I remember this day, 12 years ago. I went to class on Monday, officially wrapping up my first three months in college. I was getting ready to head back home, for Thanksgiving; it would be my first trip back. And wow, was I looking forward to it.
As the crew learned, college is very different than high school.
My first chunk of college was definitely a major, major change from high school. I'd made some friends, but mostly I was just hanging out with people from my dorm. I was going to class, but nothing in my major yet -- the journalism program at Northwestern makes you take a quarter first to acclimate to school before they start beating the shit out of you, so I was mostly slogging through mundane intro-level liberal arts classes. Mostly, I was playing a lot of video games, watching the Indians blow the World Series, eating pizza, and, in general, not having a college experience even close to how I'd always envisioned it.
Of course, it turned around and ended up being a glorious, life-changing and -affirming, I'd-do-it-all-again-in-a-heartbeat experience. And it all turned around shortly after my freshman year Thanksgiving. The reason will be addressed in point 7 below.
I've talked to dozens of people about their first Thanksgivings back home and, inevitably, noticed some commonalities amongst the stories. How many commonalities? Just so happens to be 11. It's so nice when it works out like that.
So here are the 11 things that you should expect as a college freshman returning to your hometown for Thanksgiving. Enjoy.
You'll feel like a big fish again. It's almost impossible to show up at college and be anything but a small fish. You were the star athlete of your high school, student government vice president and prom king? So are 10 other guys in your dorm. At college, you're just another anonymous cocky freshman with your keys on a lanyard and cargo shorts.
Good old Trip McNealy.
"Can't Hardly Wait" is a wonderful movie for many reasons; but one of the best parts is when Jerry O'Connell's character (the former high school alpha male) talks to Mike Dexter (the current high school alpha male) and breaks the news that good-looking high school kings are a dime a dozen in college. Spot on. (Way more realistic than the scene where the nerdy kid makes out with two girls after performing "Paradise City".)
So there'll be some sweet relief when you walk into a party back home on Wednesday night and everyone knows you. The kids who are still in high school will eat up your college stories... the people your age (who are all secretly struggling too) will be thrilled to see you since you represent a comfortable status quo stability... and no older people will be there to shit on your fables because they all know better than to mingle with First Thanksgiving Freshmen.
Welcome back to being a big fish. Chances are you'll never really hit that status in college (very, very few people do -- the sheer math of it makes it unlikely)... but, hopefully, you can spend the next few years heading back home as a conquering hero, going to parties where everybody knows your name.
But... no matter how you've presented yourself at school, you're right back to your high school persona. College is a great time for personal re-branding. If your middle name is something like "Hunter" you've probably introduced yourself to people at college with that name. Everyone you've met has probably also told you how "I wouldn't say I was popular in high school... just that I was well-liked." And I won't even get started on how you've had a minor existential crisis, suddenly noticed the damage that mankind does to the environment, fallen in love with "Boondock Saints" and The Smiths, and learned that pajamas pants are perfectly viable in any venue as long as it's earlier than 12 pm or later than 8 pm.
I mean... even Summer Roberts of all people went through a love-of-nature thing as a college freshman.
But... when you get back to your hometown, you are no longer Hunter, the well-liked aspiring vegan who ponders whether his existence is at all meaningful. You're back to being Jeff, the guy who was only known by about one-third of the people in school, who liked Panic at the Disco for about nine months too long and threw up in math class in fourth grade.
In fact, any effort to share your re-branding efforts will be met with extreme amounts of sarcastic scorn. You are cemented in everyone's head one particular way. And pretty much nothing can change that.
The best way to handle it: Don't fight it. Just demonstrate your growth and new-found maturity by handling yourself with your old friends the way you do with your new friends. If your rebirth is legitimate, that shouldn't be too hard.
And if you find it's a struggle... well, then you're just putting on a show at college, and pretty soon everyone there's going to figure out the truth.
You've somehow forgotten how to do laundry. Nothing makes you revert to being an 10-year-old like returning home. Suddenly, there's someone else who might be able to pitch in on doing your laundry, making your food, making your bed, making sure you wake up in the morning. And your parents will be so happy to see you that, for this one trip only, they won't really mind picking up that slack for you. It reinforces to both of you that, despite your independence, you're still their kid and they're still your parents. Everyone takes comfort in that.
I recommend continuing to push this agenda on every subsequent trip home... as long as your parents let you get away with it. Even though I haven't done this since college, every time I go to Cleveland to visit my mom asks me if I've brought home a suitcase full of dirty laundry for her to do.
Segregated Thanksgiving is no fun at all.
Someone's breaking up. This is a well-documented Thanksgiving phenomenon -- that unbreakable high school couple who went to different schools both get home and, having seen that there's a whole world of exciting strangers and opportunities out there, decide to break up. Thanksgiving is a bloody, bloody Thursday for high school relationships. It's as much of a tradition as the Detroit Lions playing football or the Peanuts gang segregating the black kid during Thanksgiving dinner (see picture, right).
The Liberal Media even gives this legendary break-up weekend a terribly contrived and cringe-worthy name: The turkey drop. Ya know, I try to defend the media a lot of the time, but if I could blow the whole thing up and start it from scratch, my first order of business would be to ban news organizations from creating terrible, terrible terms. Turkey drop would be third on the list, right behind staycation and mancation and just ahead of metrosexual and sexting. Those are awful, but I just despise the use of -cation.
You won't get any school work done. With finals looming, you'll bring a bunch of books and notes home, genuinely believing you'll get some studying done.
You won't. Not even a little. Half of the reason: You'll be so busy with family- and friend-obligations that you won't have any real block of time to devote to studying. The other half: Lounging around back home, you'll slip into such a zone of comfort and contentment that you won't want to ruin your euphoria trying to memorize Erikson's eight stages of development.
Your childhood bed is really short.Dorm beds are amazing. Rock hard, seven feet long... they're even engineered such that, when bunked, one person can be, um, boning up on sociology without waking up their roommate.
In comparison, your childhood bed will feel squishy (it is -- your parents weren't gonna buy you a new mattress when you didn't know better)... short (it is -- after a semester of having your feet fit comfortably you'll hate the way they hang off the back)... and just, in general, uncomfortably foreign.
"I sleep in a racing car."
This never goes away. I'm 30 and I still go home, up to my room, and have restless nights on the bed I slept on when I was in high school. At least it's not shaped like a race car. I'm not Kirk van Houten after all.
You need to change something about your path at school. This is the most important thing that will happen this weekend. Wherever you are in life, you're in a bubble. You were in a bubble growing up which you left to go to college. Now your college is a bubble -- a completely self-contained universe where things that would be utterly insignificant to anyone in the outside world take on life-or-death significance.
(Don't believe me? Watch students chain themselves to a pole outside of a dining hall when they decide to stop opening for breakfast hours on a weekend and ask yourself if that cause would mean so much to, say, a 34-year-old father of two in Hamburg, Germany.)
When you get to step out of the college bubble for the first time, you can, for the first time, observe what's been happening with the benefit of distance and perspective. For me, it was realizing that I wasn't happy with the social path I was taking -- with the exception of a couple of people who remain my best friends today, hanging out with people from my dorm floor just wasn't working. I was much more social than most of them, so I realized they were dragging me down into boring nights of just sitting around, bitching, playing Nintendo 64.
And while Nintendo 64 was, and is still, amazing -- I wanted to go to parties, drink beers, tailgate at football games, and, most importantly, try to hit on some of these down-to-party college girls I'd heard about in the episode of "Saved by the Bell" where they use fake IDs to go to The Attic.
I also realized that having discussion sections before 10 am pretty much guaranteed me a B because I couldn't bring it that early. But that was far less significant of a discovery.
I can't tell you what your revelation will be, but it'll come. And when you get back to school, act on it. The first few months of school are all about adjusting to (most likely) the biggest change you've ever experienced in your life. So don't feel bad that things haven't been perfect. Use your escape from the bubble to recalibrate.
And no, you don't have to give up Nintendo 64 entirely. (I have it on good authority that college kids still play Nintendo 64. After all, that was the system where Mario Kart, Bond and Tetris all achieved multiplayer perfection.)
Your parents will have made one small change to the house, but it feels monumental. Maybe they put up different wallpaper in the living room. Or bought a different computer chair. Or moved the cereal from one cabinet to another.
Your parents' new window treatments could give you a dangerous nosebleed.
Whatever it is, it will freak you out. You know how in "Lost" they talk about constants -- how we rely on a constant to affirm our own existence? (At least that's what I think they're talking about on "Lost" -- that show is based around using vague terms and ambiguous pronouns to keep you in a, for lack of a better term, constant state of confusion.) Anyway, your childhood home is your constant. So even a minor change seems strange to you, because it's an unmistakable sign that your life has changed and will continue to change.
That, or you realize your parents are secretly also Claire's parents and that your address is 4815 Widmore Avenue and the Korean guy on your TV is Jin. And that would only freak you out slightly more.
You'll think about transferring to where your friends are. Inevitably, you had friends who went to a different school. They're probably hanging out together there. Maybe you visited and had a blast. Being back with them at Thanksgiving, all together at home for the first time since you went your separate ways, the thought will cross your mind: "Hmm... should I transfer to their school? It sounds great and we'd have such a ridiculous time together."
Well... you shouldn't. Forget all the crap about getting an education -- the most important thing you should get out of college is the ability to be an independent adult. Eschewing the road less traveled to fall back into a rank-and-file position with your high school friends -- that's the exact opposite. Not that you couldn't break out on your own if you were with them... at some point, everyone has to... but it's certainly worth giving yourself at least one full year at the school you chose to try to see what you can do without your safety net.
"The grass is always greener" syndrome will follow you for the rest of your life... you have to stand up to it, because it's not reality. I mean... every single time I visit Chicago, New York or San Francisco I have the moment where I think, "Damn, this is so different than L.A., wouldn't it be incredible to live here!?" And then I whip myself back into reality -- visiting a place is 180 degrees from living in a place.
When you visit, you're in vacation mentality which means you get to experience only the best of the best. When you live someplace, no matter how cool it is, eventually it's just the city where you buy your groceries and get parking tickets. And all of those cool spots you went when you visited? For the most part, you'll only get to enjoy them when someone visits you... and you get to show off your city to them.
You'll appreciate the hell out of your parents. Unfortunately, we all suck as kids. When you're growing up, you never realize how good you have it.
Then you're away for a little bit, come back -- and realize just how insane of a debt you owe to your parents. Nothing makes that more evident than being out on your own. Out on your own... and basically helpless in the world.
From this moment on, your relationship with your parents should change for the better... because you'll finally "get it." It's a huge step in your transition from punk kid to punk young adult. (That lasts until about age 25 or 26, when you inadvertently mature again. I'm currently in the "punk older adult" phase; you don't get to lose the "punk" aspect until you're responsible for another person's well-being.)
You'll be aching to go back to school on Sunday. After all this stuff happens -- basically, I've just told you that, in the span of three of four days, your world is going to get flip-turned upside-down in 200 different ways -- come Sunday, you'll be ready to go back to school.
The good news about all of the stuff above is that it's all structured to lead you to the same conclusion: Childhood was better than you realized, it's over now, you're growing up and changing, your eyes are more open than ever... and it's all because you're in college. Now, with a few days away and a few months of experience, you'll be ready and motivated to shape this whole college thing into the once-in-a-lifetime experience it's supposed to be.
So, um... don't screw up your big, rejuvenation plans with an accidental pregnancy this weekend. (Because there's a decent chance you gravitate toward someone you hooked up with in high school for an "oh thank God you're a lay-up" hook-up. And those impromptu, ill-advised times are always the ones where something goes wrong.)
This post was originally published on Monday, November 23, 2009 at 10:00:00 AM under the category Personal.