Getting schooled

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If I ever, by some sadistic wrinkle in space-time, had to repeat the college application process, it wouldn’t be painful. Now, I’d answer every thought-provoking (read: inane) essay prompt with the irreverence of someone who has been there and done that. Admissions demanded I reflect, but I rebut that I’ll reflect when this university finally does. 

For example, if asked what grocery store item I’d be and why, the answers just write themselves: Maybe a Honeycrisp apple suggests you’re a teacher’s pet but palatable; a squeeze bottle of Grey Poupon because you’re the mass-marketed illusion of class. The grocery store of extended metaphor invites distortion. The choices abound: What parts of yourself do you choose to highlight? What parts are beyond redemption? What is the right amount of ugly that still invites love? Condensing your multitudes into zingy one-liners is a farce, and I pity us all for having gone through it.

At the grocery store, I’d be a checkout line tabloid. Tabloids soothe my inner Scrooge, who is all roided out about locating where I fall on the bell curve. Having no headline on my tragicomic failure assures me I’m morally upright, my life proceeding in an orderly fashion. The process is the perfect transaction. We look at the page because what’s written there is a total sociological minefield; it’s easy to dismiss, but the jolt of superiority is real and energizing.

It’s literary roadkill: gory smears of viscera you can’t look away from. Admitting you revel in someone’s showstopping failure is becoming F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick, outside looking in, willfully engaging with titillating half-truths. We are stuck with the moral compass of a delinquent Boy Scout, but if we’re being honest, it’s all drivel anyway. I’ll pretend to like “The Great Gatsby” to get into college. Drilling your psyche for admissions fodder is an exorbitantly high price to pay, but that’s hardly the only process that screams dysfunction. Remember, Nick rubbernecked at Daisy’s car crash for his memoir. I probably would too. 

It just seems unfair that this university doesn’t have to flay itself alive in return or even endure a thoughtful examination of its past mistakes as we do. My lungs didn’t get along with that particulate matter. The rats and other assorted fauna of university housing didn’t sing songs to me like Cinderella’s mice. To top it all off, none of my pains (trivial) or that of others (deserving) are getting heard, let alone remedied and certainly not memorialized into glory eternal. 

I’ve personally always thought Caesar made the right call: “Dreaming of empire” so hard that your coworkers murder you is worth it for the fame — not to mention you end up getting what you want anyway. (I’m not equating being a student here with getting stabbed 23 times; I’m merely pointing out similarities.) The differences between the student body and Caesar, however, are manifold: We’re not dead; we’re not famous; we’re not getting what we want; and most critically, this university’s often god-awful undergraduate experience has not entered the Western literary canon, which means no one is paying attention except us.

So lean into the sludge, kids. Dredge up the pettiest sentiment you’ve ever felt toward this school and give it voice, air and light. UC Berkeley’s a total metaphorical Superfund site anyway, but it’ll suck even more for us to sit down and shut up. Demand your pound of flesh. What parts of this school made you wish you were an amoeba instead of intelligent life? What moments made your heart sing like a car alarm in the humid night? Me, my hypothetical do-over college essay and this column may be sensationalist garbage, but I’ll be exacting my fair share of spectacle. I don’t doubt UC Berkeley has always polarized the popular imagination, but students don’t just reap the consequences of its perception, they endure the reality of the experience. 

Yes, I’m grateful and privileged to be here, learning and evolving. Yes, I think Cal Dining has stepped up its game. Yes, I’m glad Boalt Hall is not called that anymore. And yes, let’s hold the Tang Center and its little infographic accountable. And let’s not forget about that molecular and cell biology professor who doesn’t think HIV causes AIDS and the fact that Joseph LeConte (as in LeConte Hall) originally moved to California because he thought the “sudden enfranchisement of the negro without qualification was the greatest political crime ever perpetrated by any people.” We owe it to ourselves, to one another and, worst of all, to the children getting hoodwinked by those grinning campus ambassadors not to hold back with the spiteful insight. 

I’m told a column always closes with a takeaway, so let me leave you with these words. Raising an unholy racket is hardly worse than what this school can do to you. Unfortunately, I’ve given myself over so wholly to this institution that I’d tear the whole shebang into shreds to see it improved. Love is no real substitute for change.

Casey Li writes the Monday column on pop culture. Contact her at [email protected].