Cool Kid, Old Man
Everyone in the classroom was ten years younger than me. I wondered if they realized it. Relax, Andrew, relax. You’re back in school again at 31 years old. So what? Maybe you’ll be the cool one this time. Maybe you can fool them into thinking so, anyway. I flipped my sunglasses up and rested them on my forehead. They seemed to think this was an amazing feat. Either that or they thought I was a douche bag. I kept quiet, for the time being, wondering why so many of them were talking about Harry Potter and how any of them knew who Neil Gaiman was, until I finally submitted my first story for workshop. Then they saw the genius. Then they showered me with praise. Now they knew who to look up to. Except for that one young lady, Kylie Yockey. She was pretty good. And the other one, the international student from Iran. She’s been published before? OK, OK. I guess I can handle a few people being better writers than me.
I’m afraid that’s really the attitude I had when I arrived at SFUAD two years ago. Maybe I wouldn’t have admitted it to myself, and maybe I tried really hard not to appear that way, but my ego was out of control at the time. However, there were plenty of well-seasoned students prepared to cut me down to size once I’d been around long enough, and one in particular who would serve as a personal writing mentor (remember writing, “Nah, son” on one of my short stories, Amaya Hoke?). I never expected to be the best at my craft, but I wasn’t prepared for the many lessons I’d receive from my peers when I returned to school. I thought that was the job of our instructors. Frankly, there’s a number of things my fellow students are willing to say to me that the instructors never would. And I’m a much better writer now because of it.
I wrote a number of short stories in my first couple of semesters at SFUAD that I would characterize as “Surprise! Twist ending!” stories. As I noticed this coming up more and more, I decided that I needed a new approach. After submitting a piece to SWA’s student-published zine Coffee Spoons, and working with the editors to revise my work twice, it was subsequently rejected. I had my first real crisis of confidence about my writing, and for a while I floundered, wondering where to turn next. My work experienced a rebirth in this period as I paid closer attention to the writers I admired in the program, particularly the work of Melinda Freudenberger. While I don’t think I could ever hope to approach her level of poetic language or depth of meaning, I found inspiration in my colleague’s work that I believe forever changed my writing. I spend much more time thinking about my characters, really considering their motivations and steering away from anything that comes close to a stereotype. I also credit Matt Donovan’s Techniques of Poetry class for improving my prose. As I have heard it said many times, even if one is not a poet, studying poetry really can strengthen one’s writing in other genres.
Being part of a community of writers meant I had people to argue with about the Oxford comma. It meant I had people who would confront me if I wrote misogynist characters. It meant emerging from my icy dorm room cell every now and then to go watch a movie with my friends. It meant getting close to a few people in Santa Fe, especially one (remember when I asked you out, Amaya Hoke?). It meant seeing my peers on an equal level and sometimes wondering how I could ever hope to be as good a writer as any of them. And sometimes it meant that I had to set a few personal boundaries (No, I can’t take you to the train station, I’ve got homework to do).
I wasn’t expecting to make so many younger friends. Most of my first semester was spent holed up in my dorm room doing homework (before I left Dallas for Santa Fe, a much older friend of mine commended me on living in the dorms, as he had done so in his 30s and said he’d made some friends for life). I tried to make a few friends by giving rides to people who didn’t own cars, but it soon felt like I was a taxi service. When I did finally meet another student my own age, I latched onto her and expected her to talk to me at least once a day. I wonder why she didn’t stick around. Eventually, I fell in with a small group of writers who ran the Student Writers Association, and when I needed a place to crash over winter break, a couple of them gladly took me in. We watched movies every night (remember making me watch every single movie in the Alien series, Amaya Hoke?), and definitely never drank any alcohol together. By the time I moved back into the dorm for the spring semester, I realized I had two new best friends.
During my second year at SFUAD, I took on Resident Assistant responsibilities in order to help pay for my room and board. I thought I’d be staying in King Hall, but at the last minute they changed their minds and gave me one of the apartments. “Because you’re older,” they said. “And there’s also someone over there we want you to keep an eye on.” Great. I’d be babysitting my next door neighbor. If there’s anything that will make you feel your age, it’s having to come down on a bunch of college students for drinking alcohol and smoking weed. But I had a strong sense of responsibility, and the school was writing off a lot of money for me to do this job, so I was going to do it right.
A week before school started, I’d already had to speak with my residents twice about drinking alcohol. I hoped that the whole year wasn’t going to be like this. Fortunately, most of my residents followed the rules, and I even came to consider a few of them friends. I could feel myself getting tired this semester, though, so I started making an effort to get to bed at a reasonable time most nights. I had to be OK with my assignments not always being as perfect as I would have liked them to be. Maybe I didn’t complete all the required special events for my residents, but they didn’t seem too heartbroken. As spring came along, and a new supervisor took over the RAs, I prepared for my busiest semester yet. I served as an editor on the Glyph literary journal for the second year in a row, I read and critiqued 15 70-page manuscripts in my Senior Reading class while putting together one of my own, and I worked part-time at Collected Works Bookstore downtown, all while serving as a Resident Assistant for 47 college students and staying up until 2 a.m. every Friday night to do rounds. I suppose it’s no wonder that I woke up groggy from a nap one afternoon to the sound of my cell phone ringing, and incorrectly directed one of my fellow RAs to my apartment. Who knew I’d accidentally send him instead to the same resident I busted last week and inadvertently cause the creation of the Collexion? During the next week, I watched the entire campus lose its mind.
All of my friends at SFUAD used to call me an old man, until I finally asked them to stop. By now, I was calling myself one. It was too much to do my homework while trying to make a bunch of kids follow the rules. I moved out at the end of the school year and got an apartment with my girlfriend, saving myself a lot of stress in my final semester. It was nice to have a place to call home where I didn’t need to worry about room checks or moving my belongings out every nine months. It did mean I wouldn’t be seeing my friends in the cafeteria anymore, and I’d be walking around campus a lot less. This last semester made me feel a bit disconnected. But between reading twenty-or-so novels for my literature classes, working 27 hours a week at my job, and applying to 10 graduate schools, I didn’t have much time for hanging out anyway.
Maybe I can get a little cranky now and then because I haven’t gotten enough sleep. Maybe my incessant sense of responsibility makes it harder to have fun. Maybe I’ve had to bail out of numerous parties, dances and movies over the last 2 ½ years because I had too much homework to do. Still, I’ve made a sizable group of friends at SFUAD that I expect I’ll hold onto for a long time. Whether we end up seeing each other on a regular basis, or we just post the occasional comment on each others’ Facebook walls, I’ve been through too much and learned too many valuable lessons from these folks to ever want to fall completely out of touch.
I have seven more grad school applications to submit before the end of the week, along with three essays to complete for finals. The applications are almost done, but I can feel the familiar weight of a deadline bearing down on me. It’s strange to think that in another week, that will all disappear, and I’ll be just another guy with a job in Santa Fe. I’ve been a guy with a job before, but this time I’ll be a guy with a job and a degree. Five years ago, I couldn’t say that. It was just something I wished I had done when I was younger, and thought could never happen. But I’ll be taking away more than a piece of paper and tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt from my college experience. I’ll be taking the knowledge of a more seasoned writer. I’ll be taking the friendship of dozens of friends, more varied in culture, sexuality and personality than anyone I ever met in Dallas. I’ll be taking my interview with rock legend Graham Nash conducted while working at the Santa Fe Reporter as an intern during the summer. I’ll be taking the works of Henry Miller, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster and James Baldwin. I’ll be taking the wizened advice of six very talented Creative Writing instructors. I’ll be taking the knowledge that I am a talented writer with a little more humility than when I arrived, no longer needing to be the cool kid, even though I know there’s plenty of wonderful, loving people who still think I am.