The Forty-Year-Old Freshman
A writer, former Kenyon swimmer, and professional adventurer takes on the ultimate challenge: come back to college and test your lingering sense of eternal youth.
Let's say you're forty-four.
You're feeling certain things creeping up on you, like your belly, that ever-encroaching mass that just won't take no for an answer. So you decide to strike back while you still think you can. After paddling around at your local YMCA for a day or two, you declare in a national magazine that you're going to swim faster than you did in college and qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2008, although you haven't swum competitively in twenty years.
After all, you were once a Kenyon Lord.
Things go well. You swim fast and actually begin to feel like your inner twenty-one-year-old. Then let's say, giddily high on your fledgling success, you get this brash idea to return to Kenyon for a week, attend classes, eat in the dining halls, sleep in a dorm, and swim with the team. Test the waters, so to speak. You're an adventurer, after all. You've written about sailing a Viking ship in the Arctic, sleeping in a canoe surrounded by alligators in the Everglades, and crawling through London's sewers. Kenyon should be a piece of cake.
Even when you discover, upon arriving at Port Columbus International Airport, that you've rented a muscle-bound, fiery red 2006 Mustang, you shrug it off. Sure, it practically shrieks, "Mid-life Crisis Loser!" But you can pull it off. You're going to the Olympic trials, remember? Besides, Kenyon's a walking campus. You'll park it somewhere discreet and nobody will be the wiser.
"Sweet ride," a mutton-chopped kid tosses at you as you struggle out of the Mustang, having found nowhere to park except right in front of the Deli. His smirk, as wide as the gulf of a generation, snaps you out of your second-person reverie.
I'm back at Kenyon, for the first time in more than twenty years. And it immediately feels both awful and delightful--in other words, as if I'd never left.
For those who don't remember, Kenyon was founded by Bishop Philander Chase to educate Episcopal clergy who would minister to the West--an unassuming alternative to New York's General Theological Seminary and all its East Coast trappings. He argued, ". . . unless we can have some little means of educating our pious men here, and here being secure of their affections, station them in our woods and among our scattered people, to gather in and nourish our wandering lambs, we have no reason to hope in the continuance of the Church in the west." Moreover, he wanted to create a self-sustaining institution in which students would not be swayed by urban enticements.
When I went to Kenyon back in the early eighties, the College had given up on fortifying wayward ungulates as well as farming its own food, but it was definitely free of most urban vices, or urban anything for that matter.
And on this cold, gray December afternoon, have things changed? Quickly glancing around, I have to laugh at the question itself. Central Gambier, with the alumni office, the Kenyon Inn, the Deli, the post office, and the Village Market, looks exactly the same. Sure, the bank has moved and there's a mod coffee shop where the KC used to be, but it feels almost as if I've stepped back in time.
Hell, I have stepped back in time. After getting my classroom assignments, room key, and bedding at the alumni office, I am about to be late for swim practice, yet again.
First, though, I quickly stop by Mather--for those of you who don't remember, it's one of the low-slung long dorms next to Gund--to drop my gear in the triple I'd be sharing with two sophomores,
Josh Kumpf and Dave Mastrangelo. I see that they clearly failed the housing lottery. Their room is in the basement of a first-year hall.
Moving quickly and with as much purpose as I can muster, so I don't look like some creepy old guy trying to spy on freshman girls, I find the room but instantly realize there has been a mistake. The accommodations, about the size of a McDonald's bathroom and cluttered with computers, a TV, and an electric guitar and amp, is obviously a single, despite the two beds.
No matter, after swim practice and my evening writing seminar, I'll get Josh and Dave to help me find the correct room. Mather, by the way, still smells exactly as it and McBride did twenty years ago--a funky mélange of sweaty socks, hair products, deodorants, perfumes, and a mystery ingredient that brings back many equally disturbing memories of my freshman year: praying to the porcelain gods, scraping off Pirate's Cove detritus, and failing at every attempted all-nighter.
Dazed and confused, I drive down to the pool at the new gym--understatement intended. Calling the school's wet-dream-inspired, Olympic-length natatorium a "pool" is like calling the QE II a boat.
It has great depth, fat lane lines, and water-sucking gutters, all combining to make it one of the fastest racecourses in the country.
And the KAC, the Kenyon Athletic Center, is certainly no gym. It's a glass-encased modern shrine to Kenyon athletes past, present, and future that pretty much beats any gym--hell, almost any building, period--I've ever seen for beauty, design, and functionality.
I bet you can see its glow from the International Space Station. As I speak with Marcie Steen, Swimming Coach Jim Steen's wife and the glue that keeps him bound to earth, I find myself absent-mindedly wiping smudges off the nearest handrail. It's that gorgeous.
I'm welcomed into Jim's office, a glassed-in turret overlooking his aquatic domain. (Glass is in; Ernst-era cement blocks are out.) Coach, who now has a shiny pate but is still a bear of a man, squeezes me hello. Then, stepping back for a better look, he comments, "You don't look a day over thirty-five."
A moment later, as he is simultaneously talking on the phone, putting the finishing touches on the day's workout, and probably thinking about the third turn of his slowest 500-freestyler's last race, he interrupts himself to give me a look. "So you're planning on going faster now than you did in college, huh, Hodo? Well, your sense of timing was always a bit, um . . . different than everybody else's, wasn't it?"
Later, Jim affectionately roasts me before the entire swim team out on the pool deck, recalling conversations verbatim from twenty-two years back, focusing mostly on my senior year. He remembers the name of the girlfriend whom I declared I would visit every other weekend instead of attending swim practices. He remembers the look on my face when he suggested that, if this was my intention, I should plan to miss all the practices.
Better yet, he remembers--again, verbatim--the inspiring words that got me to nationals for the first time ever. "And Hodo, if you decide to stay with the team, it's got to be all the way or nothing," he'd said, locking eyes with me for the first time ever. "There's no time for anything else. Commit fully or please just don't bother. You owe that much to yourself."
He even remembers the almost-fight that Jeff Moritz '86 and I had at the end of the lane one day. Coach was, and is, a little scary. You never know what he is going to see, say, or do.
Practice itself is better left unexamined. Suffice it to say that, despite the fact that I didn't swim my freshman year due to illness and thus still might have another year of NCAA eligibility, Jim doesn't ask me to consider returning for one more season at Kenyon. I swim three times the distance of my usual workout and go last in the slowest sprint lane. In other words, two hours later I can only crawl out of the pool, even though I am in a rush to make that evening's fiction-writing seminar.
Hobbling out of the locker room, I pass on the sushi offered at the KAC concession because I don't have any cash. (Yep, raw ocean fish served in a gym in Gambier, Ohio.) So I grab a couple slices of pizza at the Ernst Center and drive off to Sunset Cottage in my flashy wheels under the cover of darkness.
Food in Ernst? Peirce, my favorite respite from the rest of campus, is being renovated, and its dining operation has moved temporarily into the old gym. Ah, Peirce. I ate there, slept there; studied, drank beers (down in the pub), and even made out there. For me, Peirce was Kenyon. Ernst, with the kitchen and dining tables strewn across the old basketball court, is outright depressing.
I have to go home.
I really am thinking this, but not because of missing Peirce. I am exhausted. I don't remember college being so draining. This is supposed to be a return to those carefree days when I had no kids, no bills, no anything of responsibility. College is a breeze, right?
Ha! Day One--one swim practice, a quick meal, and I am already spent. It wasn't necessarily the swimming that has done it, either. It's something about all this youthful energy. It's starting to eat away my inner denial.
But it is time to make a good impression in David Lynn's class. An English professor (and a product of the College's English department, Class of 1976), he's also the editor of the Kenyon Review. Certainly, by the end of class, after hearing my astute remarks concerning his students' stories, he'll be begging to publish a few of even my lesser works.
My classmates are already gathered around in a basement seminar room in Sunset Cottage. They look like we did: one is wearing that ubiquitous drab grey hooded sweatshirt; another has a scarf wrapped dashingly around his blue overcoat; another blinds with his day-glo Hawaiian shirt. Seeing that no one has a cell phone pressed against her ear, I abruptly hang up on my nine-year-old daughter mid-sentence. (Later, I learn that the upperclassmen chide the freshmen out of getting too dressed up and excessive cell-phoning.)
I tell the students what I'm doing there. A few say hi; the rest stare blankly. I'm just some other adult--wholly insignificant, since this is the end of the semester and I won't be grading them.
David walks in and as he takes his seat, says, "OK, take out a piece of paper and do some free-writing. Push that pen." Immediately, twenty hands move rapidly across sheets of paper in what I learn is now a standard warm-up exercise in writing classrooms. Ah, so that's how you get people to write. Just tell them to do it. Wish I'd known that. It might've been easier all these years. Should I be doing this every day?
Clearly. Because these students can write. Better yet, they can talk about their own and one another's writing and lead discussions lucidly. We dissect three short stories; each discussion is led by a different student--not the author. I like two of the stories immensely. One is about the dangers of chopping off a puppy's head to impress people at your first punk concert. The other is about the rise and fall of a young man's porn empire.
"I'm having a hard time with this story mainly because I simply don't care about the narrator," one student explains, followed by many murmured agreements around the room. It's an insightful remark, showing an understanding of fundamental storytelling--the kind of thing I never would have said as a student.
Excited by the work, I find myself piping up during the discussions, not as an unfiltered student might but instead in the manner of the reserved, detached reporter that I am. "No way, man, you're so wrong," I blurt out. "The narrator's lack of emotion is intentional. Don't you understand anything?"
At 9:45, end of class, David looks at me as if trying to determine exactly how I had been allowed in. "Um, thanks for your input, Hodding. It was very . . . good of you to get so involved," he says, or something like that. It is hard to hear him over the buzz of discourse still careening through my brain.
Driving back to Mather, I wonder what life would have been like if only I'd done this back in the eighties--attend class, that is.
Knock. Knock. No response. I swing the door open. They both have headphones on--one in front of his computer, the other sitting cross-legged before a TV. They look at me as if wondering where the pizza is. I explain the situation--the room's clearly too small for three--and ask them if they know where I'm actually supposed to be staying.
"Oh, no," Josh says. He's the one closest to the door, at the computer. "We just need to put your bed together." Apparently, this single-sized room is a triple. His bed is missing the upper bunk, that's all. He and David, the TV watcher on the bed over by the window, stand up and talk to me in that awkward way we reserve for adults. We're at a bit of an impasse without their knowing it. Should I tell them to relax and just treat me like another kid or let things linger like this because, if they do, maybe they'll be quieter, go to sleep earlier, and treat me with unnecessary respect. I opt for lingering respect.
After my bed is together and we've chatted for a few hours about classes, school, the food, etc., I ask them when they go to sleep. Sometime after midnight on an early night, much later otherwise. "It doesn't really matter, though," David says, "because of the screamers."
"Yeah. They come through practically every night and scream at odd intervals until two, three in the morning."
"It's a little disturbing," Josh adds. "And that's on weeknights. Weekends you can't really sleep at all."
Around midnight, I doze off while pretending to scrutinize a syllabus. David is reading art history and Josh works on a poli-sci paper. I don't remember staying up this late to do work, even when I had an exam. But then again, my GPA was probably the square root of theirs.
A few hours later, as forewarned, I'm awoken by my first scream. It seems more of an extremely high-pitched, loud moan than a scream, but I don't bother arguing the point. The one about an hour after that is more your classic screech.
I'd like to say that this is how my week progresses, each day a repeat of the first one, but that would be inaccurate. Each day has its own new offering, its unexpected plot twists. On Tuesday, I'm still fired up about getting a chance to take classes again and find myself lecturing a few kids on the importance of attending all their classes and doing the assigned work. They look at me as if I've stated the most obvious thing.
Also, that exhaustion that hit me the first day? It just keeps getting worse. Listening to lectures, taking notes--you're "on" all the time. No wonder kids burn out, drink too much, or get corks in their earlobes. Being a student is much harder than I remembered.
On Wednesday, I do both morning and afternoon swim practices. This is a big mistake, because I enter an energy deficit that I do not recover from until I'm back home for a week. On Thursday, I fall asleep in a poli-sci class--just like the good ol' days--and, ignoring my own advice about seizing the opportunity of being in college, I skip a couple of classes to finish a take-home exam that I should've done the night before.
The take-home is for "Introduction to the Theater," Kenyon's famous "baby drama" course, and it's team-taught by two more alums returned to Gambier as professors: Playwright-in-Residence Wendy MacLeod '81 and Jon Tazewell, of my own Class of 1984. If you really want a freaky experience, take a course taught by a classmate. Even as he recites passages from Waiting for Godot in that resonating bass of his, I'm flashing back to scenes of our less dignified youth.
He and Wendy work well together, essentially tag-teaming the students into learning, seemingly against their will. Yes, even though the majority of the students I've happened across are much smarter than I, and even though most of them probably have done the reading, are prepared, and do have something to offer, they still respond to a teacher's opening question with that age-old reflex: dead silence.
The art of teaching in every era, I guess, involves breaking through the inertia.
Other things are the same at Kenyon as well: they dress like we did, they smile at each other on Middle Path, and they take their classes pretty seriously. My roommates (whom I desert after a few nights so I can get some sleep at the Kenyon Inn) have a long discourse about how great their poli-sci professor is. They wonder if he talks about Plato with his wife, even.
Casual discourse has changed a bit, however. One morning over breakfast in Gund Commons, I hear a modestly clad girl say to one of her friends: "Yo, dude, I'm such a ho!"
Conversation actually brings me my own worst moment on campus. Some students are talking to me about life at Kenyon--telling stories about professors, complaining about the dorms and the food. (In fact, the food is pretty good. Fresh omelets every morning, food stations that always include a stir-fry table, an excellent pizza table, endless salad offerings, and special entrees like gyro sandwiches that easily beat my local Greek restaurant's efforts.) The conversation turns sour only when one girl asks me if I got the tattoo.
It turns out that the current Lord swimmers get a Kenyon coat-of-arms tattoo when they make nationals. When she inquires what we did in my day, I proudly show her the earring in my left ear. A long pause follows, during which it looks as if she's trying to see what I'm referring to. Then she pronounces: "That's pretty lame."
Suddenly I'm deflated. Pretty lame. Could it be that I'm just another old guy clinging to his illusions?
Luckily, I have Perry Lentz's American Lit class to regain my equilibrium, soothe my aged soul, and put things in perspective. Professor Lentz is as durable and dependable as the authors he brings to life for literary novices year after year. For me, his class is as reassuring as hearing Elvis Costello sing "Allison" one more time.
It's not just that he looks exactly the same as he did twenty years ago, or even that he raises both the volume and pitch of his voice in the same manner when making a point that the students had best be paying attention to. It's also that what he has to say in that serene southern lilt--he's discussing Thoreau, transcendentalism, Melville--tends to sets things straight.
Emerson tells us to "measure ourselves against what is true--what is real, the natural world," Perry explains. "Don't be caught up in the economics of social order. Our humanity comes alive when you test it for yourself out there in the natural world. It fulfills the reason and the understanding." Nature stimulates the soul.
"In the woods, too," Emerson wrote in his essay "Nature," "a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough. . . In the woods is perpetual youth."
For Melville, it was a wholly different matter. Yes, one needs to test oneself in the natural world, but what you find there is going to be altogether different: it is "chaos bewitched."
Sitting in Professor Lentz's class, eyes wide open, I realize on my last day back that returning to Kenyon is a lot like entering nature, and I have to say I side more with Melville than with those other namby-pambies. After a week back in college, my reason and understanding tell me, as a direct result of measuring myself against what is true and real, that I have not cast off the years, as Emerson promises. Instead, I seem to have gained worry lines and bulges that were not there previously. I am much older than I thought.
I suppose that, on some level, I was aware of this fact before I slept in the dorm, took classes, ate in Ernst, swam at the KAC, walked down Middle Path, and showed off my meager piercing.
But it wasn't etched in my psyche. Now it is, and it hurts. Call me Ishmael.
And, OK, so maybe I'm not twenty-one. Now, I'm thinking more like twenty-eight.
--W. Hodding Carter has written for such magazines as Esquire, Newsweek, and Glamour. His most recent book, Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization, traces the history of plumbing. This is Carter's first piece for the Bulletin.
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