Toward the end of my sophomore year, I got kicked out of college. Most
self-respecting students never feel the blow of the university's boot against
their backsides, but for those who have -- and for everyone else who's ever
been ousted, exiled or dishonorably discharged -- take comfort in this story.
You are not alone in the land of the banished.
The official charge against me was "immoral conduct." To get booted out of
college for something as naughty as immorality, you have to plan everything just right. First, you enroll in a Baptist college, preferably one that doesn't allow alcohol or visitation between the sexes. Next you outfit your dorm room with a generous stockpile of booze, you proceed to get loaded and then get caught in flagrante delicto while frolicking in the wee hours with a partially clothed woman.
That's the way it went for me at Campbell University, a 4,000-student school in Buies Creek, N.C. The town of Buies Creek is so small -- this is not a joke -- that the local grocery store is named the Groc. The tiny store's tiny sign could only hold four letters. As a student at Campbell, a bastion of monotony in the middle of nowhere, you learn to make your own fun. You pile mattresses outside your dorm and do stunt-man leaps out the window. You cut your own hair. You cultivate an impression of yourself as a staunch nonconformist by doing all the things most college students do in the rest of the country: You drink and pursue your lustful urges.
The night in question was a blur of binging and noisy fornication that ended with my dorm's resident director, a former Atlantic Coast Conference fullback, shouldering his way into my room against my lame effort to bar the door. Next day, I was summoned to the administration building to meet with the dean of men. He gave me the low-down. I would have to appear before the university's Executive Council for a sort of shotgun inquisition at which I would be officially informed of what I already knew -- I now qualified as persona non grata at Campbell U. -- then I could mosey on home. Technically, I wouldn't be expelled. I would be suspended for one year. But in my mind it amounted to the same thing. Who wants to wait around a year so you can go back to the place that branded you immoral?
I decided to skip the inquisition. I told my girlfriend, Lisa -- the partially clothed woman -- about my plan. I was going to put the you can't run away from your problems theory to the test. She wanted to go too. So we packed up her little MG in the middle of the night and went zooming down I-95. We looked at a map and decided to head for Charleston, S.C. I can't remember why we chose Charleston. It just seemed like as good a destination as any. Sunshine. Folly Beach. Fort Sumter. Whatever.
We took a vacation from reality -- I understand that now though neither of us saw it that way at the time. We were too busy talking ourselves into the fantasy. We'll go to Charleston, we said. Ditch the old messed-up life, start a new one. We'll get an apartment. Get jobs. We raised a canopy of starry-eyed logic to shelter the absurdity of our delusion. We had about $1,000 between us; we figured we could live off that for a while. Then, when we got employed and the cash started coming in, we might get a little house. Settle down. Live like regular folks. It didn't sound insanely undoable at the time.
Oh, another thing. We hadn't told anyone where we were going. So when the dean called to notify my parents, they got a double-whammy: Not only has your son been nailed for immoral conduct, he's gone AWOL with ... the partially clothed woman. For almost two weeks, my folks didn't know where I was. They didn't know if I was dead or alive, and I couldn't work up the nerve to contact them. To this day, I feel terrible about what I put them through. At the time, though, I felt like the evasion tactic was my only option. I knew that, if I had to face my parents, I would be squashed by the sheer enormity of their disappointment in me.
I should mention that I'm the son of a Baptist minister, and I have three older sisters, all of whom are angels. Growing up, my sisters never did anything wrong -- or they never got caught -- and I was always doing awful things, and I always got caught. I totaled the family car. I got kicked off my high school track team for drinking. I was an indifferent student, so when college time rolled around I went to Campbell because my grades weren't good enough to get me in anywhere else. All my sisters had gone to Campbell; they were star students, campus leaders. My mother had gone there too. Our family had a sort of exalted legacy at Campbell -- until I stepped on campus, that is.
Once we got to Charleston, Lisa and I stayed in a hostel-type motel that doubled as a Pentecostal church on Sundays. The manager looked like Charles Manson, with those dark, crazed eyes. His name was John Pope; he showed us his license to prove it. He invited us into his room to see his surgical instruments -- scalpels, scissors, clamps, all polished and gleaming on his bed. He'd been a medic in Vietnam, he said. He offered to perform first aid on us anytime, no charge. We left.
Eventually we found a cozy little apartment in a brick walk-up on a willow-shaded street near the harbor. We brought fake engagement rings to make our prospective landlord think we were newlyweds. She bought our story. We signed a six-month lease. We moved in, cleaned house, got groceries, put dishes and pots in the kitchen, hung up some pretty blue curtains from the thrift store. It was sort of sweet -- we were playing the happy homemakers.
We didn't stay happy for long. We couldn't find jobs -- even the restaurants weren't hiring. We ran out of money. We had to pawn our watches and jewelry. We began to bicker and fume. That's how it goes: You drift off into this warm, fuzzy dream of self-sufficiency, and you wake up to the bitter cold of your absolute helplessness. Suddenly, your girlfriend is standing in the middle of your cute kitchen, shattering dishes on the floor and screaming, "Were going to die!" At night she's pulling your pillow over her face to muffle the sound of her sobbing, and you're flat on your back counting pockmarks in the ceiling, thinking that, in the grand scheme of things, it might not be so bad to be dead. You're 19 years old.
So what can you do? You give it up. You raise the white flag. After two weeks, we went limping back to Buies Creek. Only a few days were left in the semester. We appeared before the Executive Council. They met with Lisa first, while I waited outside in the lobby. Then they ushered her out, not allowing us to speak to each other, and brought me in. It was like a TV police show. The dean asked me if I was sorry for everything I'd done. I said yes, I was sorry. I didn't mean it, but I didn't mind saying it. By then I was so sick of the whole woeful situation, I would've told lie after lie just to keep the judicial process moving along.
Afterwards, I walked out of the dim, dank building into the bright Carolina afternoon. I strolled across the campus, looking around. Exams were over by then, so students were out enjoying themselves -- throwing Frisbees, reading under shade trees, sunning themselves on the grass. Everybody looked so happy. I felt happy, too. But it was a different kind of happiness, a kind I hadn't felt before and haven't felt since. It was the special sort of contentment, the deep inner peace you feel when you ultimately realize, beyond all doubt, that your life cannot possibly get any worse.
If you get kicked out of college for cheating or drug possession or something hardcore like that, no other school will let you enroll while you're under suspension. But most public universities -- any school that isn't founded on Old Testament scripture -- will let you slide for "immoral conduct." After salvaging the remainder of the semester at Campbell, I scrambled to get accepted at a state school for the following fall. I graduated with an English degree, went on to get an M.F.A. from a creative writing program and now, a few years down the road, I have a darling, optimistic wife, two great dogs and plenty of time to write -- and if that isn't everything I ever hoped for in life, it's most of it.
So the story ends on a note of happily ever after. I don't recommend getting kicked out of college, but if it happens, don't write it off as a total loss. You might learn something valuable from the experience. You might learn, for instance, that it's sometimes OK to run away from your problems. In fact, sometimes, in perilous circumstances, it can be a downright necessity. Remember this: If your life at some point gets so overwhelmingly, unbearably shitty you think your heart or your mind might break, take a sabbatical from reality. Go to Charleston. Go to Disneyworld. Bowing out of your troubles is an act of will, not the lack of one, and there is no shame in it. Besides, you can be certain of one thing, your troubles will be waiting for you when you get back.
No matter how bad it gets, remember that someday you'll be able to feel nostalgic about these dreadful events. I fondly remember certain moments from that humiliating episode. I remember the beautiful old mansions along the Battery in Charleston, the flags flapping in the breeze over Fort Sumter and the pink cherry blossoms that carpeted the sidewalks after a thunderstorm. I remember coming out of an unsuccessful job interview at the resort on Kiawah Island and seeing a great blue heron standing on the hood of a car with its massive wings outstretched, like some monster hood ornament come to life.
I remember the long, lonesome drive home to my parents' house in Washington, D.C., the dread of our confrontation like a fist in my throat. I remember trying, that last mile, to compose my features into the very countenance of contrition and remorse. And I remember pulling up to the house, where a giant yellow ribbon was tied around our old oak tree, and I saw, for the first time, the beauty and power in the words of Tony Orlando & Dawn.