Going to College? Tales and Tips from the Perilous Realm
My stress level was near zero in the spring of ‘83. I wasn’t worried about grades, university admissions or my future. However, I was a serious student, and I worked hard. But I wasn’t worried. I’d graduate from E. D. White Catholic High School that May. I checked out two colleges during my senior year: Loyola (New Orleans) and LSU. Loyola was crampy, like a shoe that’s too small. I didn’t care for Jesuit shtick. My friends were going to LSU, and it was big – over 10,000 heads bigger than my hometown’s city limits. I could get lost in the crowd and meet new friends and girls, like a pinball hitting pins, without trying. If you didn’t meet new people at LSU, you were either a stone or a jellyfish. Even in the cafeteria, you could sit with almost anyone after saying, “Mind if I join ya’?” That was campus culture.
For any high school grad with reasonable smarts, LSU was a shoe-in. I took the ACT, but I didn’t give a rat’s tail about percentiles or other spurious comparisons. I had an attitude: no standardized test was going to pigeonhole me. I was who I was, and I’d make something of it. I had no illusions about being in the 99th percentile of geniuses – and I didn’t care. Thanks to good ol’ Governor Huey Long and his ideal of “Every man a king!” (Southern populism is the lost art of the possible) every homeboy and girl next door got a shake at public college in the Sportsman’s Paradise. LSU creamed you – not by tight admissions – but by easy admissions. I got a D- on my first English essay, a shock to me. I’d never had that before, not in English. You were docked a grade for every misspelled word and grammatical error. Everything was handwritten then. If the prof couldn’t read your cursive, you’d get the same grade as if you had a chicken with inked feet run across the page.
By the fall of ‘83, I was composing English papers over a few Michelobs. That was before the feds hung state highway departments to raise the legal age to 21. Misspellings were irredeemable. Everyone had a dictionary. Use it or lose it. Grammatical errors were redeemable. If you wrote out a violated Harbrace rule and rewrote the sentence accordingly, your grade would be raised. But not to an A. A’s were for first shots only. Vapid prose wasn’t tolerated. Boring could cost a letter grade. Charm was a factor. About half the freshmen survived the first semester. When someone said, “I’m going to Tech next semester,” that meant they had more beer than smarts and were off to Ruston, just south of Arkansas. Baptist country. Dry as a bone (Ezekiel 37:1-14). LA Tech was reform school, like bustin’ rocks.
Orientation week was mostly a do-it-yourself affair. It was a blast. Loads of free time. My friends and I did the frats’ open house tour but were unimpressed. I was grossed out when a DKE dude, who looked like he hadn’t changed his shirt and tie in days, came down the frat house’s filthy staircase and tossed a smoldering cigarette butt into the corner. We moved on. I recall no administration meetings. There may have been a few, here and there, but I don’t recall any. No pep rallies. No choreography. No pulpit advice. The only official counsel I got was from an admissions counselor: “If you’re intellectually curious, you’ll do fine.” His comment stuck. I read between the lines: We won’t baby you here. I recall veteran students saying that no one cares whether or not you show up to class because, if you don’t, you’ll flunk. That was true. No one cared what you did because it was your time and your money. Sink or swim. The LSU message was clear: “We’ll knock the crap out you.” And they did. That was my first taste of real stress – but in a good way. After registering for classes, which looked like an old time stock exchange (that was long before online anything), I ventured through a lineup of booths representing different campus clubs. I stopped by many, curiously feigning interest.
The RA on the second floor of Hatcher Hall – the freshmen boys’ dorm where my buddy Steve and I lived – was a good guy. He said if we didn’t bother him, he wouldn’t bother us. That wasn’t entirely true. Steve and I tried to avoid evacuating for a 2:00AM fire drill. When the alarm shocked us out of bed, we quickly made our beds (stupid mistake: what college boy makes his bed?) and then hid among our hanging clothes in the wardrobes. The RA entered, saw our tightly made-up beds – hospital corners and all – and opened our closets holding his flashlight. If we didn’t look stupid, we sure felt stupid.
We had other dorm troubles too. Our neighbors squirted chocolate syrup and Reddi-wip on our door and stuffed our keyhole with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. We retaliated. We filled our garbage pail with orange juice and leaned it against their door – and knocked. The guy peered under the door, saw something, and poked it with a stick. The pail tipped and juiced his carpet. The next morning, I saw their rug hanging in a crepe myrtle outside their second floor window. Unfortunately, their room had the thermostat that controlled the temps in both of our rooms, which were alcoved in a transept at the hallway’s end. They left for a weekend and lowered the temperature to perhaps 50 degrees. But that was easy to resolve. We stuffed the Daily Reveille (student newspaper) into our vents (which was all the paper was good for anyway), rerouting the freezing air back to their room. LSU was an excellent education. Made you smarter than your enemies.
Orientation week taught me another life skill: grocery shopping. I’d never done that on my own till then. Steve and I went to Albertson’s, a fancy (to us) grocer in Baton Rouge that sold all kinds of stuff you wouldn’t see at the Winn-Dixie back home – like help-yourself bins of dried fruit and candy. That idea had yet to float down the bayou. I wanted to try my first yogurt-covered raisin. So I pulled the slat beneath the clear plastic bin. The raisins avalanched by the dozens onto the linoleum. I tried to shut it, but the outpour made it difficult. I tried a few. They were darned good. I bought a bag full. By graduation, I was sick of yogurt raisins.
I went to Mass at Christ the King Chapel every Sunday, usually in the morning. I was in love with the girl who sang the Responsorial Psalm at the 10AM. I never met her. But after talking with other Catholic dudes, I was clearly not the only one. Mass was packed.
I liked the cafeterias. They weren’t like galleria food courts but were an in-house service. There was a choice of three meats, three starches, three vegetables, three desserts, a soup du jour, a salad bar and an array of drinks, including an ice-cold milk dispenser of low-fat, 2% and whole. Whenever someone dropped a food tray, there was an ovation. It happened to me once, at the salad bar. I was wearing white shorts and a t-shirt. My tray was half supported by the narrow salad bar counter and half supported on my pants’ belt, as I leaned forward picking through the olives and pepperoncini. I backed up an inch too far, and the tray flipped into my belly, catapulting dinner onto my shirt and shorts. I got the ovation. But I was consoled by a kindly old woman with a hairnet who, like an angel, came to me and asked, “What wuz on ya’ plate?” She was sweet and fixed me another dinner. The cafeteria ladies treated you like mom. I joined some strangers eating at a table – with my food-soiled clothes – and asked, “May I join ya’?” Despite its faults, it was a civilized world – at least in the cafeteria.
The Student Union was a favorite hangout. You could buy Miller Lite for $1, a stuffed potato for $1.30, coffee for 30 cents, a pack of cigarettes for $1.15. The only irritation was the local evangelical Christians, who threw the Good Book at you. Targeting their prey, they’d approach and say, “St. Paul says in Romans 8:14…..what do you think?” “Dunno.” When I said I was Catholic, one evangelizer said, “Name one Catholic country that’s developed?” “France,” I replied tersely. You would’ve thought I tazed him. Neither of us knew a thing about the Age of Reason or the Republic vs. the Ancien Régime. But what was I – who grew up in a parish with Joan of Arc and Louis IX in the sanctuary – supposed to say?
One cool afternoon, I sat at a table on the Student Union’s outdoor patio, beneath the Live Oaks, enjoying a stuffed potato. A man and his little boy came out with two stuffed potatoes and sat at a table next to mine. The dad went back inside to get something, leaving his boy alone for a moment. Meanwhile, three blackbirds sortied from the Oaks and tore into his potatoes like buzzards on road kill. Sour cream, bacon bits, shredded cheese, chives and potato meat were flying like shrapnel. That wasn’t the blackbirds’ first rodeo. The kid cried. When dad returned, he shooed the demons away – and bought fresh potatoes. Kinda’ like Jesus.
Tips for college students: Study hard, but don’t stress yourself crazy. Laugh harder than you study. Be honest. Never cheat. Love people, but don’t love everything they do. Go to weekly Mass and Confession. Begin each day with an Our Father. End each day with an Act of Contrition and a Hail Mary. Keep an eagle-eye on everything. Listen more than talk. See more than be seen. Don’t be easily impressed or try every flavor-of-the-month. Beware of popularity. Everything that glitters is not gold. Fear not the title “PhD.” Learned doesn’t mean wise. Have fun. Avoid drunkenness, drugs and stupidity. Enjoy romance, but be chaste. Remember your Baptism. You belong to Jesus and Mary. The Catholic Faith is the Truth. A virtuous friend is a “pearl of great price” (Sirach 6:14, Matthew 13:46). Love many, but trust your friendship to few. Read and ponder Plato’s Republic, St. Augustine’s Confessions, and Josef Pieper’s Only the Lover Sings. You’ve got four years to do it. And you’ll be on the road to Wisdom.
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor