YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A College Lesson: Your Family's Not So Weird

August 30, 1995|Robin Abcarian

In the mall last week, I eavesdropped on a mother picking out clothes with her college-bound daughter, and suddenly, I was 17 years old, pulling into the parking lot of Barrington Hall, my Berkeley co-op, anxious, excited and agog. A slight woman with frizzy hair was coming out the front door. She was yelling, "Pink Cloud! Pink Cloud!"

Weird weather? Bad drugs?

Nope. Pink Cloud was a person, an older (25?) grungy-looking guy with an anemic braid and an annoying whine.

Turned out he was Barrington Hall's officially sanctioned crasher, someone who was allowed by majority vote of the residents to sleep in a closet on the third floor. He lived by selling pornographic newspapers on Telegraph Avenue. Last I heard, he had changed his name to Dr. Wrench and was in the car repair business. A nickname for every incarnation.

I think we put up with Pink Cloud because he symbolized so much that our suburban or rural backgrounds did not. And I think he would mooch with as much success today as ever.

That's because there isn't all that much difference between a college-bound kid of today and one of 20 years ago. Then, as now, you went in search of life, independence (and, incidentally, an education). Then, as now, you look like hell and your parents hope it's a phase. (Good-news bulletin for parents: Four years after I left for school in an Indian print bedspread dress, the preppy look emerged on campus. On the other hand: Do we really want to relive the '80s?)

So what has changed in the last two decades, besides the fact that California's ship of higher education is crashing on the rocks of insolvency and intolerance? Electronic equipment, that's what. Computers used to occupy entire campus buildings when I arrived at college. I used a manual typewriter for papers. Pocket calculators--which cost a couple hundred dollars back then--were rare. Cell phones and CDs were inconceivable to me. (But then, I was a humanities major.)

What has never changed, and doubtless never will, are the emotional lessons of leaving home.


I could not wait to get out of Dullsville (a.k.a. Northridge), to experience the giddy liberation of making my own rules, setting my own bedtime, doing what I pleased when I pleased. I felt as though I were a helium balloon, released by invisible hands. (Many years would pass before I would experience this sensation again--it happened when I hired a baby-sitter.)

I don't know that anyone talks much about this, but leaving home for college provides a major mental health bonus--the revelation that everyone else's family is just as weird as yours.

If not more so.

Leaving for college is the first time we're able to put any distance between ourselves and our families--either physically or emotionally.

It's a time when we come to the stunning realization that normal is a relative term, especially when it comes to relatives. It's also when we begin constructing our own family narratives (as opposed to taking the family's version of itself as gospel), and when we learn to take comfort in the tribulations of other people's clans.

(On that last point: I still do. And for anyone similarly disposed, may I recommend any recent news story on the Husseins of Iraq? They make any other family look like high achievers on the Nelson Normality Scale.)


There are only a few pieces of advice I'd give to students setting off for college. None is especially life altering, but, for instance, if someone had only mentioned how much it costs to bounce a check, I could have saved myself an awful lot of money my first semester away.

You should probably expect your first college paper to be traumatic. Resting comfortably on my high school laurels, I somehow overlooked the fact that my academic competition was no longer guys from metal shop. Writing papers never really got any easier, but when anxiety peaked, switching to decaf helped.

Be suspicious of people who initiate conversations by asking if you realize how much (pick a savior) loves you. (Pick a savior) may indeed love you, but why should a perfect stranger care? This person is not a great friendship prospect.

Every once in awhile, you will hear a story about a student who aced a final without ever setting foot in the classroom. This person is either a liar or is enrolled in a correspondence course. Attending class is one of the best ways devised to pass a course.

I happen to know from my own college years that the urge to get a tattoo (in my case, at Davy Jones Tattoo Locker near the Port of Oakland) feels primal, undeniable. If struck by the urge, wait until sober, and make sure you get it in a place that won't freak your mother out too much.

Sure, your parents are geeks. Sure, you didn't ask to be born. But it doesn't hurt to be nice to them, especially if they pay your tuition. If being nice to your parents is difficult, just remember: Technically, their fiscal obligation to you ends on your 18th birthday. Does that help?

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

Los Angeles Times Articles