means.I know quite a few people whose lives still 20 odd years down the line are still focused on those 3 years to the exclusion of much else. Its like the peak was the drifting about the dreaming spires and nothing else could ever live up to it and they go on to London or wherever and try and recreate their college set up wherever they are. It makes me want to shake them which is why the Guardian article and the comments made me slightly cross (although frankly CIF comments always infuriate me). I had a great time at university post under and postgraduate learning how to drink and party as well as how to argue for a living from people at the top of their field (who oh Gaurdian commenters are not exclusively in Cambridge) but really it was only a minuscule portion of my life.

hairyfarmerfamily said...

Shackled to alcoholic boyfriend. Crashed & burned. Scraped 2:1. Was so, so cold. Slugs in sink. Misery. Such misery. Such wastce.

Hairy Farmer Family said...

Ummm... 'waste', of course. My keyboard is misbehaving.

J. said...

I think I would have had an experience like yours at college, except life derailed that particular track for me.

My mother died after a long bout with cancer, I temporarily broke up with my long-term boyfriend (now my husband) and ended up in another ridiculous long-distance sort-of relationship with an emotional fuckwit, and one of my roommates developed an allergy to sarcasm and threw me out (and the other one was too cowardly to take my side).

Plus, it was a couple of years of freakish weather of -35F in winter (I wore a ski mask to walk to class, and sliding in a car through the 4' snow banks and along icy pavements was terrifyingly like riding in a sledge in Little House on the Prairie) and 100F+ in summer (over 400 people died in Chicago from the heat). That added to the misery.

I had a job as a telemarketer calling registered Republicans to donate to an abortion rights charity, then a job slinging hash at the school athletes in their special cafeteria, then a job as a janitor in the dorms cleaning up puke and toilets.

I made 4 friends, total, and graduated a year early just to get the hell out of there. Fortunately, I managed to get a good education and really good grades despite all the drama, which meant I got into a good grad school, where I had a much better time--a sort of second chance at college, without all the really horrible bits like fraternity parties and having to pretend to give a shit about the Rose Bowl.

Catherine said...

Such a great post. I read the piece in the Guardian too. (The other big story for me this week was this furore about the book written by this Sciences Po english teacher about the French education system, on acheve bien les ecoliers).

You got frenchophilia; I never got over the anglophilia caught in some exchange of teeenagers betweeen Penzance and my Breton town. I did two first uni years - one in Brest in the normal French uni system (amphitheatres of 1,000 students, nice), then one in London for a European degree (erasmus). A campus next to Tottenham Spurs stadium in 1991. Hardly Oxbridge! But the shock at discovering we had tutors, seminars, that you could ask any questions, and the discos, the student association, the £1 pints. The mere fact that as French lyceens we could write up essays with a plan (good old these - antithese - synthese) garanteed most of us a 2.1 without trying too hard (guess it would have been much harder in Oxbridge). But what a revelation in how confident the english students were; I have remained in London since and those years have formed me, and made me 'think' british, just as for you, living in Normandie and having a French boyfriend has made you understand the French from the inside, so to speak.

Madame DeFarge said...

My uni years at Glasgow weren't quite that exciting, but full of the usual inappropriate men, an inappropriate degree and a distinct lack of ambition. I wasted my time there, but I was such a numpty it could never have been anything else other than a waste of time. I had few friends, many crushes and much loneliness. Very glad to leave it behind me.

prettyuseless said...

OMG I have just bumped into a girl on my fashion degree courese in the depths of the countryside. She was naturaly gifted, talented, clever etc and all the things I wasn@t even 25 years ago. Shes just opening her own art shop and wants to meet for coffee. I still feel a complete outcast and failure. Scraped a third of course.

Nimble said...

I am touched by how gently you regard your younger self even though you see those lost opportunities. My four years at a small liberal arts college in Texas were the most neurotic time of my life. I was anxious and lonely and desperate for a calling. Luckily I was also skeptical and goofy or I would have been ripe for either an abusive boyfriend or a cult. I used to shy away from the memories of myself at that time. But I have learned to forgive my flighty younger self for what was done and what was left undone. I did manage to make some close friends and have some wonderful experiences (some grubby and some sublime) in between the self loathing and the pining for purpose.

BramblyMouse said...

I wrote a long comment. It didn't post. Suffice to say, I hated uni, and am glad I'm not the only one who feels they wasted what should have been a great time.

Lisa-Marie said...

Mine was a bit of mixture of really wonderful stuff with an undercurrent of me heading toward a (small) nervous breakdown. I went to Uni not long after my mum died. I made good freinds(who are still my close freinds), got drunk alot, had a nice boyfriend, and nice 'pulls' when I was single. I loved my course too.

This is all good, except that actually, I was in utter denial of the fact that I was desperately sad about my mum dying, which became evident just before my second year placement, when I went to see my tutor and couldn't talk to her for crying(clearly not appropriate for someone about to go on placement in a Dundonian school) - a trip to the doctor comfirmed that I had grief based depression, and i left uni a week later (I transferred when I moved to live with the husband, and finished my degree)

I think in the end, I have a good degree that I enjoyed studying for and that got me the job I love, a lot to good memories (many more than bad) and solid core of very good friends (I know they are good because they stuck with me even when I went a bit crazy), so on balance I think I probably did not bad.

I didn't become who I was going to though...

J. said...


Kristie B said...

I absolutely hated university. My life was chaos back then - no, I was chaos back then. No idea how lucky I was to be getting an education on someone else's dime. 2 years in and I dropped out.

Now, almost 10 years after I started as an undergraduate, I am working here and loving it (and in misery over the fact that I am leaving my beloved school in 2 weeks). I realize now all of the things I should have/ could have loved when I was here as a student - quirky professors, people who enjoy talking about history, old books and libraries, student groups...

What would youth be without being totally utterly stupid and ungrateful?

Ivywindow said...

I don't think I took as much advantage of university as I could have. I didn't particularly like my subject, but who I was at the time had to do something academic and that would lead to a "good" (and for that read well paid) career. The first year was spent in the bar, the 2nd in the library and college theatre, and really, in hindsight, I was done with it all at the end of the 2nd year, so I dropped out for a year, and came back and did the 3rd year which was all work all the time.
I came out of uni with a very average degree, no desire to work in my chosen field, 1 truly marvellous friend and a sense of relief that I was done with it all. Although I do still panic occasionally that I haven't finished, and just no longer have the drive to do so, and am missing lectures or tutorials or some such. I think that probably says it all really.

zmkc said...

Suzie Boyt often writes about being miserable at Oxford. The reaction of everyone else in the world to gaining entrance to Oxford or Cambridge adds to the burden of not enjoying it for those who don't - "so many people long for this and here I am being ungratefully sad."

connie said...

Bloody hell, what a lot of comments. You must have touched a chord Emma! Me? I gave up at 15 and wandered from class to class and handed in my books. There didn't seem to be anyone who had the wherewithall to ask "Why?" Started off at Period 1 and worked my way through... Too difficult to do any homework in a two bedroom house with meself being the eldest (oldest?) of 7 off to work to work it was. Tried to improve 'self' with night classes at the secondary school I had just left and met my husband to be. Me 15 and him 17. Married at 17 and 19. Cut out an ad to go to Australia for 10 pounds and we were off. And here we are 40 or so years later - 3 children, 7 grand-children and blessed. Although I left school at the tender age of quinze, I never lost the desire to learn. Course followed course and I have always felt very blessed to have been in a position to really enjoy the various courses I have taken. The course at the moment...various books on share trading! Somehow we have to make some money - 'he' simply cannot continue working as a carpenter/builder - the old 'body' seems to be giving up. It's been and still is a very blessed life. Merci beaucoup for this very special post Emma.

SUEB0B said...

I was so insufferably self-centered that I can't imagine why anyone from those years ever speaks to me (including, and especially, my family). It was a weird time. I behave inappropriately. I was gripped by crippling procrastination and never wanted to go to class or to do projects. It was a time of getting through. I never felt interested or as if I was getting educated. I just muscled my way through and then didn't finish my final project, so the whole thing was moot.

Anonymous said...

I got married -- one year BEFORE I finished my degree. I was just shy of 21 and thought I KNEW "ALL" ABOUT "LIFE"....

That short-lived marriage took me to Canada which in turn eventually led to Belgium (where exactly IS Belgium I initially wondered, placing it on the map at about Denmark. To this day I always get asked the geography questions in the final circle of Trivial Pursuit).
I have been an "expatriate" now for two-thirds of my life! Never thought that would happen!

I learned about sex and drugs in university -- and how to take care of myself, physically and financially.
I still wonder what life might have been like had I finished that BFA degree. (I'd be a struggling artist WITH a degree as opposed to a lazy artist withOUT one...)

Pat (in Belgium)

Isabelle said...

Utter ratshit for this lurker too. Isolation, depression, procrastination - which one led to the other is still unclear. Almost a decade later, a profound regret for the missed opportunities, for the what-could-have-been. still, i met two very good friends there, one of which became the father of my son so all has not been in vain.