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[Chalice] Everything I Needed to Know [Chalice]
About High School, I Learned in College

Presented June 4, 2006, by Anna Wiegenstein

I have two quotes regarding college for my opening words, both short.

The first is from the poet Robert Frost, who said simply, "College is a refuge from hasty judgement."

The second is from writer Chuck Palahniuk, taking a more cynical view:

"If you tell folks you're a college student, folks are so impressed. You can be a student in anything and not have to know anything. Just say toxicology or marine biokinesis, and the person you're talking to will change the subject to himself. If this doesn't work, mention the neural synapses of embryonic pigeons."

The Talk

When you enter your senior year of high school, all seems basically normal for the first month or so - a twinge of weirdness, here and there, as you realize that each football game, each musical practice is one never to be experienced again. But, for the most part, things are typical, you could even say boring. Then, sometime around mid to late October, a boundary is crossed, and your life for the rest of the year becomes focused around one thing.

In one of my favorite novels, Second Helpings, author Megan McCafferty refers to the one thing in capital letters - The Question. Everyone knows The Question, it's obvious, if somewhat multifaceted - where are you going next year? What colleges are you looking at? What is the rest of your life going to be like? And it's your job to find an answer to that question, so that by the time graduation rolls around, you have something to say to the approximately 9 thousand people who will ask, and have asked, all with the best intentions.

Upon my departure last August for the University of Iowa, I remember telling my friend Chelsea that even if nothing else about my freshman year worked out, I would, at least, never have to answer The Question again, which would be a relief. Little did I know that The Question is tricky, able to mutate just enough for me to have to continue dealing with it. Now it's: "How is college going?" After a first few vague attempts to try and condense everything I was loving about being in college into some kind of response people would actually understand, I hit upon what would become my stock answer, an especially good one for my friends a year or two younger than I. I simply said, "College is so good, it was worth going through high school to get there."

Whenever I would toss this little quip of an answer off, the addressee would almost invariably chuckle in agreement, as though what it implies is an obvious fact - the sky is blue, the earth is round, and college is undeniably superior to high school. Duh. And while I can't deny that my time spent at QHS was a lot of fun and relatively stress-free, returning to Quincy with each break in my college year became less and less exciting to me. After enjoying being back near my parents, and my close friends, I would find myself wishing to be back in Iowa City within a week.

Of course, the average age up in Iowa City is is around 21, significantly younger than here at home, need I say. The result is that there's not just more to do, but there's a scene for kids that's missing in Quincy, resulting in most students forced to turn to the less-than-stellar Quincy Mall as a place to pace up and down on the weekends. Living in a youth-centered city was, then, an amazing change of pace - Iowa City's downtown has three main music venues, and a plethora of eateries and coffeeshops priced around the broke-college-student level.

All that aside, there's something more. Even though one of my friends at Iowa always calls me the "wise owl" of our group, I definitely don't know an answer to my original query - what makes college so much better than high school for a majority of people? It has become my Question-with-a-capital-Q. All I can do is ruminate on the subject; I'm good at that and my Unitarian roots have taught me that pondering life is a good way to go.

Part of it probably has to do with the general process of aging and maturation that comes from moving out. Shopping for dorm furniture with my mom, I couldn't help but feel at times that I was moving on to a slightly more serious version of the game "House," or, you know, a junior-edition of real life - when in my life had I ever had to think about buying forks, or laundry hampers? So, you buy your stuff, endure the first awkward phone call with the future roommate, then the move-in day comes, and you find yourself in this incredibly tiny version of an apartment, with a floor full of 42 other tenants. Because many of you have probably lived in a dorm-like situation before, I won't go into to too much detail on res hall life - suffice it to say that finding a free dryer is still a pain, and privacy is something fondly remembered from days gone by.

Not only did I find myself playing house, but my life also became structured in way that - oddly enough - seemed to me quite similar to that of my parents: during the day, I went to my job, which just happened to include learning about Soviet film theory and reading Truman Capote. Then, in the late afternoon, I would come home to my friends and floormates - my surrogate family - we'd eat dinner together, then kick back for some TV. Thankfully, it seemed that another side effect of living in a way initially reminiscent of middle-aged college professors (not that I'm naming names here) resulted in significantly less ridiculous drama occurring within our group. This, I feel, occurred in equal parts because we were able to be smart enough to laugh at things we labeled "high-school-level," and because we were probably just too tired to make a big deal out of nothing. We had classes, jobs, relationships, not to mention the latest episode of LOST to catch up on; we didn't need to fill our time with the Dawson's Creek kind of drama that circled through QHS.

But, as Joss Whedon, creator of another, superior WB show dealing with high schoolers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, said, describing the transition of the show into its university years: "We pretty much played out high school, and yet college is very much the same and also completely different, in the freedom you get and the incredible stupidity it causes." I'd be lying if I said that my freshman year was a completely idyllic experience. There was a fair amount of helping incredibly drunk friends to the bathroom to throw up, and listening to couples fighting loudly one room over, ignoring the not-exactly-soundproof walls, and leaving my newsroom in tears because my editors were unhappy with a piece I had written. But this, too, simply served to point out that the more aspects of life entirely in your control, the less you can blame anyone else when things go wrong. And while I'm always free to call home any time, it's not as if my parents can drive up and fix things for me, as much as I might want them to. These days, the majority of their help (aside from, of course, the monetary factor) comes through advising - the action is left up to me.

In Richard Linklater's film, Dazed and Confused, one of the best depictions of high school I've ever seen on film (too bad it's set 30 years too early, in 1976), one of the nerdier girls, Cynthia, muses on the last night of her high school career: "Don't you ever feel like everything we do and everything we've been taught is just to service the future?" Her friend responds, "Yeah I know, like it's all preparation," and Cynthia states firmly that, "I'd like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor insignificant preamble to something else."

When I entered college, that feeling of waiting for "something else" to start went away completely for me, due, I think, to being able to finally synthesize all my past experiences and parental advice and act on my own. It was I who dealt with the tempestuous editors at The Daily Iowan, and I who sprinted alongside a friend to get my scholarships turned in about 25 seconds after the official deadline, and, in a lighter moment, I who made sure my girlfriends didn't get crushed in a mosh pit over spring break. I worried if I would still like film enough to consider majoring in it - but I'm now more of a movie geek than ever; I just have more esoteric theories to spout. I constantly fretted over my job writing for the campus paper - next year I'll be splitting my time continuing to write music stories and reviewing films as well. I wondered whether or not I would be able to make any friends - before the end of October I was hosting a roomful of people to watch "The Office" every week, thanks to my TiVo, and in about a month and a half around 20 people I met in Iowa will be coming into Quincy for a big mid-summer reunion party. I'm no longer waiting for "something else" to begin, because my present is suiting me just fine, thanks.

Last year at this time I stood up here and talked about change, quoting C.S. Lewis, who advised that there is no good in rehashing the past when moving forward is what's productive and wondering what kind of Anna would return to church after experiencing university life. I'm not the one to know whether I've changed since leaving - ask the parentals, if anyone. But I do know that I came back with an entirely new set of inside jokes, a whole lexicon I have to stop myself from lapsing into with non-Hawkeyes, and experiences I could stand up here and describe all morning, though that would achieve nothing except for boring you all. They are the substance of my freshman year, however. And, to get just a little "big picture" right at the end for you - what is life, if not the sum of our experiences, the way we have interacted and related to others, and the things we have learned? And while college certainly isn't the beginning of "real life," I do think it's the moment when this metacognition about life begins. It's the point where you start coming up with your own Questions, capitalized or lowercase, and begin trying to answer them yourself. And it's the point where you begin to realize that maybe answering The Question isn't the point. It's the asking that matters.

Closing Words:

My closing words shouldn't really come as a surprise to you guys. It's a segment of the lyrics to the song my class chose as our "Class Song" upon graduating last year, and a song widely regarded as some sort of graduation anthem. I guess no one looks at the title, "Good Riddance," or remembers that it was written by a high school dropout. Anyway, from Green Day's "Good Riddance"--

"Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test, and don't ask why
It's not a question, but a lesson learned in time
It's something unpredictable, but in the end it's right.
I hope you had the time of your life."

©2006 Anna Wiegenstein

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Wiegenstein, Anna. 2006. Everything I Needed to Know About High School, I Learned in College, /talks/20060604.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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