February 22nd, 2006
Stop me if I've already told you this, but I never actually graduated from college. I went to Princeton, and they required every undergraduate to write a senior thesis. So even though I completed all my other coursework, and passed the "comprehensive exam" in my major (politics), the fact that I never submitted a senior thesis meant that I couldn't earn my bachelor's degree.
But the story doesn't end there -- because Princeton has a policy that, if you submit your senior thesis anytime in your life, you can still graduate! What happens is that you get two grades: the first being your actual grade on the thesis, the second being an "F" (presumably for being way friggin' late). Yes, I aim to put the "senior" in "senior thesis"!
I was Class of '80, so I'm currently 26 years late in submitting my thesis. But I'm finally working on it -- and it's tremendously exciting! I've gotten back in touch with my advisor from back then, the brilliant scholar and teacher Sheldon S. Wolin, and he's graciously agreed to guide me. I can't tell you what a feeling of redemption it would give me to finally write a thesis for him!
What happened to me in college was that I froze. It was too hard! You had to read so much stuff -- amazing stuff, but for a very slow reader like me, an impossible amount. Many books each week for each course! It was like one of those nightmares where you're at the exam and you haven't prepared for it -- except that I wasn't dreaming, and each day I was falling further behind. In everything.
Looking back, I have to give myself some props for holding it together enough to make it through four years of coursework. But my lingering emotion from that time was just a great sense of failure. I was there on a big scholarship (which I'd gotten purely due to financial need), and I knew I was letting down not only my family but also the alumni who'd donated money for my scholarship, as well as the taxpayers who'd helped to fund my grants.
But possibly my biggest disappointment was that I never submitted my thesis to Prof. Wolin. He was one of those teachers you dream of: a thrilling, self-questioning lecturer, an advisor willing to spend countless hours in discussion with his students, and also a profound thinker who believed passionately that those in academia should be active citizens. His writing, in a number of books and periodicals (including a short-lived quarterly that he began soon after I "graduated," called democracy), was (and is) not just deep but also clear -- another relative anomaly in academia.
So here was my chance, after a mediocre undergraduate career, to at least work my hardest to write a decent senior thesis for this great teacher. And I choked. I couldn't even bring myself to begin doing the research. I spent much of my senior year sitting in the Student Center, tearing empty styrofoam coffee cups into careful spirals and trying my best not to think of the thesis-elephant in the middle of my mental room.
And you know, irony can only get you so far. I could be ironic about my failure to do the thesis -- and to graduate -- but only up to a point. And after that point, I had to face the fact that I'd blown it.
Except that now, in middle age, incredibly, I have a second chance. Prof. Wolin -- retired from teaching, but still very active as a writer and thinker -- is guiding me toward a topic (something about democracy ... and yes, I know I need to get much more specific!) and a reading list. At his suggestion, I'm starting with Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy, by the late Robert H. Wiebe. I'm moving through it at my usual snail's pace, but it's a thrilling read. Thrilling! When I've finished it, I'll get back in touch with my advisor about narrowing down to an actual thesis topic.
Maybe at this rate I'll actually graduate from college before my eight-year-old son does!