On Life: Tales of a College Dropout
Last week, my daughter started her freshman year in college. We spent an emotional weekend moving her into her dorm (3 1/2 hours away from us), making sure she had everything she needed, dispensing words of advice, and lingering long after she was all set, giving hugs and shedding quite a few tears. On the drive home, with my heart in my throat, I couldn't help but reflect on my own college experience. The following is an account of that experience:
The lock on my bedroom door couldn’t keep out the voices. My father’s tone was angry as he shouted at me to open the door. My mother tried to pacify him as she urged him to be patient. I crouched in the corner next to my bed. I tried to sort out my thoughts while some baser instinct told me to curl up, fetal-like, into a ball. A familiar wave of panic washed over me. Dropping out of college wasn't an option in my family. I knew that. But still I ignored my parents and grabbed a pillow, throwing it over my head.
Three months earlier, when we had packed my belongings into the family car and drove to Bloomington, Indiana, I never would have imagined this was how things would end up. “How are you doing?” My mom asked, turning in the front seat to look at me as we turned off the highway onto the one-lane road that led to campus. “I’m fine! Good!” I exclaimed, my voice a higher pitch than normal. I didn’t want to admit to the knot in my stomach that left me feeling empty and jittery at the same time. “Are you sure?” My mom asked, frowning at me. “It’s okay to be nervous.”
"Oh, I’m nervous, but I’m mostly excited!”
I wanted hard to believe that was true. I remembered the first time I had toured Indiana University's campus with my best friend, D. I fell in love at first sight. The beautifully manicured grounds, stately brick buildings, and lawns filled with lounging students were the postcard image of what I imagined college should be. I had visited other schools, but that afternoon, I made up my mind that I.U. was the school for me. D agreed.
We eagerly filled out our applications and waited to see if we would be accepted for early admissions. I began checking my mailbox every day, hoping for a thick envelope that would mean I had been accepted. My dream came true Halloween of 1991.
* * *
“I got in!” I exclaimed, clutching the phone to my ear.
D gasped on the other end. “Oh my gosh, you heard back?”
“It came in the mail today!”
I hugged the acceptance letter to my chest, brimming with excitement. I had only read the first few words (Dear Melissa, Congratulations on your acceptance to Indiana University) before rushing to the phone to call D. "Did you get anything in the mail?" I asked, bouncing on the edge of my bed.
She put the phone down and there was a moment of muffled sound. Then I heard a far-off squeal and she ran back to the phone. “I did too!” She yelled. “Best. Halloween. Ever!”
The remainder of our senior year was a blur of excitement, anticipation, and planning. D and I were invited to spend a weekend in a sorority house on I.U.'s campus with the daughter of a family friend. She showed us around the house, explaining how four girls shared a room during the day with desks and a single bed, but they didn’t sleep there. “We have cold dorms and warm dorms that are quiet and dark all the time,” she explained. “You can sleep there no matter what time of day it is.” We hung out in her room while she and her roommates dressed for the night, then joined them for dinner at one of the small pizza parlors on Kirkwood Avenue.
That night as I lay in one of the beds in the “cold” dorm, I listened to the steady tick, tick, tick of alarm clocks, the gentle breathing and occasional snore from one of the sleeping girls, the soft click as the door to the dorm occasionally opened and closed, and I thought, I can do this. This feels right. This can be home.
After high school graduation, I was acutely aware of time slipping toward the date that had been marked on my calendar for so long. Three months became two, then one, then weeks, days, hours. I began to feel homesick even when I was home, but I tried not to dwell on it. My mother and I shopped for all the accessories and items and school supplies I would need, filling and labeling boxes that we stored in our guest room. D and I bought matching bedspreads and desk lamps and mirrors and throw pillows. We shopped for hotplates and mini-refrigerators. I enjoyed the distractions, the graduation festivities and midsummer family vacation and bittersweet farewell parties with friends as we all prepared to move on. Before I knew it, the week of August 24th, 1992, arrived, and I was officially a college student.
* * *
With my parents’ help, we managed to haul most of my belongings up to my dorm room on the first trip. I glanced at the strangers I passed, other incoming freshmen flanked by anxious parents, wondering if there was a future friend among the unfamiliar faces. “This is it,” I said when I located the door with my assigned room number. I clutched the key I had been given at registration in my sweaty palm. I turned it in the lock and opened the door.
On my campus tour and past visits, I had seen other dorm rooms either staged or personalized with posters and photos, made cozy with rugs and bedding. But as the door swung open, I was instantly reminded of a prison cell with concrete walls and bare linoleum floors, institutional-style bunks lining one wall with bare mattresses. I swallowed. I moved to the window and glanced outside. Instead of the sprawling green lawns and mature trees that constituted the heart of the campus, I had a view of a street lined with cars and a factory across the way. A tall smokestack rose above what few trees could be seen on the lawn. My stomach dropped just a little more. But then I saw D getting out of her parents' car and I felt a rush of relief.
“They’re here!” I exclaimed.
I waited impatiently by the door until I saw D turn the corner into the hall, then I waved to her with both hands. She smiled and ran to my side, and we hugged liked we hadn’t seen each other in forever (even though we had spent all summer together planning and preparing). She stepped into the room and looked around, blowing a strand of red hair out of her eyes.
“Which bunk do you want?” I asked.
“I’ll take the top. That ok?”
“Works for me!”
We giggled as she climbed the ladder and I jumped on the lower mattress. We picked our desks and started unpacking while our mothers hung our clothes in the closet and our fathers assembled some of the bigger items. By the end of the day, we were hot and sweaty and disheveled, but the room finally felt a bit more like home.
Our parents took us to dinner before leaving us on our own. With the day’s excitement starting to fade, I found myself picking at my food, not able to swallow over the lump that kept rising in my throat. I was silent on the way back to the dorm. Outside my parents’ car, I tried not to show the tears that threatened to fall. My mother wrapped her arms around me, and I wanted to melt in the comfort of her embrace. My father took my face in his hands and kissed my forehead. “We’ll miss you, sweetie,” he said in his soft voice. “You’ll do great. We are so proud of you.”
I watched them get in the car, waving as they drove away, and only then did I let myself cry.
* * *
I don’t know when I started to lose myself. It was slow at first, almost imperceptible. The first few days, D and I stuck together like glue. We went to “mixers” for freshmen and dorm team-building parties in our common room. We went to a dance in one of the campus gymnasiums. When we fell into bed at night, we talked about how much we liked it. I thought I was being truthful with myself.
Once classes started, I didn’t see as much of D. Because I was naturally introverted, I felt like I had lost a crutch. While I tried to smile and talk to the students I met, I was always tongue-tied and nervous. I also realized just how big and confusing it was to navigate the campus. If I found the right building, it was still a challenge to find the right classroom in a maze of hallways. On my way back to my room each day, I walked the same beautiful grounds, but something was different. I was different.
The weekends were devoted to Greek life. Soon, all I heard in the halls and bathrooms were girls asking each other which sororities they were rushing and which fraternity parties they were checking out. Like a piece of kelp carried by the ocean, I followed the tide of freshmen girls to “Greek Row.” According to the upperclassmen, it was important to be seen at these events if you hoped to rush a sorority.
Walking up to my first fraternity party, I felt hollow. All around me were laughing students, flirting, swaying drunkenly, holding red and blue Solo cups in their hands. Music blared from open windows. The floors inside were sticky from spilled beer and you had to shout just to be heard.
“It’s an Around-the-World party!” One of my dormmates yelled.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Each room has a signature cocktail!” Someone else shouted. From the nearest doorway, I saw a group of guys standing in front of a long table, shot glasses lined up in front of them, downing their contents one after the other as the crowd around them chanted, “Drink! Drink! Drink!”
I ended up sitting on a stained and saggy couch, nursing a warm beer in one hand as the boy next to me draped an arm around my shoulder and leaned in to shout in my ear. His breath was stale on my neck. Everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time, and when I allowed
myself to think, I wondered why I wasn’t.
I began to dislike the people around me. The boys who flirted obnoxiously and the girls who sized me up with one glance. I began to dislike myself even more, trying so hard to fit in. If this was Greek life, I wasn’t sure I wanted any part of it.
* * *
On my first trip home, I walked through my front door and felt my body relax. I hadn’t realized how tense I had been for the past month until my muscles seemed to unclench. Standing in the hallway of my childhood home, I almost felt weak with relief. Sleeping in my bed was both wonderful and bittersweet because I knew I only had a few nights in my old room. Only a couple of days of shopping at the mall with my mom or writing on my computer in my dad’s office while he worked and we listened to his jazz CDs. Our family dinners and time spent lounging on the couch, watching Seinfeld and Friends, were stolen moments of peace. Memories of the Friday nights I had spent with friends hanging out in each other’s basements, or the sleepovers we'd had on each other’s floors, seemed childish and innocent now, but I longed for them. With the exception of D and a few other people, I hadn’t found anyone I really connected with on campus.
I began to wonder if I would find anyone else who longed for home and missed their old self the way I did.
I had acquired a parking pass, so instead of my parents driving me back, I was able to take my own car. I pulled out of my driveway with a knot in my stomach. By the time I pulled onto campus, my hands were shaking.
* * *
“Melissa, I heard you have a car in A lot.”
R, one of the girls that lived down the hall from my room, came up to me in the dining hall with a smile on her face. We had only spoken a few words to each other, but now she sat beside me and leaned confidentially over her tray like we were old friends.
"I do," I replied cautiously.
“That’s awesome!” She smiled even brighter. “Listen, is there any chance you could pick my boyfriend up from the airport this weekend? He’s flying in to see me, and I’d love to grab a ride with you to go get him.”
Before I could think, I was nodding. “Sure,” I said. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“You’re the best!” R said before getting up and moving to another table.
That week, I felt more and more distant from everyone and everything. I lost all interest in my classes. I skipped meals. A nasty cold spread through our dorm, and the dining hall was emptier than usual. I shivered in bed, blowing my nose and longing to sit next to my mom as she handed me a cup of tea. I looked in the mirror and saw a stranger with red-rimmed eyes. I finally picked up the phone and called home.
“Sweetie! How are you?”
“I’m fine, Mom,” I lied.
“You sound congested. Are you okay?”
“I’ve just got a cold. Nothing serious. But Mom, I was wondering . . . Can I come home this weekend?”
There was a slight pause on the other end, and then my mother asked, “Are you really okay?”
“Just a little homesick,” I admitted.
“Well,” my mother said, her voice gentle, "you never have to ask. Of course you can come home.”
The next day I felt a little better, knowing I would leave for home after classes on Friday. But then I remembered I had promised R a ride to the airport. I wrestled with the idea of staying for the weekend in the hopes that she and I could become closer, but the ache I felt at not going home was too strong. I nervously walked down the hall and knocked on her door.
I opened her door a crack and peered inside. She was sitting on the floor with her schoolbooks spread before her. Her roommate was sitting at her desk with headphones over her ears.
“Hey!” R said brightly when she saw me. “What’s up?”
I swallowed and said in a rush, “Listen, R, I hate to do this, but I’m not going to be able to drive you to the airport this weekend. Something came up and I have to go home. I’m so sorry!”
I watched as her smile faded and she looked down at her lap. She didn’t say anything for a moment, and I felt my face grow hot. “I’m really sorry,” I said again, and she shrugged and said, “Well, I guess I’ll have to find someone else now. It’s a little last minute, but what can I do?”
I could feel my pulse in my ears. Should I take back what I said to appease her, to gain her approval? Should I offer to be her boyfriend’s chauffeur in the hopes that she would deem me worthy of friendship? Did I even want to be her friend?
I backed out of the door and leaned against the wall. My breath was shallow and my chest hurt. I felt a rush of anxiety. From the other side of the door, R’s roommate asked, “What was that all about?”
“Oh, nothing. She’s being selfish. She told me she'd give me a ride, and now she claims to have other plans. What a bitch."
The words stung as I stood, unseen, outside their doorway. I turned and ran back to my room.
* * *
When I came home almost a year after receiving my acceptance letter, it was only supposed to be for the weekend. But as I sat on the floor of my bedroom, surrounded by the comforting memories of my childhood, I knew I wasn't strong enough to go back. I knew that if I did what my father wanted . . . get in the car and back to school, where I was only two months into my freshman year . . . I would have a full-blown panic attack. Yet to stay home locked in my room, essentially dropping out, would be even worse. College had always been the next natural step after high school, and now I felt trapped and scared.
I had chosen I.U. because it appeared picture-perfect. And to some it was the perfect school. But for me, it wasn't. If gap years had been more popular at the time, I probably would have benefited from taking time off to try and figure out who I was and what was right for me, but at the time, that option never crossed my mind.
There was the sound of scratching against the doorknob and I knew my mother had manipulated the lock. The door opened and I cringed. I had never seen my father look so angry. My mother stood behind him.
“Melissa, you have to go back to school!” He yelled.
“I can’t,” I whispered, shaking my head. “I can’t, I can’t . . .”
“We paid good money for you to attend, so you at least have to finish out the semester!”
My mother put her hand on my father's arm and led him out of my room. "Let me talk to her,” I heard her say softly. She was always the buffer between me and my father. I could more easily open up to her; I had a harder time showing my father my vulnerable side. After my father stormed back down the hall, I sat beside my mother, unable to look up from my lap, letting all my feelings spill out. She didn't speak except to tell me everything would be okay, and then she told me to rest. "We'll talk later."
She must have told my father what I said, because later that day, he came back and apologized. He sat beside me on my bed and I broke down crying in his arms. I wanted nothing more than for him to be proud of me, and I knew I had greatly disappointed him.
“Come on,” he said, taking my hand. “Let’s get you out of this room and go for a walk.”
As we walked, I finally confessed everything . . . How I felt like I didn't fit in with the other girls in my dorm, all of whom seemed more interested in rushing sororities than anything else. How I didn’t enjoy the course of study I had chosen and now my grades were slipping. How depression and nerves kept me up at night. How, even living with my best friend, I felt so alone. How I felt like a stranger to myself.
“What’s wrong with me?” I asked, wiping at the tears that still fell onto my cheeks.
“Nothing’s wrong with you,” my father assured me. “Maybe you just need some time, and that’s okay. We’ll figure this out. You can start somewhere new next semester.”
“I think I need help, Daddy. I’m weak.” I felt a part of me break as the words came out of my mouth.
“No you’re not,” my father said, stopping and turning to me. “Don’t ever think that. It takes a strong person to admit they’re not happy and that they need help.”
And just like he had the day they left me on campus, he took my head in his hands and kissed my forehead and said, “I’m proud of you.”
* * *
Almost 30 years later, these memories still hurt. I wonder sometime what would have happened if I’d finished the semester instead of dropping out. Would I have become stronger, made new friends, felt less homesick as time went on? If I had stayed, would my life have led me to where I am now, happily married with a beautiful family, enjoying my career as a writer, and still living close to my own family?
The day I drove back to Indiana University to collect my belongings was one of the hardest days of my life. I was nervous about who I’d run into, especially R. I was worried D would be angry and never want to speak to me again. I dreaded seeing all the happy, confident expressions on the students' faces while I was so very unsure about everything.
When I started at the University of Cincinnati for the winter semester, commuting from home and taking general liberal arts classes, it was only supposed to be temporary. But I soon discovered that I liked the hustle and bustle of a city campus. I liked the metropolitan feel and the idea that life didn't revolve strictly around the school. I met my first serious boyfriend. I became lifelong, true friends with a number of classmates (and D and I are still friends to this day). I didn't feel alone anymore. I enjoyed four more years living near my parents, eventually getting an apartment with friends. I dove into my writing and decided to pursue a more creative career. I found mentors in many of my professors. It took meeting my husband to finally give me the push to leave home, but by that time I was confident in who I was and what I wanted. In hindsight, despite all the pain and loss of self-confidence I experienced, I wouldn't change anything in my past.
My daughter is now two weeks into her freshman year at college. We live in a different time than when I went to school. Today's students face not only those first steps of leaving home and discovering their independence, but they also have to live with the fear, uncertainty, and restrictions of CoVid-19. If I have one lesson to teach my daughter as she steps out into this scary world, it’s that it is okay to make a wrong step, to learn from your experiences and move on with your head held high. That from failure comes new wisdom. I thought I knew myself at eighteen. I thought I was an adult and had this thing called life all figured out. I was wrong. I’m still trying to figure it all out! But I’m stronger because of my experience, more in tune with my inner voice, and for that I am thankful.
Lex laughing at me as I try to figure out FaceTime