How I squandered college life
by Dennis Ernst • July 03, 2020
Now that summer is in full swing, I'm spending some extra time off-duty to enjoy the beautiful weather. Here in N. Michigan summer weather is measured in weeks, not months, so I'd better enjoy it while I can. That means I'm going to dig into the archives of my column and dust off some of my favorites that you probably will enjoy. Since I've been writing this column for 22 years, they'll probably be new to you. If not, I'll bet you'll enjoy them just as much as you did the first time.
This month's classic editorial goes back to July, 2003 when I still lived in Southern Indiana, and reminisces about a trip I took in 1987. Enjoy.
Take care, my friend,
Dennis J. Ernst, editor
Originally posted 7/2003.
It was an unscheduled stop on my vacation. Actually, it wasn't even along my way to Michigan's western coast and the lake that bears its name. I had left Southern Indiana six hours earlier and for reasons I didn't understand had been lured like a trout to a spinner east instead of west at a pivotal interchange. Although I had studied for four years on the campus of Albion College in Albion, Michigan, my experiences there were mostly unpleasant. I had enough dismal memories to keep me from returning to campus for several lifetimes. So why was I being drawn back now?
The line separating my adolescence from adulthood was drawn in permanent ink with a heavy hand on Sept. 23,1973. At the age of 17, my parents delivered me to college to stake my claim on a career. That day was almost as traumatic for me as being born. In fact, both deliveries had an urgent anxiety about them: I was leaving the warmth and security of comfortable surroundings and, having outgrown them, was being delivered to a strange new world. As in birth, I was scared that first day and had no idea what waited on the other side,. The only certainty in both cases was that there was no turning back.
But as I waved good-bye from the curb by my dorm, the similarities ended dramatically. At birth I was immediately accepted by loving parents who wanted me to be a part of their world; walking into my dorm I was surrounded by people who didn't know me or even care that I was there.
The next four years were punctuated by adversity. I was weeded out of the pre-med program, swindled by roommates twice, spent a semester on academic probation and gave up a whole summer for a course in organic chemistry. When I graduated, I didn't care if I ever came back.
So what was I doing back on campus in front of Robinson Hall on an August afternoon 10 years later? I scanned the grounds before me for a clue.
Robinson Hall stretched up three stories behind me and was banked in rectangular fashion by similar ivy-covered structures that constituted the Quad. Lofty ideals and smug confidence dripped off every facade. Each building was linked to a contiguous sidewalk like chains to a bracelet, which outlined a grassy center crisscrossed by paved shortcuts to and from buildings on opposite sides.
A few summer students scurried from one class to another, their ambitious steps slapping the sidewalk. Directly in front of me the cement widened to accommodate "the Rock," a four-foot tall, irregularly shaped boulder mounted on a 4-inch concrete base. This structure has inspired artists and pranksters through the years in endless expressions of thought and bad taste.
I suppose the dean and faculty were appalled when the first midnight pranksters baptized the Rock with enamel years ago, changing it forever from an aesthetic sculpture to a voice of the student body. Layer after layer was applied through the years as college officials reluctantly surrendered it as a monument to free speech.
There was always something mischievous about painting the Rock. It was done only at night, usually late at night, as if getting caught and expelled was a possibility. Pretending there was risk involved made it a bigger thrill, I suppose. During my four years at Albion, the Rock had been painted every color and combination imaginable. It had been tarred and feathered, toilet-papered, ignited, pelted with eggs and stink bombs, covered with shaving cream, obscenities, political statements, birthday greetings, secret codes and Greek symbols. Naked fraternity pledges were occasionally chained to its base. It had lived a colorful life.
As I stood there before the Rock not quite knowing what to do with myself, a void in the memory of my college life emerged and scolded me into remorse. I strolled counterclockwise around the Quad and began to realize that I had missed something significant as a student.
To my left stood Dickie Hall, which houses the theater. One of my best roommates was an Albion College Player. I never saw one of his performances.
I stopped at the first turn and looked south toward the athletic field where many football games and intramural events happened without me; I went home on weekends. Every spring my fraternity organized a field day in the grassy center of the Quad just ahead. I always found something to study instead. Half way around I passed Kresge Gymnasium where students rang the rafters with school spirit during basketball season. My voice was never among them. "The Keller," a short-order café and social center, stood across the street. I never made time to visit it.
I went to the library at Albion, but never to dances. I worked on term papers, but never a homecoming float. I ran to classes, but never for Student Council. I knew a lot of equations, but not many students. I memorized formulas, but forgot to have fun. And I never painted the Rock.
Now, as I completed my walk around the Quad, I stood before the boulder with my head hung low, as if I had been summoned to appear before the Dean of Social Enrichment. The part of my cortex that should have been full of pleasant reflections of college was instead painfully blank.
It took 10 years and the silent mocking of a rock to make me realize that I was far too serious a student to enjoy my education. I had passed up every opportunity to grow outside of my classrooms and books; to strike a balance between duty and diversion; to alternate adversity with frivolity; to add color to an otherwise stony gray segment of my life.
As I leaned backwards against the Rock and stared into the baby blue Michigan sky, I mourned the absence of memories and friends never made.
That night---late that night---the Rock got a fresh coat of paint from an alumnus who finally realized why be had returned. Upon it, in fraternity blue and gold, was his liturgy in two words to all students, present and future: Paint Me.
Dennis J. Ernst
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