There’s something in the air this weekend — and no, it’s not the bay breeze.
I know that you, kind parent, brought your child to Berkeley this weekend as a celebration of his or her academic achievements. After all, as you’ve proudly told all the other mothers in your social circle, UC Berkeley is not the kind of school to which just anyone is accepted. It takes someone special, and now you — I mean, your child — have the acceptance letter to prove what you’ve known all along: Your child is special.
This weekend, then, is a reward, the culmination of four years of picking your child up from various extracurricular activities and paying a small fortune for College Board tests.
But there’s something permeating the crisp Berkeley air this weekend that’s tainting the entire experience. It smells vaguely familiar, like something your own dorm room might have smelled like 20, 30 years ago …
Let me just say in advance that I’m sorry the administration chose this weekend to invite the legions of Berkeley hopefuls to campus. Even the head honchos in California Hall must know what April 20 (better known as 4/20) means to college hippies.
Now, dear parent, slowly count to 10, and stall the panic that’s already settling in. Just because you catch a whiff of weed in the air does not mean that you should march your child right back home.
Because, first off, chances are he or she already knows what weed smells like. Face it: Your son isn’t a child anymore — he’s growing up. And if he really is confusing that scent with skunk (as I myself innocently did three years ago), find comfort in the fact that his first exposure to drugs is with you in broad daylight rather than in a dingy frat house with people he will have just met come August.
I know that all those half-naked stoners on Memorial Glade (beautiful, picturesque Memorial Glade!) are really torching your fantasy — no pun intended. I know you’ve always pictured Berkeley as a bastion of academia and culture. Take two steps inside the North Reading Room at Doe Library, and you’ll encounter the former in spades. Just take a look at that ceiling, I’m serious.
Berkeley is every bit the academic hot spring those brochures broadcast — it’s tough, competitive and soul-sucking in the most rewarding way possible. Four years here, and your child will come out on the other side an idealistic radical perfectly poised for a quarter-life crisis.
And as far as culture goes … well, your child always said he wanted the authentic college experience, right? So here you two are, standing in the middle of Sproul Plaza, being bombarded with tours and activities and information, and all you can smell is marijuana occasionally mixed with the stale-sweat-and-cigarette aroma of a homeless man.
If Berkeley the university is a respected and dignified old man, then Berkeley the surrounding city is a dangerous (and most likely disowned) wild child. Yes, there are homeless people squatting on the sidewalk (a right the citizens of Berkeley actually fought to protect this last fall). Yes, there are at least 57 Nepali souvenir shops within a five-block radius. Yes, People’s Park is the condensed version of all your vivid nightmares involving your child away at school.
And yes, the yuppie inside of you wants to flee to College Avenue or Fourth Street before you have to “experience” any more of this.
But do me a favor, OK? Take one long look at your child. Watch him closely as he soaks it all in this weekend: the campus that seems impossibly big, the dirty city streets pulsing with pedestrians, the utter lack of comforting and homogenized chain restaurants. Watch him as he watches everyone else. Watch him want to be a part of all of it. Watch the paralyzing fear duke it out with overwhelming excitement on his face. I bet the excitement wins out.
I know that today may seem like a total letdown to you, parent. Memorial Glade, clogged with lazy students, just became a train wreck you can’t tear your eyes away from. But at the very least, take comfort in the fact that this only happens one day a year and that you never have to stare it in the face again. There are 364 more days to visit your child once he’s settled into his dorm.
And bear in mind that there are so many things for your child to see and do this weekend that he might not even remember this vivid scene (as long as you usher him away fast enough).
I’ll leave you with a little story that I’m sure you can relate to. When my mother’s friend was applying to law schools, he was stuck between Berkeley and Stanford. So he toured both. Beforehand, he was warned that Berkeley is the kind of school you either immediately love or hate; there’s really no in-between.
As soon as he set foot on campus, he saw a crazy man wearing a dress. He ended up choosing Stanford, though his son oddly enough now goes here. Funny how fate works. The moral of the story stands true: As far as Berkeley goes, you either love it or hate it.
So let your child love it.
Contact Annie Gerlach at [email protected].