The Grumpiest Guy in the Room

On College and High School

Animal House, Universal Pictures

Well, that’s all she wrote, it seems. I’ve just had my last final exam of my last semester at school. This is, of course, not the final exam I’ll ever take, for I have much schooling — though perhaps not much learning — still to do. In a few months, I’ll be off to pastures, or skyscrapers, anew. Time will tell — and hopefully quite soon. But since I’ve just wrapped up my time at this particular school, it seems fitting to reflect upon some things for a moment or two, so that’s what I shall do.

First, I must make the unavoidable comparisons between high school and college. However, my comparisons will be skewed by my unique college experience, that of a home-bound commuter. Still, I did the college thing, just with more driving than the average student. Back to the subject matter at hand. High school was the antithesis of my ideal experience. Media portrays high school as a time of innocence, passion, longing, frustration, glory, romance, and so on and so forth. High school is, judging from my own experiences, few of those things. It was four years of drudgery, miasma, smelly pits, oily skin, stupid thoughts, and angsty soliloquies. Girls looked the other way and guys couldn’t complete sentences — myself included. I try to redeem the high school experience by asserting that the teachers were good. But they weren’t. Perhaps that characterization is unfair; perhaps the structure of our school and public school broadly didn’t allow for my teachers to operate how they’d like, to teach to their highest ability. But the fact remains that I had but a small handful of teachers who I enjoyed, all of whom were in the history department, all of whom routinely flipped administration the bird.

College is a different thing altogether. The obvious differences include greater (or total) independence, a stark decline in social drama, fewer familiar faces, an increased workload, and a more varied classroom experience. In college, one could sit in a 100-student lecture in the morning and a four-student workshop in the afternoon. In high school, every class is a 32-student mishmash of Common Core and time wasting. While not every class proved enjoyable or even bearable, the change of scenery, the variability of experiences, allowed for engagement or renewal, if nothing else.

Much more drinking is done, too. But that’s a given.

The greatest and most enjoyable difference between the two modes of schooling is the flexibility of the faculty. Of course, the structures keeping faculty in line are wholly and categorically different in high school than in college, but one is objectively more conducive to learning and fulfillment than the other, and that is causally related to the freedom of the faculty to act how they will, not how they’re told to. Due to capital-s Standards and limited funding and any number of averse-incentives, high school teachers are, more often than not, shackled to the bubble sheet. To be sure, there are college professors who give out 100-question multiple choice exams. But, in college, the point of taking the class isn’t merely to ensure that the teacher gets the best possible aggregate standardized-test scores, it’s to learn a thing or two. A shocking idea, I know. Over two semesters, I took two different history courses with the same professor. Colin McCoy’s his name. Imagine Albert Einstein’s hair on a 70-year-old giant banjo player. That’s Colin McCoy. Both courses I took with him were devised as three-hour lecture classes. So, for an academic year, I sat there for three hours every Tuesday night and listened to a history savant describe the world to me. He encouraged argument, dissent, and rebuttal — though he was clear that he always had the final word and that his classroom was an “autocracy, not a democracy.” His tests always included 10 or so multiple choice questions that were wholly subject to debate. But the meat of the tests came after the multiple choice in the form of at least six essays. Of course, he didn’t force students to write six fully fledged essays, just fragments. But his tests were 99% writing, 1% sweating. He made his students think on the fly with their pens, not memorize facts and dates and names and bubble in circles. Most students hated him. He was challenging and long-winded and scatterbrained. But even his most staunch in-class enemies were honest in their assertion that he knew his stuff and that they learned more in a single class with him than they would in a semester of high school.

I spent two semesters with another eccentric bard, this time in the English department. Stu Bartow’s his name. A poet by trade and a professor by paycheck, I had Professor Bartow for British Literature I and II. In the first section, we did Beowulf and Paradise Lost and other crazy pseudo-English gems of early English letters. In the second section, we studied Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, the Brontës, Yates, and countless other literary demigods and demigoddesses. The class, in both sections, ran like this: Professor would stand at a podium in the front of the room, read a poem, and ask us to describe its meaning, its structure, its relation to modernity, its relation to the events of its day, and so on. That’s it. We did that for some of the greatest pieces of writing ever constructed. It was invaluable; it made me fall in love with writing — and poetry, more specifically — than I thought possible. Those classes made me — me! — want to sit down and bang out a poem, an inclination I had never hitherto had. Bartow’s exams were even more dynamic than McCoy’s. “Here’s your final,” he’d say. “Write me a four-page paper on something from Romanticism.” That was the entire assignment. It was wonderful.

I have flashbulb memories from college classes. I have nothing but dank nightmares from high school classes, classes in which I was elbow-to-elbow with kids who hated everything and wanted nothing to do with acquiring any knowledge whatsoever. Their rather silly rage rubbed right off onto me, and I was a damn terror for a while there. Now, I don’t mean to misconstrue my levels of frustration with peers in college, for it remains at a fever pitch, depending on the class. However, frustration with peers is so much more enjoyable in college than in high school. Most professors not only tolerate but celebrate a bit of ad hominem jousting from time to time. Keeps the wells topped up. Whereas in high school, the most tepid of blows was a welcome excuse to remove one vessel of body heat and odor from the room. In one of McCoy’s classes around this past election, a real dunce of a guy was going on — at some length, and not for the first time — about Mrs. Clinton’s so-called empirical and well-established mental disorders and so on. Essentially, this professional vapist thought Mrs. Clinton a demonic vessel for the Gay Agenda and snowflake machinations. I was a bit put off by all this and told him so. He told me to “go fuck my face.” Pardon the vulgarity, but those were his choice words, and not mine. McCoy and I — and the rest of the class — had a great laugh and went back to discussing Otto Von Bismark.

Much like high school, college is portrayed by the media in a fairly altogether inaccurate way. Of course, sometimes college is well and truly like Animal House. But most of the time it’s just studying and coffee and carbs and heavy eyelids. That said, the worst day of college is right up there with the best days of high school. I really don’t want to be in college forever, but while I am, I plan on soaking up all of the eccentricities and quirkiness I can.