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Artifact – ULWR outside of Concentration (English 425)

Christopher at Michigan

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an essay by Christopher Thomas

English 425.002

Dr. John Rubadeau

Fall 2012

            Curren$y, a hip-hop rapper, likes to quip about emotional luggage that he has nothing of it; that he doesn’t check bags; that he just carries on and leaves that [baloney] in the past. I, contrastingly, am a prisoner of hindsight. There exists frequent, if not perpetual, tension in my head between my past and present selves. My thoughts and actions (or lack thereof) of the past and my wisdom of the present are embroiled in a mental thrust and parry that is both constant and stifling. How could I have done that? Why didn’t I say that? What in the Sam Hill was I thinking would have come of that? This never would have happened had I done a better job doing that. And so on, and so forth, enervating a significant amount of my brain’s capacity.

           The result of these introspections is a fierce desire to pass on to someone everything I’ve had to learn on my own.(Actually, if we’re being honest here, the fierce desire more so concerns being able to sit down with my younger self and give scroll-fulls of acumen to him. Realizing the barriers present to achieving such a feat, I digress.) I can’t help but be enthralled by how much better my college experience would have been had someone given me a few tips like, say, Dink Stover was given in Stover at Yale, a novel by Owen Johnson:

Before Stover stretched all the lighted panorama of the college and the multiplied strewn lights against the mysteries of stone and brick — lights that drew him to the quiet places of a hundred growing existencies — affected him like the lights of the crowded restaurant and the misty reflections of the glassy streets. It was the night, the mysterious night that suddenly had come into his boyish knowledge.

           It was immense, unfathomable — this spectacle of a massed multitude. It was all confounded, stirring, ceaseless,                                   feverish in its brilliant gaiety, fleeting, transitory, mocking. It was of the stage, theatric. It brought theatric emotions, too keenly sensitized, too sharply overwhelming. He wished to flee from it in despair of ever conquering, as he wished to conquer, this world of stirring ambitions and shadowy and fleeting years.

“I’m going to do for you,” said Le Baron’s voice, breaking the charm — “I’m going to do what someone did for me when I came here last year.”

He paused a moment, a little, too, under the spell of the night, perhaps, seeking how best to choose his words.

“It is a queer place you’re coming into, and many men fail for not understanding it in time. I’m going to tell you a few things.”

           It was there on the steps of the library that Stover learned the rules of the game. He was told information about the players at the table, the dealer, the cards in his hand, and the moves he could execute in order to walk away from the table an accomplished man, confident in his mastery of his own domain. Needless to say, nobody sat me down outside the Grad my freshman year to share precious insights on the mysteries of Michigan.

And, boy, could I have used some advice. I entered college with a drawer full of wicked graphic T’s, a head full of hair gel, and a mind full of nonsense. I had no clue about anything: school, relationships, the world, you name it. I didn’t know that it would be a bad idea to room with someone I knew. I didn’t know that college (like society in general) was a socially stratified place where you couldn’t just walk up to people, as if some sort of open-door policy were in place, and commence a lasting friendship together. I had no information, no benefit to offer anyone or anything, no unique qualities, no worthwhile experiences or insights, and no focus.  The product of a quintessential public school, I came into higher education thinking the University of Michigan was a much different place than the image that has been painfully pounded into my thick skull since August 2009.

Such a learning process has left me standing in stark contrast to my peers in regard to graduation. The other day, I heard some women, coming and going, chattering about the impending date of their graduation and the deep, dark depression to surely set in soon thereafter. To say the least, their remorse stood in stark contrast to my indifference concerning the matter.

The truth is, I find fault with most of my college experience. I find fault with most people, too. And because I perform my due diligence and subject myself to the same scrutiny with which I assess others, I further find fault with myself—both past and present—but, admittedly, mostly past. You may be asking yourself, how can the well-coifed, majestically cleft-chinned gent sitting before me have such insecurities, if any at all? Moreover, how can he view his Michigan experience as lackluster? Well, they stem from a difficult transition from someone I was to someone I am turning into.

I make a point to never refer to childhood as the time when I grew up. The only growing I did during those years was physical; it was a world of blissful ignorance and love. If I was capable of remembering those days the way they should be remembered, I’m certain they’d contend for some of the happiest I’ll ever know. It was my mom, my sister, my grandpa, my grandma, and I. That’s it. We saw some other relatives on Christmas and maybe a birthday here or there, but the other four were the only ones we each needed. If the past four years have shown me anything, it’s that here at Michigan is where I grew up.

To say I’m unimpressed with my recollections of my freshman self is to say J. Alfred Prufrock wasn’t really that worried about his looks in front of women. Ready to kick back after a grueling 16-hour work week spent taking shoddy notes on geology and classic civilizations, I gluttonized my third meal of the day alongside my roommate, neighbor from home, and now perpetual best friend. We then promptly returned to our dormroom and shut our door, maybe to catch some TV or Facebook chat the girl (another high-school acquaintance with whom I insisted on making the jump to college) I had kissed in my minivan that summer to discuss the finer points of my unending passion for her, for we.

I’m appalled to have defined my freshman year in terms of two predetermined people. The way we kept our door shut from all of the opportunities for new friendship and experiences is a travesty. It was fine for him, for he had (and still has) a girlfriend from high-school and someone to keep him entertained in her rare absence. I, too, thought all that was (and all that I needed) were two people. My rapport with them was predicated almost entirely on the fact that we happened to matriculate at the same school.

The days of playing my cards wrong as a freshman faded into days of even more botched, ill-informed moves after that first year. Returning home for the summer not speaking to either my neighbor or that girl, oblivious to all the adventures I had missed out on that year, I wasted no time in waltzing into another morass, one that would be fine while I managed to stay on top but that would suck me under and take months of effort to get out of.

My lifelong best friend (c. 1996 to 2010, intermittently), his girlfriend, and his girlfriend’s best friend would be another coterie of kids with whom I went to high school, banding together because there was really nothing else to do that summer, and, hey, we were all in college now, so we’d be mature and refined about it.

It was a summer of make-believe. I made myself believe we’d all be friends forever. We all lay out on Mackenzie’s driveway and watched the stars. I kissed her on the walkway leading up to her house and on the playground at the elementary school around the corner. We all went go-karting and slip-n-sliding and watched movies. It was pretty heady stuff. I remember, with much chagrin, being unable to hold back tears in front of my mom at the café where the four of us had eaten breakfast on the way to the pool the night after we had camped out in my backyard. The three of them had left for school before me. I could sense the summer was over—as were the friendships I wanted to hang onto so badly.

The days of fall semester sophomore year were spent dwelling on those memories, consumed by the losses of friends and feelings that I had convinced myself were permanent. Failing to solidify any real friendships freshman year, I signed a lease to live with another high-school kid and his four engineering buddies in a house so far away from campus that our neighbors consisted of a senior citizen named Pearline, the priest of the Zhen Buddhist Temple down the street, and a couple of seldom-seen graduate students. I took classes like anthropology-biology and communication, subjects I couldn’t have been more apathetic toward. I was operating under the misguided notion that there were easy college classes that could be taken to get an A, just like in high school. I had no friends, no academic plan, and no interests other than returning home to see my friends. I’d walk the two miles back to the house after daydreaming in class about summer memories and go in my room and watch TV and brood. I checked off the days counting down to various points during the semester when I could return home to see my two friends and that girl. It was a horrible existence, and I regret my decisions vehemently.

Tragedy was the only means of snapping me out of this pattern of getting overly attached to people and things that didn’t matter*. At the time, my definition of the word “tragedy” was having that girl forget about me the second summer had ended, or having failed that Calculus test (and course) freshman year. The only way to get me any closer to reality was to lose something.

The finality of my grandpa’s death four days after Christmas sophomore year was something that shook my world and remains something I struggle to grasp. It didn’t connect in my mind that there was nothing I could do, and that I’d never see the most important person in my life again. My trivial existence was suddenly abundantly apparent. While it was suggested I take a semester off, the time in college I had wasted toiling around with such insignificant flotsam and jetsam was enough to make me want to return and make something of my Michigan experience.

It was too late, however. Although I became more involved on campus and enrolled in classes that actually could be beneficial down the road, friendships were long solidified and summer plans already ironed out. I left that year much of the same way I had entered it, a little lost and with a hole in my heart that dwarfed the ones I thought I had had before.

To add to my sterling record of success so far at Michigan, my penultimate year of college was spent living in a basement apartment with two girls I had never met before. I had agreed to live with the same people from the previous year, but, fearful of repeating the same mistakes of the past, I decided to find a new place to live before school started. It was a risky move, but one that I am happy I made. Even though the apartment was a hovel, the three of us and the one girl’s boyfriend had an unexpectedly fun time together that year. I was careful to keep my distance from assigning superlatives to every relationship I entered, especially with women. I had learned by this point the best thing to do was stay focused on my own stuff; if other people want to be a part of it, they would be.

I landed an internship in D.C. for the summer. The summer was tremendous, one that, at a younger age having less prescience, would’ve left me mournful and depressed at its passing. But I had come to realize that the only way is forward, so it’s best to keep fond memories but to be careful not to let them be imprisoning.

Entering my final year at Michigan, I incorrectly assumed there were no more (or at least, few other) obstacles I’d have to overcome. This year, I thought, there’d be no way my future self would be able to assail my experience; this year will be done the right way. But, even though I made the Crew team and finally understood the school’s social milieu, my mom lost her job of nine years at Waterford Crystal, and there was a bedbug outbreak at the decrepit, shack of a house I had leased with the one real friend I had made throughout college. The housing crisis drove a wedge in me and my buddy’s friendship and cast a shadow over my last autumn at Michigan.

College was characterized by struggle. I often wonder if something was wrong with the fit—did I belong in another school, or was I in over my head? Would things have clicked for me elsewhere, or was I just a misfit? For one, I never felt as though I could really prosper and thrive here. I think it has to do with the hordes of students that go here—we can’t all be leaders and the best. I’m stymied by some students’ disregard of humility and decorum. Moreover, few students seem to have a concept of what they can do for Michigan (myself included, for most of my college career); it’s all what Michigan does for them. The logo is flaunted and boasted about incessantly. Few strive to leave it a better place than they have found it.

Furthermore, I know I’m stifled by lack of motivation stemming from the knowledge that there are at least twenty other schools equal to or superior to this one out there. What makes me so great? Juxtaposing my school with other institutions also leads me to wonder how I can be sure I chose the right one.

Instead of evaluating every aspect of every possible scenario regarding something, I need to learn to decisively choose what I feel is best for me and let go of exogenous factors over which I have no control. It’s estimated that two-thirds of my mental capacity and confidence levels are sucked up by frivolous cogitations. If I would just leave stuff in the past and not worry what others are doing, I wouldn’t always be operating on the dregs of my capabilities.

Sure, it’d be nice to sit down with my 18-year-old self on that first, mystical night of college, but that would defeat the purpose of the journey. Havoc, one-half of the rap duo Mobb Deep, says that people make mistakes, but mistakes make people. Looking at my growth throughout college makes me thankful I did come to school here; there was so much I had to learn (and most assuredly still do) about the world. I’m grateful the school accepted a cocky, dumb high-school kid and gave him the chance to make something of himself. Did my Michigan experience click? Not really. Am I happy with the person I’ve become as a result? Most certainly. While there may be other schools where I could’ve undergone this process and ultimately came out more successful, there are also hundreds of other schools where I would’ve remained the same with no understanding of myself or what it means to work, suffer, and make something out of the cards I was dealt.


* “Matter” in the sense of courses of action taken to ensure the most long-run benefit.

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