In the weeks before graduating UCLA, I made a pledge to myself: I would find a way back to college.
The route was inconsequential. Grad student. Janitor. The lady who licks envelopes in the chancellor’s office. It didn’t matter.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew it would be more pleasant — easier, friendlier, prettier — if I did it on a campus.
College, for me, was a short-lived utopia. A quirky cultural convergence where the safety of childhood overlapped briefly, miraculously, with the freedom of adulthood.
Hemming the historic, litter-free quads of my alma mater was a sort of make-believe mini city with its own pizza parlor, bowling alley, library, post office and museum. It was an idyllic space, kind of like you picture Switzerland: everyone happy and good-looking with their health care paid for.
I had a university debit card that my parents loaded up with cash for me to dispense on textbooks, nutritious lunches and the cappuccinos that fueled my all-nighters. I was playing grown up, and the other 40,000 people on campus had agreed, quite sportingly, to play along.
To my glee, I was recently invited back on to a college campus to teach writing. Not much has changed in the hrmphzrmph years since I last lugged a backpack. College air is still more crisp — more buoyant with optimism, more lofty with intellect — than the stagnant and world-weary atmosphere hovering just outside its perimeter.
The promise of support is everywhere. Banners span each pristine walkway touting “Career Advancement!” “Transfer Achievement!” and “The Gateway to Success!” There are tutors and daycare centers, scholarships and escorts to walk you to your car after dark.
Like parents helping a baby learn to walk, these programs exist solely to ensure that students, in the infancy of their maturity, never fall down.
I was sitting in my office hours last week, hoping some struggling student might seek my counsel, when I learned of the horrendous bloodshed at Virginia Tech. And I couldn’t get the information to make sense. Not the stories, the photos, the on-the-scene videos. Not the quotes, the timelines, the memorials. Cognitively, I couldn’t arrange them in a way that allowed me to believe the deadliest shooting in U.S. history had taken place at society’s only remaining sanctuary for idealism.
It couldn’t have. College is a haven. Somewhere to experiment with a safety net, to stumble but never fall. Not a place where a freshman and senior are gunned down in their dorms before breakfast.
It’s a place to dream big and think carefully. To attend lectures in engineering buildings like Norris Hall and learn how to build. To make something out of nothing. To lay a steady and secure foundation and reach ever upward from there.
Not a place of thoughtlessness. Of destruction. Of fear.
College is freedom: deciding whether to sleep in or haul ass to an 8 o’clock class; opting to party rather than study, and facing the consequences. It’s not a campus-wide lockdown, an official notice to “stay away from all windows” or a madman chaining the exits to prevent your escape.
Students in French class don’t flip their desks upside down for protection. Mechanics students needn’t leap from second story windows. Those in computer class shouldn’t team up to barricade doors that won’t lock. (Why should they?) They don’t hide in teacher’s offices, or lay down on the floor beside bleeding bodies in the hopes of being mistaken for a corpse.
The ugly truth is that real life can be like that. Terrifying. Unpredictable. Unfair. Full of puncturing surprises and senseless loss.
But college isn’t supposed to be.
The victims at Virginia Tech fell down. We let them fall. And in so doing, we watched a utopia topple.