Paul Andersen: Flunking out made all the difference
November 18, 2002
Instead of belting out “gaudeamus igitur” we lip-synched to “Whole Lotta Love.” Instead of letter sweaters, we wore ragged bell-bottoms and flannel shirts. Instead of science experiments in the lab room, we experimented with various chemicals in our dorm rooms. My friends and I took higher education to a whole new level.
Ah, those bright college days. How the memories flood back like the backwash in a quart bottle of Budweiser. I think of it now because 30 years ago my alma mater kindly asked me to pack my trunk and leave.
It all started in 1969, the year I graduated from high school. Summoned before a college counselor in my senior year, I heard the hard truth. “College?” the counselor chuckled with disbelief. “Judging by these grades, Paul, you would be better off pursuing a trade. Have you ever considered long-haul truck driving?”
So what if I graduated in the lower 10 percent of my class. Hope springs eternal and I was certain that poor performance in high school would have no bearing on my ability to adjust to a collegiate level of work. I thought a switch would turn in my head that would suddenly make me dean’s list material. Fat chance.
My parents and I had a powwow to determine my academic future. We agreed that there were four solid reasons for me to pursue higher education. 1) It was time for me to get out of the house. 2) All my peers were going to college. 3) Future employment depended on a degree. 4) There was a war raging in Vietnam.
That settled it. A student deferment was worth the price of tuition. Once I found a college that would accept me without a six-figure bribe to the alumni fund, I was off to Gunnison, Colorado, home of Western State College.
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Foolishly, perhaps, I had neglected to crop my long hair before stepping off the plane into that bastion of redneck radicalism. I soon discovered that cowboys and jocks had a strong aversion to peace-loving hippies. Some of them were aspiring barbers who offered free coiffeurs after a good-natured pummeling. What fun!
But that was mild compared to the reaction of my zoology teacher, a tenured redneck who personified a number of conservative faculty members. On registration day, after I had presented a registration form, the zoologist hissed a warning: “Long hairs don’t make it in my class!”
Disillusioned by the reception I received at WSC, my focus shifted 28 miles north to Crested Butte where the folks were more to my liking. Here was an enclave of liberal empathy, a beautiful backwater so unsullied by popular culture that the people smiled and said “hello in there.”
After pithing my fifth frog in zoology class and dutifully jolting it with electric shocks, I concluded that my reptilian professor was an even better candidate for pithing, ideally followed by a leg-twitching jolt of 220 current.
As my fantasy began to unfold like a Steven King novella, it became obvious that my sanity was eroding within the confining walls of academia. Draft or no draft, I unofficially resigned from college and ditched the rest of my classes. My .9 grade point average for that dismal quarter clinched it.
The administration kicked me out, but I was happy and free. I had a room in a communal house in Crested Butte and a job as a janitor in a bar. I put my old Head Standards to good use and became a regular at Sunshine’s Paradise Bathhouse. Skiing, an open bar, hot water and nudity; what more was there?
In Crested Butte I discovered a fringe community of disenfranchised, disillusioned, disaffected dissidents ? people like me. In CB, long hair became more of a benefit than a detriment, as the following story illustrates.
The editor of the Crested Butte Chronicle in those days was a staunch defender of liberalism. His pen was his sword and he unleashed it when he wrote a restaurant review of a redneck steak house called the Way Station.
The restaurant had a sign on the door reading: “WE SERVE NO LONG HAIRS HERE.” Affronted by such blatant discrimination, the editor took pen in hand. The restaurant review he published the next day opened like this: “The Way Station does in fact serve long hairs; I found one in my soup …”
I eventually returned to WSC and earned a degree ? in English, not zoology. Crested Butte became my home for almost 25 years and it gave me something college never did ? a sense of belonging to a vibrant, alive and free community. Here was a place to let my freak flag fly.
Flunking out of Wasted State made all the difference. Otherwise, who knows, I might have become a moral, upstanding Republican bore.
[Paul Andersen never tore the goal posts down; he set them on fire. His column appears every Monday.]
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