THE HARD EITHER OR

Life is full of painful lessons. But some lessons are worth learning. Please comment nicely!

I remember my college years. Nearly all my memories are bad. I hated living in New York City. I hated the crowded campus. I hated feeling invisible and unwanted. I hated the professors for pretending that they were trying to help us out, when all they did was lecture a crowd from a raised podium far away. They made no attempt to deal with us as individuals. I hated how completely disconnected the college was from the rest of the city, and how disconnected the classwork was from any kind of practical skills.

I suppose it was my fault that I didn't drop out and look for work. I could always have transferred and gone somewhere else. But none of those options seemed real to me at the time. I remember writing a letter to my father in the fall semester of freshman year, saying that I hated Columbia and everything about it. I remember saying very specifically that I would rather be a private in Marine Boot Camp than a freshman at Columbia College. My father responded by saying that it took a lot more courage for me to stick it out at Columbia than to give up and join the Marines. I idolized my father and desperately wanted his approval, so that was that. I stuck it out for four years at Columbia even though I never really liked the campus or the community. Then my wonderful father killed himself and I ended up joining the Marine Corps after all.

When I look back now I realize that my father didn't really care whether I succeeded at Columbia or not. He just told me to stick it out because it was easier than thinking about other alternatives. For example, when I told him that I would rather join the Marines than stay in college, he could have said, "why the Marines? There are four branches in the military. Why not try the Army, Air Force, or the Navy?" He made no positive suggestions along those lines.

He also didn't say "Why do you have to stay at Columbia? Hundreds of colleges would be happy to have a student like you. And a lot of them are a lot less expensive and located in much more pleasant surroundings. Why do you assume you have to make good at Columbia or else throw everything away?"

Of course, my father was born and raised in New York City. He was an immigrant's son who worked very hard to get out of the Bronx. In my mind going to Columbia was a way of paying tribute to how much he achieved. I don't know if my father knew or cared about those feelings. But he certainly could have asked me, "Why does it have to be Columbia? What are you trying to prove?"

And here's another interesting thing. If my father really thought Columbia was a top school, and that I had to stick it out no matter what, why didn't he suggest that I talk my problems over with a professor or a counselor, or even with one of the deans? When I told my father I hated Columbia, and that I would rather be a Marine, he didn't ask me, "Have you talked to anyone on campus about this? Why haven't you asked anyone for advice? Those professors are getting paid to help you, not to make things tougher. If you tried telling them how out of place you feel you might find out that they had those feelings once too."

My father seemed to feel that college was important, and Columbia was a good school. But he didn't seem to feel that there was any point in telling anyone about my problems. He seemed certain that no one would help me. He seemed certain that no one would care. And I picked up on that. I picked up a general attitude about life that was bad as well. It's the "either-or" way of thinking. Either I make good at Columbia, or I join the Marines. Either I'm perfect or I'm nothing. Either I save my father or I don't deserve to live. With all that going on, I still think I did pretty well at Columbia. It would have been nice if someone had cared.