October 14, 2019

Back to school: A bittersweet visit to my alma mater

Last week, I went back to school. 

Not for an additional degree, but for a visit to my alma mater, the University of Florida, which is located in Gainesville, a strange, small town in north central Florida best known for worshipping a predatory swamp creature and football. 

UF and I were a bad fit from the start, like awkward roommates who have nothing in common but matching shower shoes and a mini fridge. I probably shouldn’t have applied there, but I took very seriously the Hollywood imperative dictated by J.J. Abrams’ first TV series and pulled a “Felicity,” following my older high school boyfriend to the college of his choice because my hormones couldn’t live without him. I had that unwavering youthful confidence that I could make lemonade from coconuts, and I was none too concerned about squandering the first major decision of my adult life when my fairy-tale fantasy of one true love hung in the balance. 

We broke up before I received my acceptance letter — a letter, I might add, that was about as hard-won as politely asking the high school registrar to send over my transcripts. I was accepted through early decision with a 75 percent scholarship, but that didn’t stop me from crumpling up my shiny gold “Congratulations” letter the day it arrived. I never applied anywhere else, my college fate sealed in mid-November of senior year, allowing me a good seven months to mourn the end of my relationship and the fateful choice I’d made to throw my destiny into the hands of an 18-year-old male. 

So romance got me to Gainesville the first time, but last week it was my sister, Jessi Berrin, who lured me back, because UF was honoring her with an alumni young leadership award. Given a campus population of some 50,000 students, this was a pretty big deal; my sister is a superstar in Miami, the youngest corporate director of government and community relations at Baptist Health, the largest health care network in South Florida. A group of family and friends joined the five-hour trip from Miami up the Florida Turnpike, where billboards remind you that “A heart beats at 18 days” and endeavor to stimulate conversations such as, “Aren’t you glad your mother chose life?” It was like a Ted Cruz infomercial playing nonstop for five hours. And don’t get me started on the rest-stop food options.

Needless to say, from the moment we packed into the car at my grandmother’s Coral Gables condo and my sister insisted we wear sunglasses with Florida Gators for eyes, I knew I had made the right choice to grab wine on the way out.

As a teenager, I had always imagined myself at a sophisticated school, perhaps in a big city, at a place like NYU, or at an edgy, hip Ivy like Brown — so long as it was a place sufficiently cultured, with a worldly student body and grown-up diversions. But Gainesville was the opposite: very southern, very blond (and not highlights blond, real blond), where women wore Lilly Pulitzer pastels year-round, seemingly everyone joined the Greek system, and beer halls, frat parties and football games ruled the day. UF was a world of Pita Pit and “Pokey Stix,” strip malls and Wal-Mart. So you can imagine how psyched I was to go back to visit.

It was bad enough that I never wanted to go to Gainesville, but it became substantially worse after I got there. I joined a sorority despite the fact that I am not a joiner and possess strong moral objections to the expressed values of Greek life (which is about as “Greek” as Disney World; and for young women, safe as a swamp of gators). I made bad decisions one after the other — I barely studied, gained at least a freshman 15, and got myself into some real mischief on more than one occasion. I’ll spare you the details of my wildly rebellious antics, because frankly, there isn’t enough column space. But imagine all the things you wouldn’t want your children to do and consider that a mild start. 

To be fair, the University of Florida itself is a great academic institution. And after all the messing up I did, I eventually found my niche in the film studies department, where my demanding film professor, Roger Beebe, first mocked me for joining a sorority and then taught me how to think. His experimental, 16mm production class changed the way I saw the world. Maureen Turim’s “Women in Film” class taught me the meaning of feminism and introduced me to Rita Hayworth. So it wasn’t all bad. “Put the Blame on Mame” could have been my theme song.

But the fact is I made choices during my undergraduate years that I regret. I remember college as a time of feeling lost, alienated and unanchored (it didn’t help that my parents were splitting up just then, after 27 years of marriage). I didn’t fit in anywhere, and when I didn’t fit in, instead of quietly turning to my studies, I insisted on exploding my container.

Revisiting that place and recalling a difficult period of my life was unsettling. Uncomfortable thoughts crept in, forcing me to wonder: Am I still that mischievous person? Am I someone who really doesn’t belong but has gotten quite good at faking it? Will the mistakes of my past resurface in the future? All this swirled through my mind as I re-entered The Swamp (the nickname of the Ben Hill Griffin football stadium) for a preseason scrimmage. The team playing itself was symbolic: A decade after graduation, my adult self was confronting my college self. 

Today it’s hard to measure how much my college choice mattered to the rest of my life. Had I gone to Harvard or some other Ivy from which students are catapulted into a powerful network of global leaders, maybe my life would be different. (Going to UF, on the other hand, didn’t preclude my sister from snagging a boyfriend with a doctorate from Harvard). 

My four years in Gainesville were not happy years, but they were full of growth. I didn’t excel academically, but I acquired a good deal of life wisdom I’m glad I got when I was 20. I can’t imagine ever being a “Proud Gator” like my sister, but that’s mostly my fault. Going back to school was a powerful reminder that it’s OK to accept what was, what wasn’t, feel the discomfort, and then let it go.