Photo by Keith MayThis marks the 20th year since I arrived at Cal State Long Beach, the start of five of the most uneventful years of my life. In that time, nothing much happened except that one time, I got a really good parking space and this other time, a professor punched me. That was about it.
And I guess, based on that, you'd have to say Cal State Long Beach was not much of a "college experience." You might say, based on that, Cal State Long Beach was a "complete waste of time." You might say Cal State Long Beach is a "factory school that affords little to no contact with professors or fellow students and provides only the thinnest of cookie-cutter education that, at best . . . ooohh, I think that guy is pulling out of his parking space! Awesome!"
And you'd be right. I was going to write a piece looking back on my time at Cal State Long Beach—the memories, the friends—until I remembered I didn't have any. Talking to others about their experiences at the school, what passed for memories was that there was a bar on campus and the snack shack on the lower portion of the campus had really good chili fries and, at one point in their careers, they had gotten a really good parking space.
A big waste of time? Sure, I was thinking as much. That is, until it dawned on me that Cal State Long Beach had taught me the most powerful lesson possible: how to live.
Yes, it is because of Cal State Long Beach that I am alive today. While it's true that the life I lead is mostly bereft of depth and meaning—in large part because of what I did not receive in its classrooms—it's outside the classroom that Cal State Long Beach teaches you what you need to survive: avoid human contact.
Heaven only knows how many freeway shootings I have not been the victim of because Cal State Long Beach taught me to turn my head and keep my mouth shut. Heaven only knows how many times I've not been selected by a serial killer for ritualistic "changing" because I never, ever, make eye contact with anyone. I'll never know, of course. What I do know is that I'm alive, and I owe it all to Cal State Long Beach, a big school, a school with something like 30,000 students packed into 323 acres when I was there. That's a good-sized city, and like any city, it's big and impersonal and has its share of the insane and the criminal, many of them teaching in the English department. You learned quickly that you got around the school by minding your own business, dipping your head, casting your eyes to the ground when walking. You never looked anyone in the eye. You rarely raised your head. You learned to navigate around campus by sidewalk landmarks or stealing quick glances ahead. Not only was eye contact dangerous, but it also had the potential of bringing you in contact with losers, i.e., other Cal State Long Beach students. We were all losers because, after all, we were at Cal State Long Beach. C'mon, what good was going to come out of a conversation between two Cal State Long Beach students? Sure, I can put in a good word for you at Kinko's. No, human contact was bad, and nothing in the intervening years has dissuaded me from that conclusion. What was amazing was that no one told me this or actually showed me how to avoid it. Rather, the paranoia, apathy and revulsion were simply there on campus, permeating from the nondescript glass buildings and stainless-steel sculptures.
A sterling example: one morning, I am walking up from the lower to the upper campus to attend class, probably in a room with stadium seating. I have been walking for 10 or 15 minutes because this is a day that I did not get a good parking space. I still have 10 minutes of walking in front of me to get to a class with a burned-out professor who addresses students by "Uh, yeah, you," and a big fat guy who sits next to me and sucks on the back of his hand.
So I'm walking up what is known as Hard Fact Hill, a grassy incline that's quicker than using the stairs, although it has a tendency to get a little slick in the morning, so it's not unusual for people to slip while hurrying up it.
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This morning, a guy almost at the top of the hill does just that, but he doesn't just slip. He falls. And begins to roll down the hill. Really, just like a cartoon, sliding and rolling head over heels, books and papers flying. It looked very funny, in a painful and humiliating way. But that's beside the point. The point is that as the man rolled, his head slamming time and again against patches of hard-packed dirt, not a single person moved to help him. Not only that, but many of them also sidestepped or stepped right over him WITHOUT EVER LOOKING AT HIM.
Talk about applying your education to the everyday world.
Was the man angry? Of course not. He would have done the same for us.
Looking back on that morning, I realize that Cal State Long Beach not only taught us all how to eschew human contact, but it taught us also how to sense it and casually dodge it. And because of this, I would hazard a guess that Cal State Long Beach grads are among the least murdered. Thank you, Cal State Long Beach. You may not teach "book smarts," but you teach something else, something I like to call "not-getting-murdered smarts."