Steve Braunias is giving a public lecture tonight at Auckland University.
An ancient dread rises up from the mud and muck of my past whenever I look at an email confirming the time and place of a speech I am giving this evening: "5pm-5.45pm, Room 20, Physics Building, Princes Street, University of Auckland."
University! Higher education! The ivory tower! That awful, made-up word: varsity! I fled that place a long time ago but it still gives me the creeps. It feels strange to be returning. I'll be taking sideways glances at the ivory tower and wondering if it's wearing a smirk. University saw right through me when I was young and I suppose it still has X-ray vision.
Here is a sentence no one has ever written before: I left school and went to university. Just as unoriginally, it was because I couldn't think of anything else to do. I'd tried to get into journalism school, but failed. The interview went badly and the current events test went even worse. How as I supposed to know the name of the Prime Minister?
And so academia beckoned. The fact that I was the worst student in my class in seventh form at Mt Maunganui College should have served as a warning, but I figured it was because I had other, loftier things on my mind. University would recognise and appreciate the way I thought.
It didn't go well and it didn't last long. I dropped out after six weeks. God knows why it lasted as long as that.
I signed up for a lot of courses - anthropology, philospophy, English, that sort of liberal arts thing. The guy who gave the opening stage one lecture in psychology said that anyone thinking they'd be able to get a degree needed to know immediately that it would require long, hard work, and that it would probably be beyond most of the people in the room.
And then he said, "If you want to leave now, I suggest that's exactly what you should do, because why waste my time and why waste yours?"
It was powerful rhetoric and I duly got up and trotted out the door.
The guy who gave an English lecture on the short stories of DH Lawrence drooled. He stood there, and drooled. The drool came out in long gobbets, and hung suspended in front of his bearded face. Lawrence dealt in fluids; was this some kind of metaphor?
I saw English lecturer and famous poet Bill Manhire walking down the street wearing a leather jacket. He looked cool. Why wasn't I in his class? How come I'd got drool instead of cool?
It probably wouldn't have made any difference. The settings were all the same. The lecture rooms were horrible. The chairs were hard, the aircon didn't work, time dragged until it just plain stopped, sometimes. Someone stood in front of the room and talked.
Nothing anyone said in any of the lectures made a lick of sense. I wrote an essay. It came back with the remark PLEASE TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY.
But I did; I took it all seriously, I tried my best, I took notes, I read textbooks, I underlined things. There were some basic problems. The subjects weren't in the slightest bit interesting, although I loved one of the stories by DH Lawrence, The Man Who Died. But what to say about it? This exposed the second basic problem: I was dumb. I had a kind of native stupidity. It was genuine, the real deal, pure. I couldn't be taught.
It wasn't anything anti-intellectual. In fact I loathe philistines and anyone who blathers on about university lecturers having their head in the sand. Some of the smartest people in the land are on campus. It's where you'd expect to find them, and that's exactly where they are.
But I plain didn't belong, and dropped out. I found a job wrapping up things in a factory. I got to wear a long coat with pockets which had scissors and things like that in them. It was fun, and I saved up and bought a typewriter. After work I learned how to type with two fingers by typing out the first chapter of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and The Trial by Franz Kafka.
Full circle kind of thing, because Kafka's great book gets mentioned quite a few times in the lecture I'm giving tonight, on the subject of New Zealand crime. By all means come along. It's free. I think the lecture room seats about 17, so there should be plenty of room. I shan't drool. I'll look up and if I see a dumb, confused face - there's one in every lecture - I'll give a sympathetic smile.
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