(Non)Traditional, or A Mostly Educational Conversation Between Myselves, A Play

Anna Rosen /Staff

[*TEXTUAL COMMENT: In the Gregorian calendar year of 2006 A.D., I entered Montana State University as an 18-year-old film major. Then I dropped out of college, and a whole litany of life events happened that will not be explored here. In the fall of 2016 A.D., I transferred to UC Berkeley as a 28-year-old English major, once again in pursuit of my bachelor’s degree. The following is a dialogue between my current self and younger self, presumably to find out what, if anything, has changed.]


18-YEAR-OLD ME, past self from 2006, slightly obnoxious Film major, traditional freshman

28-YEAR-OLD ME, present self in 2016, slightly neurotic English major, re-entry junior transfer

COLLAGE* PROFESSOR, monstrous combination of various professors had both past and present

[*TEXTUAL COMMENT: Not a typo.]


Location: A hypothetical classroom.

Cue obligatory thunder and lightning. 18-YEAR-OLD ME and 28-YEAR-OLD ME enter and take their respective seats.

18-YEAR-OLD ME: You know, you look less aged and desiccated than I thought you’d be — dare I say youthful? And care to explain that sonnet on the chalkboard, or why you appear to be actually literally reading The Canterbury Tales?

28-YEAR-OLD ME: Believe it or not, this is your future, kid. It makes me downright nostalgic to see those HMI lights huddled in the corner and Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing sitting virtually unread on your desk. And I have to admit, sport, I find you as adorable as a little cherub.

Door opens and COLLAGE PROFESSOR slides/walks/slithers in. It stops at the podium and studies the clock until it is exactly 10 minutes after the hour.*

[*TEXTUAL COMMENT: The Oxford English Dictionary defines Berkeley Time as “a bend in International Atomic Time that converts tardiness into punctuality.” This play ostensibly takes place within this warped space-time.]

COLLAGE PROFESSOR: Good morning. You’re in Age & Undergraduates 25C. This is a seminar class, so I expect full class participation. There will be no reading for this course, but be prepared for several quizzes testing your knowledge of pop culture after the year 2006. Everyone below the drinking age will be required to learn how to cook their own food. This is an opportunity for you to learn from one another: traditional students can expect to finish this course with at least cursory knowledge in how to write a six-page essay when the April 15th tax deadline is looming, and older re-entry students can expect to learn the techniques for cramming for a midterm exam despite the semester-long malnourishment of Goldfish crackers and Twizzlers. Our first topic is Agency and Choice. Discuss.

The literal sound of crickets.

28-YEAR-OLD ME: Fine, I’ll go first. Going back to college after so many years away has required a semi-radical life adjustment: just when I’d finally become comfortable with managing my own expectations and schedule, I’ve had to squeeze them within a very specific set of rules and constraints. The first few days here, it felt like trying to shove toothpaste back into the tube.

18-YEAR-OLD ME: I don’t agree.

28-YEAR-OLD ME: Well, with all due respect, it’s not about whether you —

18-YEAR-OLD ME: But what you’ve said is way to the left of right! In other words, you’re wrong. Compared to the rigors of high school, college is a colossal step toward liberation. The concept of college is dangerously close to quite literally mind-blowing: I get to make my own schedule! I can skip class whenever I feel like it! I can stay up watching Blockbuster movie rentals as late as I want! I can go on dates and my family doesn’t need to have the slightest clue! Let freedom ring!*

[*PERFORMANCE COMMENT: Actors playing 18-YEAR-OLD ME can choose to scream this passage or speak it like a reasonable human being. TEXTUAL COMMENT: Yes, Blockbuster was very much in business in 2006.]

28-YEAR-OLD ME. So, you chose college because of the freedom.

18-YEAR-OLD ME: Chose? I mean, I guess I technically chose. Did I choose? My dorm room is exactly 98.2 miles away from home, but I still wake up every morning to the phantom voice of Mom screaming at me from the top of the stairs: “I’m not coming downstairs again! Waaaake uuuup! You have to go to school!” I’ve been in school for 13 consecutive years, and before that, I was learning how to walk on two legs and training in the nuances of incontinence. School is synonymous with my life: I breathe, I scoff at the Hollywood Formula, and I do homework. School just happens.

28-YEAR-OLD ME: But not college. College is a choice.

18-YEAR-OLD ME: Psh, easy for you to say. I know it’s supposed to be a choice, but think about it: for me, the gap between high school and college was just another summer. I’d like to see you attempt the necessary mental gymnastics to suddenly choose education within moments of your high school graduation cap turning into a dangerous projectile.

Going back to college after so many years away has required a semi-radical life adjustment: just when I’d finally become comfortable with managing my own expectations and schedule, I’ve had to squeeze them within a very specific set of rules and constraints. The first few days here, it felt like trying to shove toothpaste back into the tube.

28-YEAR-OLD ME: Point taken. The educational gap for me was considerably longer than a summer; if I’m doing the math right, the interval between your dropping out of film school and my attending community college was over six years.

18-YEAR-OLD ME: I drop out? Spoiler alert!

28-YEAR-OLD ME: And to go to college again after such a sizable break cannot be viewed as anything but a big fat, indisputable CHOICE. Thanks to your apparent allergy to all classes non-film, I had to go to community college for two years before I came here to UC Berkeley. And, trust me, going to college years after your adult life has already started is less like hitting the reset button and more like trying to find a good place to park on the Autobahn. Between early a.m. lectures and late p.m. homework was my full-time day job, where my earnest attempts to explain to my incredulous coworkers that I was finishing my Bachelor’s and NOT getting my Master’s degree were, on the whole, a little less pleasant than your average root canal.*

[*PERFORMANCE COMMENT: Productions have to consider whether to accompany the drama of this moment with a full orchestral arrangement of Barber’s Adagio for Strings or with the world’s tiniest violin.]

18-YEAR-OLD ME: Is there an upside?

28-YEAR-OLD ME: Oh, without a doubt. When college feels like a choice, you own that choice; it’s deeply, personally yours. These days, every early morning lecture is an experience I give myself, which turns my education into — dare I say this? — an actual, genuine gift. College for me is a peculiar blend of Christmas miracle and derrière-kicking homework, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Location: Scene continues.

COLLAGE PROFESSOR: Let’s move onto our next topic: Community. How do younger students adapt to the community of older students, and vice versa?

18-YEAR-OLD ME: I find it a tiny bit odd that there are older students in my class. There weren’t older people studying calculus next to me in high school. Did they get lost on the way to the grocery store? Are they plainclothes policemen?

28-YEAR-OLD ME: I’d take offense to that if I didn’t sometimes actually feel that way myself. There are days when it’s very surreal that I’m in a classroom, listening to a lecture, taking notes like a normal student. It feels like I’m merely acting the part, even though I am the part. And that’s when it gets really confusing. You know the idea of the undercover reporter or a top-secret spy who gets in too deep and can no longer tell if he’s actually pretending or only pretending to pretend?

18-YEAR-OLD ME: Huh? So, you’re not a student?

28-YEAR-OLD ME: No, I definitely am a student, but I often struggle to reconcile that I truly am a “student” like everyone else: if I’m not a young, high-achieving traditional undergrad but merely a responsible adult pushing 30, I wonder if I truly deserve the label of a student student or some other label that I cannot begin to describe — which throws me into dizzying ontological problems daily.

COLLAGE PROFESSOR: Can anyone tell me the definition of Imposter Syndrome?

28-YEAR-OLD ME: And this leads me to my next dilemma. When I’m in class, I’m often plagued with the following internal monologue: “Oh, hey! The professor just a posed a question, and I’ve got an utterly resplendent answer for this! I’ll raise my hand high and proud! But wait — other, younger, more tentative students may want to raise their hands and I don’t want to stifle their nascent voices. I don’t need the educational attention as much as they do! This is America’s youth. If I raise my hand, I’m holding back America!”

18-YEAR-OLD ME: I appreciate that, Uncle Sam. But I suppose if I’m 100 percent honest, the scariest thing about older students is their confidence. There’s something intimidating about someone who can simply BE without any social anxiety.

28-YEAR-OLD ME: I don’t know if it’s an age thing. I still have social anxiety.

18-YEAR-OLD ME: Give me break. I think you forget what it’s like at my age, when every disagreement feels like the final straw for complete and utter banishment from the community, and every social miscue deserving of the guillotine.

28-YEAR-OLD ME: You win.

18-YEAR-OLD ME: But if I’m 101 percent honest, I have this sneaking suspicion that I’m a teeny-tiny bit more blessed than the older students, because their lives probably didn’t go exactly as their 18-year-old selves planned — while my life is still full to the brim with pristine, limitless potential.

28-YEAR-OLD ME: You go straight for the jugular, don’t you?

18-YEAR-OLD ME: But if I’m 102 percent honest, it’s actually a badge of honor when an older student actually talks to me. For a few glorious moments, I’m thinking, “Huzzah! This gentleperson has all-but-completely forgotten I’m several years younger, because my attitude is indistinguishable from the 35-year-olds I write about so well in my ambitious screenplays*!”

[*TEXTUAL COMMENT: These screenplays will be stored in a hermetically sealed vault until the end of eternity.]

28-YEAR-OLD ME: My experience is the inverse: all my classmates are quite friendly, but whenever someone asks me how my paper is coming along, I have to fight the impulse to blurt out “I’m 28!” and run frantically for the nearest fire escape. I have this paranoia that my day of reckoning is forthcoming: one day, I’ll identify a little too much with Macbeth as a harrowing story of mid-career crisis, prompting the whole classroom to whip their heads around and look at me sideways, the shuddering classmate next to me recoiling in horror and shielding her eyes with her Norton edition of Shakespeare’s complete works and screaming, “It learns, it reads, it breathes, but it’s not one of us!”

18-YEAR-OLD ME: Yeah, I totally see that.

28-YEAR-OLD ME: I was really hoping you wouldn’t say that.

18-YEAR-OLD ME: But it really does got to feel weird. If I had to take a class with students ten years younger than me, I’d be squeezing myself into a writing desk alongside a bunch of second graders.

These days, every early morning lecture is an experience I give myself, which turns my education into — dare I say this? — an actual, genuine gift. College for me is a peculiar blend of Christmas miracle and derrière-kicking homework, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

28-YEAR-OLD ME: As disturbing as I find that image, the differences are not so obvious in college. The vast majority of traditional college students are thoughtful, deeply thinking adults. Yet the fact that I’m closer to the age of my GSIs than to the age of my classmates serves as a daily reminder that I’m in this funky in-between space of self-identity: I am, in certain ways, more experienced than my classmates, but in other ways they are far more primed for the rigorous schedule of school than I am; my peers in terms of age would be the GSIs, but they far outclass me in academic proficiency. I’m like a strange chimerical creature with a confusing collection of parts: I’m an academic mermaid.

18-YEAR-OLD ME: So, how do mermaids like you make friends?

28-YEAR-OLD ME: Good question. Last weekend I was invited to a party. I was moments away from walking out my apartment door with a cheap bottle of Cabernet — my go-to option for social gatherings — until I remembered the likely age of the student who was throwing the party . . . I had very nearly turned my Friday evening into a casual encouragement of underage drinking.


Location: Scene continues.

COLLAGE PROFESSOR: The final topic for today is Time. You have five minutes before the bell, so at least attempt to make your points concise and to the point.*

[*PERFORMANCE COMMENT: Since Collage Professor is an impossible-to-describe mishmash of all the college professors both versions of Me ever had, stretched across two universities and two community colleges, many of which already had pretty funky-sounding voices on their own, it’s highly recommended not to imagine the horrors of what this collective voice may sound like if these lines were spoken aloud. Apologies for not placing this warning earlier.]

28-YEAR-OLD ME: Time has less weight than it did when I was younger. I think having some of it behind me has evened out the pressure — there’s less in front of me to push. Now, it’s more about the pressure to embrace the present moment, since I now know the time in college is fleeting —

18-YEAR-OLD ME: Wrong. In high school, Time felt like this giant cement block that barely budged no matter how much I threw my shoulder against it, which was incredibly frustrating, but actually very comforting: it wasn’t going anywhere. Now that I’m in college, I’m beginning to sense that Time is actually a giant block of ice: not only is it stuck and heavy as hell, but it’s also melting. I feel this incredible urgency to do something, to Get The Show On the Road, but the ice is slippery and the more frantically I push, the less it seems to budge. So, I’ve got this, like, big, massive, monolithic Future just waiting there for me, but it’s all melting away while I’m stuck here in college and . . .

28-YEAR-OLD ME: You’re perspiring.

18-YEAR-OLD ME: Let me catch my breath . . .

28-YEAR-OLD ME: It’s a lot easier to read metaphysical poetry when you’re not panicked about the future melting, that I can attest.

18-YEAR-OLD ME: Excuse me, but my brain does not process this word “relax.” Look, I’ve got the future all planned out, and I just need to get to it. I will live in a spacious loft apartment in Brooklyn or San Francisco, and I’ll be a mega successful filmmaker making widely acclaimed movies. My life path is going to be a perfectly straight line, but right now I’m just stuck at the beginning.

28-YEAR-OLD ME: Wrong. You will live in a decently laid out one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley and you’ll be a filmmaker-cum-writer-cum-English literature student and your life path will look like the line on a richter scale. Trust me: there’s only one way to look with certainty, and that’s back.

18-YEAR-OLD ME: Wrong again! Holy moly, how can the two of us be so different?

28-YEAR-OLD ME: All the world’s a stage, and one man in his time plays many parts.

18-YEAR-OLD ME: But aren’t you writing both parts? This is actually getting confusing, like the director’s cut of “Blade Runner”. What is real? What is consciousness? Do we live in “The Matrix”???

28-YEAR-OLD ME: We’ve got to bail on this conversation. It’s about to collapse in on itself. This is the fundamental problem with self-conscious literature . . . Care to continue this over a slice of pizza?

18-YEAR-OLD ME: Sure! You buying?

COLLAGE PROFESSOR: Undergrads young and old, that’s the bell. Now, go out there and shake hands with a fellow student who looks different in age, and proudly tell them “Welcome to college!”

The Sather Tower bell rings. More obligatory thunder and lightning. Collage Professor melts into an unspeakable blob of tortoise shell and tweed. Exeunt.

Contact Kyler Ernst at [email protected]