A defense of normality, and sweatpants
For some people, university is a debauched rumspringen, a dizzying four-year drug-and-alcohol fueled mission of self-discovery after finally escaping all the things holding them back. Parents, boyfriend, dubious career as an artist at Subway: all in the past. Finally, they think. Finally, I can be ME. ME: person with their very first tattoo; a person who sleeps three hours a night, with three people a week. An individual.
I was not that person. And you don’t have to be either.
I went to university to get normal, though I didn’t know it then. In my hometown, a vinyl-sided, mall-ridden suburban dystopia, I had cultivated a kind of studied weirdness familiar to anybody who’s entered a high school and wandered to its peripheries: the art room, the smoke pit, the edge of the parking lot. I was the girl wearing a pair of ripped nylons as a shirt, vintage camo pants, and a chain around her neck; I read tattered second-hand Dostoyevsky novels and forced friends to watch taped Cronenberg movies while passing around a vile bottle of pilfered parental alcohol. My friends and I made a zine, for godssakes. We thought it was kind of political, but hey, there were horoscopes.
When I rolled up in front of Res in first year university, I felt like I was in a foreign country. There were so many young people, so few big box stores. I unpacked my stuff into a little beige-walled dorm room and wandered the campus, gawking at rosy-cheeked students in butt-logo’d sweatpants. I found a hometown friend and we lined up for gross food in the caf. The vegetarian options—obviously, I was vegetarian—were not plentiful. But there was a picked-over salad bar, from which I selected a plate of wilted lettuce, bruised cherry tomatoes, and Thousand Island dressing. It wasn’t so bad; the other students were inhaling large piles of soggy pasta dolloped with a muddy-brown sauce (“soylent green!” my friend whispered giddily). Later that night, I watched my first-year compatriots vomiting Mike’s Hard Lemonade-marinated noodles into the bushes. Their rumspringen had begun.
My life, meanwhile, was dictated by the routines of the impersonal, sprawling green university campus. At lazily regular intervals—10:30, 1:00, 3:30— I’d drift in and out of musty, asbestos-walled classrooms with my books, grab a gigantic mocha at a generic coffee shop, catch the same indie flick that everyone else was seeing in the Student Union Building theatre. Each Thursday, I’d leaf through the student paper and leave it lying on a bench. I observed fads: people were piercing their eyebrows, they were changing their names to “Fern” or “Rebel”. They were becoming anarchists or feminists or meninists. And slowly, over the year, I stopped wearing black. In this bizarro world where rebellion was conformity, everything was encouraged, and none of it mattered to anybody who didn’t hold a U-Pass, sweatpants, I realized, were the answer.
They tell you university is where you go to find yourself, a place to “explore your options”. A place to variously major in sociology, go vegan, or moonlight in bisexuality. What they don’t tell you is that university is also a huge, government-sponsored organization, and unless you wind up jailed or permanently hospitalized, it may well be your last chance to really excel at institutional living. Rather than flying your freak flag high, just being you, or going your own way, university is your final opportunity to truly conform (which, let’s face it, is what you’re doing even if you unicycle to class in full steampunk attire).
That’s why some people never leave. The geriatric 35-year-old in your English Lit class who argues belligerently with the prof about Lacanian theory: that guy is working on his third degree. Dude is a lifer. He knows the system. He enjoys the structure of the day, the 10 o’clock start, the soothing semesterly rhythm of papers, midterms, final exams. And then, at the very end of it all: another glorious degree. It’s hard to argue that he hasn’t achieved anything. He’s learning, right? He might be sort of pathetic, but his life has meaning!
But most of us only live the institutional dream for a short while; every rumspringen must come to an end. We graduate from university (or drop out), and rebel or normal, Rebel or Fern, we’re left in pretty much the same place: jobless (or interning, same thing). By fourth year university, I was so thoroughly institutionalized and sweatpants-addled that I could barely remember my former existence as Little Miss Scare-all. In fact, I wasn’t quite sure who I was at all, which was ideal! Because your identity is something you don’t really figure out until you’re finally off-campus, blinking like an inmate stepping into the sun, wondering which direction to walk. So till then, it’s best to soak up the sublime banality. Work at the library, buy a Klimt poster, fill in the little bubbles on the Scantron, drain pitchers at the university-owned pub, and monitor the decimal point of your GPA. You may never be this normal again.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Elective Magazine.