My first night in the dorm, I cut the lights, laid in bed and listened to a guy hollering outside the door. What was this new, weird world? I stepped into the hallway on the third floor of the Lipscomb Dormitory off Baxter Street in Athens and a guy blazed by me dressed in only white underwear. But he was wrapped heavily in toilet paper. He slid like he was stealing second base and stood up at the end of the hall, laughing in between Ric Flair “woos!”
I would not join the nearly nude toilet streaker in a mock stolen base in a grungy college dorm. But I recognized the weirdly ceremonial aspect of what he was doing. He might as well have painted his face like Mel Gibson in Braveheart and bellowed: “Freedom!” — the word at the heart of so many teenage insanities, that inarticulate elation tied to “no one can stop me now!”
We all felt it. There were no parents to admonish us for our absurdities, our laziness, our slovenliness. But “freedom” meant different things to different people. My buddy from Macon was just down the hall and I was glad to have him there. But a few days in, he’d had enough of Athens and headed back home. I could relate to that feeling, too.
I had a sick feeling in my gut. Was I cut out for this? What would I do with this freedom?
There was reason for doubt.
As a high schooler, I shed my academic ambitions in favor of social aims, dropping from sixth in a class of 75 my eighth grade year to 66th by my junior year. If my grade school career was a stock, it would have to be called “AIG” or perhaps “Countrywide.” There was a great bubble, great numbers, then a calamity — a driver’s license — followed by a lingering recession. I studied so vigorously through middle school that my mom had on occasion urged me to put the books down, get out of my room and take my mind off school. But I swung that pendulum way too far to the other side, seeking smiles from girls and laughs from guys. And by my junior year, I was flunking algebra and going after school to a tutor. Not only that, I would laugh about the flunking part. What’s the big deal? And the teen me didn’t know — or care.
I managed to get into the University of Georgia in one of the last classes prior to the HOPE Scholarship, which seriously inflated enrollment requirements. Had I graduated two years later, I certainly would not have been admitted to UGA. My grade point average was terrible, but my SAT was pretty good. So, the university accepted me on the condition that I attend summer remedial classes. One of them was called “Learning to Learn.” We had to learn good study habits. I managed just a “B.” I think everyone else had an “A.”
Of course, the thrill of being “free” eventually morphed into the anxiety of being free and destitute. And I perked up and started to be a pretty good student in my latter half of college. I faced a necessary and painful awakening: This world is tough and no one outside of my parents is particularly concerned about my success or failure. If I don’t care about myself, no one else will. I realized I had better not squander a good opportunity in college.
Every year, I stand in the Classic Center and listen to Madison County graduates give their speeches. And I think of that guy celebrating his first night of freedom by trying to be Charmin toilet paper’s version of Ricky Henderson in the Lipscomb dorm.
I think of my own high school years — how long it took me to appreciate the fact that “freedom” from parental oversight was not freedom from hard work. No, it was actually the opposite of that, which is the blunt truth of adulthood.
I think of my own young children and their very short rope of freedom, which will gradually get longer until they finally snip it from my hands at adulthood. I guess I’ll have to tie a knot it in then and hold on to the memories.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.