WHAT WOULD YOU
DO WITH A BRAIN IF YOU HAD ONE?
24 January 2003
I heard about a woman today who, at age 50, has given up her job and returned to school
to get her teaching credential. She feels she has not accomplished what she wanted to in
her life and wants to make something of herself before it's too late.
It's time to come clean about my educational experience. This is my "coming
out" year and it's time to add education to the list. I've already come out as a
compulsive overeater. Hi, My name's Bev. I'm a college dropout.
It's a little more complicated than just being a college dropout. It's a whole saga.
I was always in the top 5% of my grammar school class. I was also fiercely competitive
and really tried so hard to crack the top slot, but never did. When the top girls in my
graduating class chose their high schools, I opted for a different school--they went to
Presentation High; I went to St. Vincent's. St. Vincent's had been known throughout San
Francisco as the best business school in the city and had recently added a college prep
track to its curriculum. It was also a very small school, not nearly as threatening as the
I quickly became identified as one of the smarter kids. It wasn't really that it was so
important to me, but I had struck out on my own and made it on my own out of the shadow of
my grammar school rivals. I was college bound, though without a sense of direction--I
didn't know what I wanted to be. However I did love the business courses, and I
loved languages. I was always good at picking up foreign languages.
Somewhere toward the end of my junior year or beginning of my senior year, I decided I
was going to enter the convent. There was hell to pay at home. My father hit the ceiling
(and probably anything else in sight). My mother, bless her, came to my defense, calmed
him down (over several weeks), and he reluctantly gave his permission for me to enter the
Well, that never happened. My entrance date was set for September 13, 1960. Over the
summer I had begun to assemble my "trousseau," of all the black clothes and
other things that one takes when one enters the convent. By this time I knew I had made a
mistake and I felt trapped. I didn't know how to get out of it and so I was just going to
go ahead and do it rather than speak out and admit that I had made a terrible mistake.
But then my friend, teacher, and first big crush of my life, Sister Anne, came to
visit. The nuns asked her to meet with me and find out how serious I really was. At the
end of our visit, she gently suggested that I postpone my entrance. Secretly I was
ecstatic. Like I'd been given a reprieve. It was suggested that I work for the school for
six months and think about whether or not I really wanted to enter the convent. In the
end, we all decided that I was not convent material and I sold my trousseau to someone who
really wanted to become a nun.
My father heard the news with some smug satisfaction: I had proved him right. I wasn't
cut out to be a nun.
I announced that I wanted to take a year off, get a job, and think about what I was
going to do with the rest of my life.
"NO!" my father said, emphatically. "I did it your way, now you're going
to do it MY way. If you go to work, you'll never go to college." Then he laid
out the plan for the rest of my life: I would go to UC Berkeley, and I would be a teacher.
"It's a cushy job," he told me. "You only work half a day and you get
summers off." (I can hear the teachers reading this choking already!)
I didn't know that I wanted to go to Berkeley, and I knew for a fact that I hated
teaching, but he was adamant. I would be the first person on either side of the family to
attend college. He himself had flunked out of San Francisco State and by god his daughter
was going to get a degree!
And so I applied and was accepted at UC Berkeley. In those days it was a lot easier to
get in. I also had good grades and a good SAT score and was admitted without difficulty.
The problem was that I entered mid-year. Having taken six months off to think about the
convent, I was entering in February. The problem with this was that all the freshmen had
entered together in September and the university didn't have orientation for mid-year
incoming freshmen (or if they did, I didn't know about it). I was a babe in the woods, and
since my father had not gone to college either, he had no advice for me. I was
dropped at my dorm and it was assumed that I'd know what to do.
My high school's entire population, four years of students, was 250 kids. I had classes
that were larger than that at Berkeley. I was in over my head from day #1. I didn't know
the system. I didn't know the terminology. And I had never learned how to study. I was so
incredibly ill-prepared to become a university student.
Somehow I limped through my first semester, barely passing all of my classes (except
French, which I did well in). I was hating it, and I spent most of my time socializing at
the Newman Center.
Things totally fell apart in my second semester. I happened to get a history class with
a professor who took a shine to me and would hit on me before class every day. I never
told anyone and had no idea that I could report him. Instead I just stopped going to class
I had never received an F in my life and, as I have always viewed life in blacks and
whites, felt I had totally screwed up my college career. If I received one F, I might as
well admit that I'd failed college. I think I passed some of my classes that semester, but
my grade point was a disaster.
In my third semester, I stopped going to class entirely. I just lied about it. I spent
my days working (as a secretary) for the Newman Center, and at the end of the year, I sent
myself postcards with phony grades on them. I already knew that I was giving up, so what
difference did it make.
I will never forget the day I quit school. Well--I can sort of remember it. I felt so
awful about myself and I got snockered. I probably was full of gin when I staggered into
the dean's office and quit. I can't remember what she looked like, and I don't remember
leaving the office, but that was the end of my college career. I was down 65 grade points
and I knew I could never make it up.
It has taken me decades to come to grips with my disasterous brief college career. I
live in a college town. I'm a fairly intelligent person and most of the people I met were
associated with the university here and just assumed that I had at least a Bachelor's, if
not an advanced degree. I kept my dirty little secret and felt bad about myself.
It got worse when I began doing psychological reports and realized how many people of
significantly less intelligence than I (that sounds pompous, but it's just true) had
struggled to get their degrees--and had succeeded. And here I sat working at a
non-"career" job, earning just slightly above minimum wage (but actually
enjoying what I was doing).
Through the years I have toyed with the idea of going back to school and getting a
degree, but I finally came to the realization that even though it would be nice to have
the experience of having a degree, I'm actually happy with myself. It doesn't embarrass me
any more to admit that I flunked out of college gloriously. I have no aspiration of a
degree-based career (at 60 it's a bit too late to start a career, don't you think?).
I so very much admire this woman who is taking her life in her own hands and getting
her degree. But I'm finally OK being able to admit that I have no degree, and that I will
never have a degree.