The year I turned 18 and went off to college for freshman year was simultaneously one of the best and worst years of my life. The world was wide open in ways it had never been: I could drink, I could smoke, I could stay up all night, and no one would could do anything about it. In fact, it was even celebrated by my new infrastructure, the peers who now replaced my parents as exoskeletal support. In many ways, it was like a mini-cultural revolution for me, for some part of me had pledged to do everything frowned on in the world of conservatism, indulge every single carnal pleasure, regardless of cost. As a result, the hedonistic parts of me reflect back on that year as a triumph… the numbers of a day in a row being intoxicated, the wild, orgiastic benders, the seeking of skin and story.

Nostalgia still holds these pieces of me in its web of felicity, and yet I ran across an old photo of myself leaning against a wall on campus, taken by a girlfriend at the time (a gender I had treated with equal parts passion and contempt). I recall that I was not exactly filled with joy at the time.

Alexander W. Merrill – Kenyon College – 1998

In fact, as I reflect on the past, what comes into focus is my feet stumbling, trailing behind a crowd of other freshman I had met at the dining hall on the first night on campus, stewing in a haze of Jose Cuervo, one type of the booze that simultaneously opened and closed me. I see myself smoking two camel lights every day as I walked down to rugby practice, because the irony of it was just so, so cool. I see a rotating set of images of one girl to the next, (in frozen contemporary time) achievements in a game, posters to be hung on the wall, to impress others whom I barely knew, and who barely cared beyond simple jealous impulse.

And it took all of me. My clever course selection, picking all classes that I had taken senior year at Exeter for my freshman year assured I would not need to do much classwork. In fact, I recall that I spent about 20 hours outside the classroom on work over the course of entire year. I could spend my whole being praying to Dionysus, in the attempt to fill those hungry holes, weighing down the bottom of me. I was so cool, I thought, bragging to my new brothers about my escapades in those new dark nights. They loved me in ways I didn’t think possible that friends could love, celebrated in ways of magic that could sew bonds of a lifetime.

And yet, as I look at this fading photograph now, I see that I wore my pain like an open badge for them; the face half-covered in light does little to obscure the cinders of frustration dating to the beginning of my own broken-homed history, although it does glamorize it. The baja hoodie and white bandana were unique and the subject of middle-path gossip, but they only veil smoldering pain like holly berries on hemlock. The wonder others had was likely at that anger, a spectacle that reflected their own broken pieces vicariously.

Looking back on it now, I recognize it as the moment in my life that represented the greatest confluence of pain and despair with pure and optimistic joy. I could ace classes, I could write compelling stories, I could be published, I could even perhaps impress enough people to be at peace; but the tops of those hills always crescendoed in despair, like when I tipped over concrete benches all along the middle path leading through campus in a drunken rage of foolishness.

I don’t think the complications of the story are unique. That crossroads is really disorienting for so many right around that age, when the tunnel of opportunity opens simultaneously gifting all possibility and existential void both.

I personally survived the vice of this moment, but just barely, and only ten years later, with checkered citations, arrests, probations, and scars that pattern the crooked file. But many aren’t so lucky… the kid that did too much acid, lost the meaning of language and dropped out; the girl who sank into depression and transferred; the sophomore roommate who failed out; the boy down the hall ostracized for vandalizing the walls of a bathroom in drunken excrement, or the one expelled for stealing a keg of budweiser from a lounge party.

While society has caught up to small degree on this matter, I can’t for the life of me think why our educational system would essentially abandon so many young people on the brink of adulthood in the name of autonomy and personal strength. Every teen suicide, every dropout, every entrant to rehab, every failed teen is a testament to the flawed philosophy of the ‘sink or swim.’ Every young death is evidence of social failure. We have got to stop seeing high school graduation, or even turning 18, as some end point, and adulthood like a ‘time to grow up’ cliff. The development of the prefrontal cortex doesn’t finish until 25 or 30: that would be a more sensible time if we need one. But why must there be a time of catastrophe at all? Why can’t these evolutions occur more gradually with more support? The natural progression has leaned this way, but it’s not nearly enough in the current ‘off to college’ model.

We need not subject our most vulnerable minds to the blanking and unchecked light of adulthood. We need not send them to live on their own, change their fundamental educational pedagogy, force the development of life skills, and start over socially all in one crazy year. Why?! What would these life projections of young and lost minds look like if managed more gently with more generous oversight? I stare in those angry eyes that hang under my old taut brow fading into the light and am left only to wonder.