Story 02: Education of a Dropout

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New Haven or Yellow Springs?

Written by Mike Spock

By the end of my junior year I was inducted into the National Scholastic Society. Not bad for a dumb student and incompetent reader! But all was not well. I was completely stuck in completing my senior paper, actually the only sustained writing I was assigned in high school. My English teacher almost didn't let me graduate although I sat in her classroom after school for many days, paralyzed by the assignment. Although I had good aptitude and achievement scores, I avoided completing my college applications. And Yale said I should take an extra year at Andover, my father's school, as compensation for my demonstrably weak reading and writing skills. I was ashamed to admit it, but the future was clouded with uncertainty.

In the last year of high school the Antioch College catalog caught my eye. I had mixed feelings about college: it was an opportunity to get away, become more independent, but the expectation of doing a lot more writing was a cloud hanging over my horizon. I had to admit that at one level the question was already decided; it wouldn't have occurred to me not to go to college. Yale, my father's school, his first choice, and the home of a world-class swimming team, seemed the place for me. Without a trace of irony my father observed that Harvard probably wouldn't be. I got no comfort from the Yale catalog and the others shelved outside the guidance counselor's office. They seemed rule-bound and punitive. I assumed that all colleges and universities were like that. But then I discovered the Antioch College catalog. It was a revelation. It was refreshingly straightforward and expressed an unambiguous commitment to intellectual and personal growth and unconventional paths to learning. Layered into its fairly conventional liberal arts curriculum was an appealing mix of off-campus work experiences and a chance to be a part of a self-governing learning community.

During a dutiful spring visit and interview in New Haven, the Yale admissions officer said that he hadn't found my test scores convincing. In contrast to my public high school education he warned that college would demand a lot more and bring my weak reading and writing capacities into the foreground. He strongly advised a year at Andover (also my father's school) where I could really learn to read and write and continue to develop my interest in swimming competitively. When I was invited to show off my backstroke in the vast college pool the assistant swimming coach was also not convinced and kept shouting to me, "Keep your pecker up! Keep you pecker up!" I never talked to a student. It was their spring vacation.

I went home more than a touch discouraged and feeling trapped by the circle that was closing in on me, but the Yale trip had suggested another possible way out: an exploratory trip to Yellow Springs to take a look at Antioch College up close? Did the appealing rhetoric or their catalog match the reality of an Antioch education?

Antioch was a small liberal arts college; a progressive island in the southwestern corner of conservative Ohio. They seemed happy to see me. School was in session and I was given a bed in a scruffy surplus military barracks housing upper class students. There were hallway bull sessions. I sampled classes. This was the spring of 1950. Returning World War II vets set a mature and irreverent tone for the campus. Heady stuff! I was hooked.

Back in Rochester my high school guidance counselor, who had not heard of Antioch, went to the back of the catalog and discovered that most of the faculty had advanced degrees, and from respectable schools. On the other hand my swimming coach couldn't believe that Antioch didn't have a pool-or a team. My father, a committed progressive educator, took the news of my defection from Yale philosophically.

I also had a vague notion of following my father into medicine and even took his advice that a full dose of pre-med would be wasting the deep possibilities of a liberal arts curriculum. This was the moment to spread out, not narrow down. There would be plenty of time to cover the basic sciences. I even tentatively decided to follow my father's undergraduate interest in history.

Antioch was everything I expected: worldly, egalitarian, informal. I was coming back to the sophistication of Fieldston without having to give up the comfortable spirit of Rochester High School. I especially loved being away from family. My roommate and I created a cozy study nest from two plywood bed boards and general issue bookcases, got to know our freshman hall mates and settled in. I went to classes, did labs and short exercises but looked helplessly on as more elaborate assignments drifted by, incomplete, sometimes not even started. True to Sailor Sam and my high school English paper, I sat frozen in the headlights stumped about how to begin. The readings seemed endless; research and note-taking and outlining were impenetrable. I knew what the endpoint looked like but not a clue about how to get there. I even made it more difficult by thinking I had to do everything seamlessly and perfectly, the first time.

Interestingly, I did very well in the early placement and achievement tests but my standardized reading scores almost disappeared off the bottom of the scale and the essay portion of my achievement tests was scored below "low." This seemed an ominous hint that Yale's early doubts might be appropriate.

I discovered the wide-ranging periodical collection in the library where I could almost fool myself that I was truly engaged in real college work. I spent more and more time hanging out in the dormitory hall, the Coffee Shop, and the Old Trail Tavern. I stayed up late and slept a lot during the day.

It was possible to withdraw from tough courses or take "incompletes" rather than fail them outright. In six tries in the first period of my first year I only got credit for an "Introduction to Life Sciences." Touchingly, among the things left hanging were incompletes in "Reading and Study Workshop" and my "Life Aims Paper." I felt awful. I promised myself and my professors and advisors I would catch up and finish the incompletes in the next period. It never happened. The second period did seem to go better, but not much. As if compelled to sample the full range of success to failure, I had an A, a B, a C, a D, a Satisfactory (Physical Education), an Unsatisfactory (Budget Orientation), and a Withdrawn. By the middle of the second year it was clear that I wasn't going to make it; unfinished papers and undigested courses continued to pile up. I withdrew from all my courses and left school in June. I felt defeated and unworthy. Over nine years I withdrew or was withdrawn or flunked out and was readmitted three times. In one memorable two-year cycle I managed to get straight As, only to be followed immediately in the next semester by all Fs.

Next: Cincinnati, Dayton: Work/Study