PART TWO: People Can Change

Now if you've read this far, you're probably thinking that I'm just another loser, and that this whole essay is an exercise in self-pity. I mean, there has to be a lesson here, beyond "I hated Columbia and nobody cares. Life is not fair. People are so mean!"

I used to work for a very nice lady at the New York State Department of Health. Her e-mail signature was a Gandhi quote. "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."

When Mr. Gilbert told us how rotten college was going to be, he didn't seem to think we could change it. That was just how it was. But if I hated Columbia so much, why didn't I try to change it?

For starters, all I wanted was to see that guy punished. I didn't want to help him. I didn't think he deserved my help. And he certainly didn't ask for it! It took me about twenty years to stop asking, "Why didn't she chew him out" and start asking, "Why didn't she help him?" And it took another ten years for me to start asking, "Why didn't I help him?"

I was scared of that kid. He wasn't bigger than me, but he was tough. And he had a lot of friends. I know because I could hear them outside my room every night, laughing and whooping it up when I was trying to sleep. And I hated every one of them.

But looking back, I wish I could have gone up to him back in the dorm and said, "That 18th Century Lit class is tough. Do you think we could study together?" I didn't need any extra help, but he did. And if I had worked with him, maybe we would have gotten to be friends. Maybe he would have let his gang know I was an okay guy. Maybe my whole life at Columbia would have changed.

Sometimes it's not enough to make friends with people you like. Sometimes you have to take a chance on people you don't like.

However, none of that excuses Barbara Villiers. Having taught myself, I no longer wonder why she didn't chew him out. I realize now that she was probably somewhat intimidated by her male students. But she could have taken a different approach. When my boy made it clear he hadn't read anything, she could have asked him what the problem was. She could have asked if he needed help. But she didn't. She didn't even suggest tutoring. Why not? Today even the poorest community college has tutors on the payroll. But I suppose at Columbia that just wasn't done.

Could I have changed Columbia? No, but I could have changed my own behavior. I could have changed how I looked at the world. Instead of looking at the other guy like he was a spoiled rich kid and a thug I could have looked at him like he was an angry kid who hated Columbia just as much as I did. And instead of looking at the professor like she was an all-powerful authority figure I could have looked at her like a young woman who was struggling with a job that was obviously too much for her. Barbara Villiers took no chances. She did what was required of her and no more. But maybe it wasn't out of laziness or spite. Maybe she was scared to death at Columbia. Maybe she was overwhelmed and playing it safe, just like me.

Even if she was too scared to do anything, I wish the professor would have told me to help that other guy. But college doesn't work that way. Nobody tells you the right thing to do. You have to decide for yourself, and if you do nothing, nothing happens. And then you have to live with it.