Then there are the conversations you wished wouldn’t last so long. At one point during the marathon two-day orientation session the woman sitting next to me, another Writing division student, muttered, “If I have to go to one more fucking Q and A session I’m going to kill someone.”
If memory serves, this was the orientation for the School of the Arts. The Writing division is one of four divisions in the SOA: the other three are Visual Arts, Theater, and Film. Each division is often sub-divided. (The Writing division is comprised of students concentrating in either fiction, poetry, or nonfiction).
All of us first-year students in the SOA (several hundred altogether) had gathered in Miller Theater, on the first floor of Dodge Hall, for the school-wide welcome and announcements. It was also the week of the GOP convention, and several political quips of liberal persuasion were made from the podium. The Dean himself made a rather ballsy anti-Bush joke which, in almost any other context, I would have enjoyed. Certainly it’s safe to assume that in an arts program in New York City the vast majority, if not all, of the students would be against Bush. But I couldn’t help thinking that there was one lonely Republican who had just forked over a shitload of cash to attend an Ivy League school and who now felt side-swiped. But sometimes I’m naive like that, worrying about Republicans when they can clearly take care of themselves.
Although the School of the Arts is based in one shared building, there has historically been little socialization among the divisions. Second-year students were quick to point out that once classes started your life essentially becomes the Writing Program and little else. There must have been a few complaints by former students about this narrow focus, so in an effort to, I don’t know, plant the seeds of collaboration, every new student after the orientation was assigned to small groups of ten students each, with two or three students from each division.
Each group was assigned a “mentor”; a second-year student who had volunteered to answer any questions we may have about life at Columbia and in the SOA. The idea being we could get the unofficial “real deal” from a fellow student who had crawled before us through the trenches.
My group’s mentor was an actor in the Theater Division. Unlike most of the other students who, despite the heat, kept up a decidedly East Coast appearance, Our Mentor was dressed in shorts, a tank top, and Birkenstocks. He was also wearing a straw hat.
Maybe it was the hat. Seeing it brought me right back to my first days as an undergraduate; I’m positive that my orientation leader at New College also wore a straw hat. In Florida it made some sense. But here in New York Our Mentor’s outfit struck me as just that: an “outfit”, the kind of gesture that lends credence to “Theater People” stereotypes. Despite my acting experience, I took an instant dislike to him.
Each of the little “break-out groups” was free to gather anywhere on campus. We followed the bobbing straw hat on a circuitous route across College Walk, the pedestrian mall that bisects the campus, where we sat in the grass near Hamilton Hall. And that’s when the getting-to-know you exercise took place.
Earlier, the same woman who cursed the Q and A sessions told me that if there were going to be “trust exercises” in our “break-out groups” then more people would get killed. She said all of this in a pleasant enough tone, and I found myself agreeing with everything she said.
Fortunately we were not asked to fall backwards into each other’s arms. Instead, Our Mentor wanted us to go around the circle and tell three things about ourselves; two truths and a lie. The rest of the break-out group was to figure out the lie.
I was immediately resentful. It was bad enough that I was several years older than most of the other students in the SOA, and therefore slightly self-conscious. Adding small talk (which I’m terrible at) and ice-breaker exercises is guaranteed to induce nausea and exhaustion in me.
Nobody seemed particularly excited by the Two Truths and a Lie exercise, but everyone gamely offered up three things and we were left to figure out, for example, if the aspiring Stage Manager from Portland was lying about enjoying golf, making homemade wine, or sustaining a childhood head injury. (The wine was a lie.)
Most people in the group were non-actor artist types, so everyone was on the soft-spoken side (no Type A Business School students here). We’d all lean forward to hear each person’s Three Things, after which a chorus of “What was that’s?” could be heard.
In my most believable, put-upon voice I shared that I was “apparently, the only Republican in the School of the Arts” which silenced the group until Our Mentor said “Dude, you’re from San Francisco.” Obviously I made the right choice in applying for the writing, and not the acting program.
Our Mentor said “dude” a lot. He also said “awesome” and “amazing” and other words that I associate with scores of people I knew in California. I had hoped to escape people like that by moving to New York.
His mentoring capacity was also questionable. “Go ahead, ask me, like, any question.” Every time he said this (about fifteen times) a short silence would follow. We were probably all burned out on Q and A’s. Just to make him feel better I asked when the campus gym was busiest. “Oh. Hmm. I don’t really know. But, like, if you’re like me, I’m all about the elliptical machine and they only have, like two of them, so sign up for them as soon as you get there.”
My attention naturally wandered to the other students and occasional parent walking past, touring the campus. Having gone to an undergraduate school of six hundred students, I was having some difficulty adjusting to a university of twenty-four thousand. I was also unnerved by the idea that I was going to a school with frats and a football team. In fact at that moment the team was wandering past; young, enormous boys sweating in the heat, obviously returning from practice. I’m not particularly turned-on by undergraduates, but it was hard not to stare at the collective size and, I have to say it, beauty of these athletes. I watched them with a combination of quiet lust and condescension, the same condescension with which they looked at our little group of wimpy artists sitting on the grass in a therapeutic circle.
“Yeah, well, who’s ever heard of Columbia’s football team?” I asked myself.
My attention returned to Our Mentor. An awkward silence had fallen, again, over the group. “Serious, you guys can ask me anything you want. Like, where’s the best pizza, and where to get groceries… even, like, where to get your shoes fixed if you want.”
One shy poet spoke up. “Actually I do need to get my shoes re-soled.”
“Oh, hmm,” Our Mentor said. “I was actually like kidding about the shoes. I don’t know where to get your shoes re-soled. But if you want to know, like, which restaurant around here is the best for like dates, I can tell you. I went on an awesome date last night.” Silence. “It’s all good.”
No, I wanted to say, it’s not.
I was pretty sure by now that Our Mentor was gay, not that I really cared. I wanted to trade him to the other side. Instead I told the shy poet about the shoe repair shop around the corner from my apartment, on Broadway and 112th.
The rest of the hour continued like this. When Our Mentor volunteered to, like, take us on a tour of the campus I bailed, heading to Philosophy Hall for yet another Q and A session, this one about student health insurance. As I left I glanced over my shoulder. The straw hat was bobbing away towards Low Library, the diminished group of art students following like a line of ducklings.