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Eugene Weekly : Cover Story : 10.02.08

 

Frosh Brains

The year of living idiotically

by Rick Levin

Grand theft auto. Vandalism and property damage. Breaking and entering. Underage consumption of alcohol. Consumption of Schedule II narcotics. Forgery. Shoplifting.

The above reads like the rap sheet of a hardening to downright hardened criminal, but it is in fact only a partial recollection of the stupid stunts I pulled my freshman year at university. I’m not proud. It was a weird time of life for me as it is for a lot of people: surreal, hyper-real, echoey, hungry, crowded, lonely and almost impossibly intense.

There were other things I did of a less strictly illegal but no less ignominious nature my first year of higher education, like letting a beautiful girl who believed she was a vampire bite my neck bloody or falling down concrete staircases on purpose to draw attention to my stunt-manhood. I should say, rather, stunted manhood.

Perhaps the stupidest thing I remember doing — the thing that could have severely damaged my system but seems the least necessary in retrospect — occurred during my very first quarter of that gorgeously confusing year. Having spent the entire night catching up on a backlog of course reading, at dawn I rabidly downed three pots of coffee before heading directly to an 8 am sociology class. It was held in Kane Hall at the University of Washington, a forum that seated hundreds of students and required a kind of Hollywood lighting system to direct attention to the professor, who in turn carried an intimidating aura of celebrity. Within five minutes of taking my seat in the front row, I had to piss something terrible, and as the 50 minutes of lecture time went by I was dragged through throes of agony so awful a sweat broke out on my face and my breathing became shallow. When class finally concluded, I stood slowly, sank slowly to my knees, stood slowly back up and walked like a Neanderthal to the restroom. I peed for minutes, took a break and then peed again.

What baffles me now is my reasoning for not simply getting up during the lecture, going to the bathroom and coming back: I thought I’d get expelled for interrupting the celebrity professor. It is just this sort of disconnect between reason and reality that defined that year of my life.

According to recent studies, there is evidence suggesting that a good deal of maturation takes place between one’s late teenage years and the early to mid-20s — specifically in that area of the human brain that integrates emotion and cognition so one can properly navigate the day-to-day world. “During the first year of college,” writes Vassar-based researcher Abigail Baird, “especially at a residential college, students have many new experiences. They are faced with new cognitive, social and emotional challenges.” Most strikingly, MRIs of test subjects reveal that the brain of an 18-year-old college freshman looks different than images taken of folks in their mid-20s.

As 1- to 2-year-olds acquire language and 3- to 4-year-olds acquire reason — in fits and starts and stops and stutters — so freshmen seem to acquire the rudiments of common sense.

What this data bodes for the current so-called age of consent and voting and military service and driving might send some of us adults diving for shelter, but what it means in the realm of higher education — where, let’s admit it, eccentricity is the norm if not the rule — is difficult to guess. Certainly the science of psychology could be corroborated, in reverse fashion, by anecdotal evidence. College freshman are given to bouts of odd, comic, baffling, tragic and sometimes downright stupid behavior.

Like that of my friend Erik. Believing the U.S. economy headed for collapse in 1987 (just a few years off, E.), he decided to sign up for a fistful of credit cards, which he proceeded to max out buying CDs, clothes, electric guitars and a $35,000 hair-plug surgery. Or my friend Jools, who during her first year of college “went on this weird sort of trip” where she wanted to climb everything — including the tree just within reach outside her dorm room window, where her pant leg got caught on a tree limb and she almost plummeted to grievous bodily harm.

Or the first-year woman who believed the ATM machine she used every day printed free cash in an unlimited and never-ending supply, or the pledging frat brother who watched as his hazers tied one end of a string to a brick and the other end to his dick and then let the brick be thrown off the balcony of Sigma Chi without knowing the knot had been greased with Vaseline, or the anthro major who subsisted solely on a diet of vegan sandwiches, barbecue potato chips, Coke and aspirin.

Then there’s former UO frosh Maxwell (names have been changed or just plain omitted to protect the innocent and guilty alike) who, loaded on funny mushrooms, sneaked into a faculty function and, spotting a certain UO administrator, decided to assert his alpha dominance by peeing on said luminary’s leg (he was stopped, thankfully, by the sudden appearance of the man’s son). “It seemed perfectly logical at the time,” Max says.

Yes, perfectly logical, in a one-plus-one-equals-three sort of way. If becoming an adult is a perpetual school of hard knocks, then college is as much a primary venue for socialization as for higher learning — way more than high school, for sure — and freshman year for most is that initial stage when unbounded freedom and liberation and discovery and uncertainty collide with new responsibilities and new concerns about money and time and direction. A limbic stage of sorts, a booby-trapped netherworld between adolescence and adulthood where trial and error is a tragicomic game with heavy-duty stakes.

 

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