Friday, August 22, 2014

When My Toxic College Asked Me For Money

Periodically, my college sends me letters asking me for money. One especially fine day, I received a picture of a beautiful girl with a sob story explaining how my donation could pay for her schooling.

Here was my response:

Dear University of La Verne,

I address this to the entire university, and not just one person, because, having experienced the school system myself, I know that not one person has any control or idea what anyone else is doing.

You have been sending me pleas for money for quite some time now. Keeping in mind that I owe 80,000 dollars to pay for your school which I have just recently graduated from, I cannot believe that you find your dear “Alexis” story convincing to me in the least. She doesn’t have to pay for her schooling? Good for her. I’m glad that she is getting some aid in this hard world. She will need it. Especially with a degree from the University of La Verne.

Now, let me tell you a story about a young student, and how the “positive atmosphere” and “quality, values-based education” led a girl to a great depression during her stay at your school. We’ll call her Eliza, because, close enough.

She is not me. In fact, I didn’t even like her all that much. It’s not that I don’t have my own stories of your positive atmosphere; it’s just that I have enough of other’s to really send it home that no, I am not just being bitter and biased (although those are the feelings the rise whenever I get one of these obnoxious letters). But I think that it goes to show, by the fact that I could be horrified by this event and feel for someone that I personally would be happy to see move to Zimbabwe, I wouldn’t wish your teaching methods on my worst enemy.

Once upon a time there was a young sophomore who had been inspired by our beloved acting teacher to become a playwright and thespian. She transferred from being an English major over to theatre and began the long hard road of what I like to call, “Finding out your idols are there for a paycheck.” She was particularly brash, blunt, and seemingly ignorant on most social cues. I will not say that the theatre department had a particularly normal hierarchy—filled with its sycophants and a great deal of students inflicted with a Peter Pan complex (Much as I imagine your Alexis Wood from Rancho Cucamonga does.)  The professors were only used to Yes Man and avid Game Players. My fellow students at the time were not malicious. On the contrary. I found them to be nice, friendly good people. They were open to all sorts of ideas. Just never their own.

Little Eliza was not much different. She did try to follow trends; she was a mimic. She took on the personality of whomever she nearest to at the time. The problem was she didn’t fully understand the trait she enveloped, meaning she lacked the most important part: charisma. When she was confident, she was arrogant. When she was silly, she was obnoxious. When she and several of her friends took to robbing Barnes and Nobles and leaving the merchandise in the theatre, she was the only one completely baffled as to how she didn’t have the right to do it.

Our professor didn’t like her. Many people didn’t. She had this indignation about her whenever she was not allowed to behave a certain way. Sort of like a three-year-old might. Hence the Peter Pan issue.

There was a class she loved to take. It was called Theatre and the Community, which, I’ll admit, was a fascinating concept. Except Mr. I-Don’t-Like-Conflict never forced the students to meet the requirements he set for them.

The idea was that they’d find a group of people they feel sorry for—excuse me, are “concerned about,” and write a play about them.

The shows often proceeded to be 20 minute diatribes on how their own lives sucked.

Well, you have to give a point for honesty. I’d feel sorry for myself if I were them too.

In any case, it was her second or third time around. She had picked a subject that had, amazingly enough, not been about her, but instead was about the gay population. Keeping in mind that our professor is gay and hates her, we can start to see the beginning of the downward spiral.

The showcase was a whole bunch of made-up “No, it really happened” stories with a tone of, “This kind of sounds about how it would be.” They were varied in quality. Some of them I very much enjoyed. Others I was got cramps from cringing too long.

But in the middle of the creating process process, Eliza had her script promoting gay acceptance. I had read the play, par her request, and I would judge it to be what you might expect from an unpublished writing student. Fine, not fantastic. Obviously not edited, but with some merit. It was not the worst script up there.

Yet our dearly beloved professor took it from her, without telling her, gave it to a fellow student whom he adored but who had absolutely zero writing experience, and told him to “fix” it. This student took the script and proceeded to steal ideas from the internet.

Anyone remember that post about “retaining the sanctity of marriage like Brittany Spears’s 24 hour Vegas jaunt?” I do. And so did he.

Now you might think, and the end of this whole tirade, that that became anticlimactic. I don’t think I pressed it enough. Our teacher, who this student looked up to, took away her script without her permission to punish her for being obnoxious, then gave it to someone else with absolutely no experience to change it. And surprise, surprise. He made it worse. Okay, subjectivity, fine. But plagiarism is pretty cut and dried.

You think I can’t prove he wasn’t doing that to hurt her. Then why was hers the only script to do so? He had people making up off the top of their heads what it felt like to be homeless, introducing weird gimmicks like rubrix cubes to make it “artsy,” spewing out pure gibberish, and just having poor dialogue, and yet hers, which showed some true experienced ability, was the one that was too terrible to be on stage “like that.”

I did learn some lessons from La Verne, however. I learned that the people who are demoralizing you are demoralizing everyone. That professor who is telling you you’ll never amount to anything? He’s saying the exact same thing to everyone else. And you’re lucky if you’re a white male, because he’ll have to get creative. He can’t just depend on you “being too dark,” to prove that you’ll never be an actor. He’ll have to tell you you’re “too fat,” or even “blonde” because “blonde hair doesn’t light as well.”

The worst was not for me. For those who can question authority, we could get out of it. We could consider just how truthful this was, and just how much we cared. Of course, we were outcastes in the cultish nature of the department, but at least we could overcome the demoralization and continue on.

No, the worst part was seeing my friends. People who I thought were talented, who I knew if they put some effort into their work could do great things, were being so completely convinced by these faculty members that they’d just give up. They believed these professors because they looked up to them.

Let me tell you one thing about your “positive atmosphere.” It is a black, bleak, sludge-like atmosphere in which students are in competition with their professors, in which the child-like ways you treat the students—the babying, the pandering, the installation of fear—only fuels their insecurities. You should not have tour guides saying things like, “We have a month-long exchange program for people like me who can’t bear to be away from my family for a long period of time.”

You’re supposed to be giving them courage, bravery, the willingness to explore the world, to tear off the umbilical cord and enter life brazen. Not try to remain in high school for as long as possible. They’re not children anymore, and you need to convince them of that. So your last letter about your new program to pander to their inability to make decisions didn’t impress me either. In fact, I thought it was the exact opposite of the direction you should go.

Do you know how many times I’ve been told, “You’re not ready yet,” in that school? That’s something we tell ourselves. That’s the excuse we tell ourselves. That’s the excuse that prevents us from chasing our dreams. And I got to say, it’s a bad one. You’ll never be ready if you’re waiting until you’re ready. You need experience to improve. You need to do it in order to do it.

And when I asked Honorable Teacher why he cared if students would fail, he always said, “Because they’ll be upset.”

They’ll throw a tantrum? Really? Is that your job? To prevent them from climbing trees on the off chance they’ll fall? No. Let me do my work so you can do yours. I may not be ready yet, but you know how you learn? By trying.

Let me leave you with what your “positive atmosphere” did for me. I wrote every day since I was twelve. Then I went to your school, and it. Just. Stopped.

It was not because your curriculum was “so hard.” You know that. You know that your classes are the same classes we took in high school, or are something that the teachers just made up. You know that the only way to fail was to not show up. You know that the workload at the university is less than what most middle schools see in a day. You know that you are not challenging at all.

I was demoralized. I was depressed, and I was constantly fighting. Sure, my high school teachers had little respect for my abilities, but they didn’t actively try to prevent me from doing what I wanted. They thought the shows I produced there would fail, but they let me do it. And guess what? I overcame their expectations.

When I went to college, however, every time I managed to weasel my way into doing a project I wanted to do, I was met with derision. The best thing I ever got from my teachers was a, “That was cute.” I mostly found, however, them bad mouthing me to other students, trying to convince them that going off on your own and doing your own projects was the work of the devil.

And yet, whenever a potential freshman came in, asking if they could do their own shows, the faculty would smile and point to me, saying, “Sure, she is.”

After graduating, however, I had a dauntless task of trying to bring back the passion. I believed, for a long time, that writing was hard, that it couldn’t be fun. But then, after a year of being in my hometown, working in my theatre, and watching my fellow coworkers, all of whom are at least 10 years older than me, be excited about new projects and opportunities I am introducing to them, I remember that art is supposed to be enjoyable, and, when you are surrounded by people who actually like it, it will be.

This year, I’ve started writing again, just as much as before. Nothing has changed about my life or who I am, except for where I am, who is around me, and the “atmosphere” therein.

Please do not ask me for any more money. Your letters sting me each time I get them, bringing back terrible memories of active demoralization. I will never give the University of La Verne a dime. If I ever make a fortune, I would, perhaps, offer you a good chunk of it, but only if you were to install a 20 foot high plague stating, “This is where dreams go to die.”

If you do decide to not remove me from whatever list you have, or if, as I suspect, someone else also out of the loop deals with your next embarrassing ploy to gouge its alumni, I will just proceed to send another letter in your SASE of the same tone.

I apologize, because I know that you, my reader, have absolutely no say in what happened to me, or, in reality, to yourself there. But I thought I needed to make myself perfectly clear in that the University of La Verne is a past experience that I would like to remain in the past.

Thank you for your time,

Charley Daveler ‘12