Tuesday, July 12, 2016

My St John's Origin Story (Part 1)

On Facebook a few weeks ago many of the St John's alumni were publishing their stories of how they ended up going there. I didn't feel like writing it there, but I thought maybe I could try it here. It's taking a long time because my versions keep coming out overly long and negative in tone, and I don't want it to be like that. So I am going to have to try to shape the truth showing only the (comparatively) less depressing aspects of the story

My parents once took a day trip to Annapolis when I was around seven or eight, I assume to look at the old houses and perhaps the Naval Academy. I don't remember anything of this visit other than a vague recollection of the brick sidewalks and the narrow old houses. I have no idea whether we saw St John's or went on to the campus or not. It was certainly not pointed out to me on this occasion as anything special or any place where I might go to school someday, though this does not seem to have been anything that greatly interested my parents. It was not that they never talked about "college", but it was mostly in a generic way, without reference to particular colleges (though my father, among his many eccentricities, had for some reason conceived an intense dislike for the University of Pittsburgh, and was wont to speak disparagingly of it in reference to several acquaintances of our family who had gone there).

I first became aware of St John's when I was around 15 or 16. My father had read something about it and made a point of mentioning that it sounded like the kind of place I would like, which I probably noted because, as I noted above, he was not in the habit of making those kinds of observations. His having brought it up did not make me feel any great warmth towards the place, that and the idea that he associated me with a place that seemed to appeal mainly to misfits, and that no one I knew of who cut a winning figure in the world would acknowledge having ever heard of. I was suspicious, as people often are at that age, that it was being recommended to me more in consideration of my perceived deficiencies than my perceived strengths. Like almost every young person who has any measurable abilities, my perception of where mine must rate compared with the entirety of my generation at that time could hardly have been expected to be accurate, especially as we were not blessed in those days with as big a picture and examples of the spectacular achievements and talents of our faraway contemporaries as young people are now.

When I reached my senior year of high school, somewhat to my surprise, no one among the adults who might have been expected to be guiding me seemed particularly interested in whether I went anywhere for college or not. My parents, having gone through a separation and eventual divorce as well as making several major moves during my middle high school years, were still too distracted by the problems all this had created to be overly involved in what I was going to do, and certainly there were no big discussions or strategizing sessions about this with anyone at my school. I suppose it could be argued that I was a totally nondescript student, but still, I was in the top quarter of the class, and my SAT scores, which seemed to be a big deal as far as other people were concerned, were around what Princeton claimed to be the average score for its incoming freshman at the time, which I thought was pretty good, but I guess they didn't make much of an impression on anybody at my high school, though maybe they didn't know about them. Also compared to other people I knew I received very little material in the mail, and nothing from any place I would have wanted to go to, though I put this down now to the circumstance that I never took the PSAT and went to three different high schools in three different states, all of which may have knocked me off of the radar of the colleges at the time. I ended up writing to a bunch of places myself for information, including St. John's, which even then I had a feeling I might end up going to, mostly because it was the only school where the test scores were in the range where mine were that didn't reject most of the people who applied, and I did like the subdued, mature tone of their materials compared with most of the other schools'. But it was very small, and I thought I would not like a school that was that small, that my social options (ha!) would be too restricted, so I did not apply there in this first round, but applied to four other places to which, other than maybe Columbia, which I was imagining more in its 1940s carnation than what it had probably become by 1988, I had no especial passion to go other than that they were prestigious, you had to triumph over other people to get into them, they conferred status, and the social proof of an important institution declaring you to be in some degree a winner, one of the chosen ones. Who doesn't want to be a winner, and judged to be acceptable by some segment of the best and smartest people? Obviously I always have, and especially then, since I had some idea that I deserved it. The people who were promoting St John's (none of whom I knew personally--this idea was gathered from such rare and widely scattered testimonials about the school in printed materials as were to be found in those days) did not seem to me to be promoting a promise that the kind of transformation I was looking for, that being basically to become a comfortably dominant person who awed lesser people into submission and was attractive to the most interesting and desirable types; I felt like they were telling me to embrace my essential 98-pound weakling, which I felt it was my duty to some extent to resist. Needless to say, I did not get accepted to any of these schools I applied to.

So when the fall after I graduated from high school came around, instead of heading off to college like pretty much everyone else my age who was in any way like me, I took up a job working in the little more than kiosk-sized post office in Kennebunk, Maine...

Since it has taken me a week to get even this far (and it's still pretty negative, though the story does get better), and I as am going on vacation in a few days and don't know when I might get around to finishing it, I am going to publish this part now. To be continued (maybe...)

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