My Amherst classmates have been sharing stories and opinions about admission to college, along with what they learned there, so I thought I would weigh in with my story.
For my admission to Amherst I did not have the benefit of being a legacy, as my mother’s two years at nearby Smith College probably did not count for me. No, I got in through another door. Fortunately for me, Amherst had a Freshman ice hockey team. Also fortunately, an ice hockey team needs a goalie. So, I was not competing against the rich pool of prep school guys, Advanced Placement guys, guys with tutors, guys whose fathers attended Amherst, and guys with similar privileges. No, I was competing, I imagine, against a goalie from Minnesota. Worked for me! I was privileged (still am) in several ways, but my puck-stopping was a key factor. Amherst may have figured that if I could stand having pucks shot at me, I could stand the abuse of our Freshman curriculum. I did survive the abuse, and like some victims of abuse, I passed it along to the next generation.
When I taught high school English after Amherst, my students were not altogether thrilled by what I brought away from college. I tried to model my teaching of writing on my dazed experience in Freshman English 1-2, where we were given bewildering writing assignments. Here’s one:
In English 1-2 we assume that you all can write a Perfect English Paper. In this art you need no further training. We are entirely satisfied that at a moment’s notice you can write a Perfect English Paper on any given subject.
Choose what might seem to be three or four disparate words or ideas.
Bring to class next time a Perfect English Paper in which you have made these disparate words or ideas into a plausible theme. That is, a reader will say, “Yes, it looks like English. It looks like an English Paper for an English course.”
Imagine how an insecure college freshman would feel when confronted by this assignment, designed to throw us off-balance. Well, that kind of discomfort is what I thought would lead to good, authentic writing from my high school students. I faced some confused opposition. But they should be happy that I did not write the kind of abusive comments on their papers that my professor wrote on mine, though I did use rubber stamps reading “Bull!” and “Prove it!” on some deserving papers. I believe some students tried to earn these messages as collector’s items.
Another reason my students were not pleased by my Amherst experience is my belief that a B is a really good grade. I knew this because that’s about all I ever earned, and I never received an A in an English course. I pretty much told them that their formulaic Perfect English Paper would earn a B, so what else can you do? Try for something imperfect and original.
What else, besides the value of imperfection, did I learn in college? Let me mention two things:
Toward the end of my stumbling through our freshman Physics course, we came across Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states, more or less, that quantum physics says we can’t know both the speed and position of an object. Heisenberg was writing about photons and electrons, but still, I liked the notion that the uncertainty that I experience daily is woven into the fabric of the universe. Not my fault! I treasure my uncertainty. It has become, almost, a replacement religion, the opposite of the certainty that religion brings some people. Of this I am almost certain.
My other significant college learning took place when I pledged into a fraternity. One of the things I pledged to do was: “Place the best construction on the words and deeds of my brothers.” We all interpret. Why not interpret generously? I, of course, expanded “brothers” to include everyone. Even though that trust makes me, at times, a gullible fool, I stand by it, though often I am standing off-balance.
So, to summarize:
· Be better than perfect.
· Stay off-balance.
· Uncertainty is OK – even inevitable. It’s a kind of wisdom.
· Join the brotherhood of generous fools. Just don’t be stupid.
· Get pucked.
I showed Kim a draft of this post, and she was confused. Part of the problem was in my writing (“Are you writing about admissions, what you learned, or how you teach?”), which I tried to fix. [Note the 4 punctuation marks, always a goal in my writing.] But she is used to throwing me off-balance . . .. And OK – so it’s not perfect.