November 26, 2002

This place will eat you up

By Tom Zimpleman

Maroon Viewpoints Staff

I would like to extend a cautious word of congratulations to the members of the Class of 2006: thus far you have not fallen prey to the temptation that has bedeviled so many of your fellow students. I am speaking, of course, of the temptation to complain about the social life of this university in the pages of Viewpoints. Such complaints appear only from first years, both because they are the students who are most unaware of what they have entered into here at the U of C and because they have the freshest memories of a well-adjusted social scene. Others, third and fourth years mainly, have made their own peace with the reality of this place, and discovered that once a student reaches the magical age of 21, all kinds of avenues in the Hyde Park nightlife begin to open up. Be warned, however, that if you are planning to write in with your observations of the party atmosphere of this school, thus far in your experience of it, that you will be making a grave mistake. You will not change this place; this place will break you, and eventually change you.

I'll offer up my own life as an example of the changes wrung in by going to school here. I was not admitted to this school in any honest sense of the word. I have been told that my grades and SAT scores were switched with that of a more richly deserving applicant due to a one-in-a-million clerical error in the admissions office. I was not surprised, though, because I only applied here on a whim, having decided one day to send out a few college applications I had stolen from the backseat of someone else's car to avoid the sermonizing of my guidance counselor, who bellowed at me daily regarding my lack of focus and initiative. I was, by all accounts, a hopeless case. I had--still have to this day, in fact--one of the longest vandalism rap sheets in Polk County. I was on a first-name basis with at least five different police units. I was in danger of not graduating from high school due to my decision to take half of the spring semester off to tour with my Megadeth cover band. Yet somehow, due to that above-mentioned one-in-a-million-clerical error, I was admitted and some unfortunate kid from San Jose got the adamant rejection letter that had been written for me. I arrived on campus in the fall of 1999 with plans to shake this place up.

I did, for at least a few weeks, and earned something of a reputation as the enfant terrible of Burton-Judson. The kid who threw a burning refrigerator into the law school fountain? Me. The kid who let the Hell's Angels camp out in the Burton lounge? Also me. The kid who would start every morning in the dining hall by washing down some Aramark hash browns with a fifth of Wild Turkey? I think a lot of people remember that that was me too.

During the reading period of that first quarter, however, I had a long talk with my RH. I remember very clearly what he told me, "Tom, the problem isn't just that you never go to class, or that you walk around high all the time. The problem is that you're uncool." Could it be true? Could I, who had been named favorite champagne room patron by a poll of local exotic dancers, really have been uncool? Yes, I was, simply by virtue of the fact that I had not realized the nature of the place I had gone to. "You see, a lot of people study here, Tom," my RH patiently reminded me, "and really, they don't think it's cool that you can set your drum machine to seizure-inducing levels. Now, we know that giving yourself a seizure is your favorite way to spend a Saturday night, but understand that it isn't going to win you many friends around here." This was my road to Damascus, my theft of the pears, my adding up of the numbers between one and one hundred; changes would have to be made. The answer at this point was clear: I was going to have to apply myself, work hard, and study. "You mutter a lot of insightful paradoxes to yourself when you're passed out in the house lounge," he told me. "Why don't you look into philosophy?" Philosophy it was.

I sometimes wonder what might have happened, had I not decided to come here. Certainly I wouldn't be the person I am today. I'd probably be somebody beating up someone who's a lot like the person I am today. But the lesson from my case is clear: if you envisioned a college life different from the one you're leading, well, you're going to have to make some changes. The social scene here is patient, and it will wear you down as well. Once you accept it, you'll find that your anxieties and second-guesses will start to melt away.