Psych 101

The class I am currently taking is Human Development, a 200-level survey offered in a compressed, eight-week format by my local community college. I took the prerequisite, the standard Psych 101, twenty-five years ago. I was nervous then, too.

I was an achiever, of sorts, in high school, though a recent peek at my old transcripts didn’t show as many A’s as I would have thought. Now, having had a long career as a professional educator, my “independent” assessment is that I was an unusually smart kid–freakishly smart with language–who was bored by high school and intellectually ready for the next step. I was also pragmatic and lazy. I had not exhausted my options for Advanced Placement courses, because I recognized that their curricula and the exam format itself were harder than college classes. Why suffer through AP English when I could take an actual college Lit class that would ask less of me? Of course, I used the opposite argument, that college courses would pose more of a challenge, when I pitched this to my parents. They were able to absorb the cost, so somehow it got decided: I would finish out my senior year by splitting time between high school and the local university where my father worked.

I have fond memories of this time, because it enabled me to do something I love: disappear. (I have perhaps become too good at it, because some days I scarcely exist at all.) In the mornings, I would ride to the university with my father, who would hum the theme to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” every time he accelerated onto the freeway. I was usually still putting on shoes and make-up, as I was never quite ready for our 7:15 AM departure. He would drop me off for my 8 AM class, then park and go to work. If I needed the car after school, I would retrieve it from the staff lot, and he would take the bus home at the end of the day. (I have a very kind dad.) But on most days, I would take the city bus back to the suburbs after class, arriving at school during lunch. The campus bus stop was in front of a McDonald’s, where I stopped virtually every class day, wolfing down a Sausage McMuffin with Egg, hash browns, a cheese danish, and coffee in the fifteen-minute gap. The university was on the quarter system, so I was doing this probably four days a week. Did I mention I got really fat my senior year of high school? Then I would ride the bus home, get off in the little town square, and leisurely make my way back to prison high school for the balance of the day. The spring of that year, I took Psych 101 in the morning at the university, then had typing, choir, and something called “Political Radicalism”–which involved a series of politically amped guest speakers invited by our marijuana-fogged teacher–in the afternoon. It was not a particularly challenging schedule, is what I am saying.

I remember very little of those first college courses. There was a lit class in the fall, which I remember because the instructor was irritated that I asked for dispensation from a pop quiz for a daytime performance of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at my high school. (I was Mrs. van Daan.) I distinctly remember thinking he gave a quiz just to punish me, because he seemed bothered that one of his better students was not yet a high school graduate. I took Pysch 101 in the spring, and I remember almost nothing of what I learned. But I do recall that we had to participate in experiments, as Psych 101 undergraduates everywhere are required to do. (Has the discipline of Psychology ever interrogated the merits of producing knowledge of the human psyche based primarily on study of binge-drinking late-adolescents with the resources to go to college?)

These experiments–or rather, the direct contact I had with my classmates–was a source of some anxiety. I could sit in lecture anonymously, but in those experiments my cover as a high school kid was blown. “I hope no one finds out,” I remember thinking–that I was young, but also that I was smart. I was starting to realize that my intellect–skill with a turn of phrase, but actually very little else–could cause other people to doubt themselves and create barriers in my relationships. This has been a perennial problem, right up through this week. Know that “Indira Gandhi was the first prime minister of India” in Trivial Pursuit at a keg party? Get made fun of for the rest of the summer! Use the word “ambulatory” to describe the victim of a house fire? Get labeled as the Pretentious Neighbor! Make a joke about “The Picture of Dorian Gray?” Watch your date’s interest wane when you’re unable to calibrate an appropriately kind, it’s-so-dumb-that-I-know-this response to the perfectly valid question, “Who is Oscar Wilde?”

“Maybe you use language as a shield,” you’re thinking, “to create distance so that you don’t have to connect with other people.” That is a great insight! Have you taken Psych 101? As true as that might be, it is also true that I can’t help the way I talk–articulate, forceful, with a “you will listen to me” presence and an “Inherit the Wind”-like intensity that is strikingly out of place in arguments over where to eat for dinner. I try to hide it, I really do, but it just comes out, exposing me as a person not just with education, but with mastery over language. Not communication, mind you. Just language.

And now here I am. The precocious high school student pretending to be a confused undergraduate has evolved into a disaffected college professor pretending to be the average adult learner. My dusty, decades old Psych 101 prerequisite was enough to get me into this next-level class, where I am still the stranger, the fish out of water, the imposter pretending to be something I am not and desperately hoping not to be found out.

“You don’t belong here” is the song of my life.

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