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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Halloweek and Student Self-sabotage
November 3, 2013 - 4:26pm

It was Halloweek last week.

That’s not a typo. I did not mean to write “Halloween,” because on my campus (the College of Charleston), a made-up holiday for children to play dress up and get candy is now a made-up, week-long bacchanal for college students to play dress up and get drunk.

That irritation you sense isn’t accidental. Attendance last week was the lowest of the entire semester. Anecdotal reports from colleagues suggest the phenomenon wasn’t isolated to my classes. Some of those who did show up looked – to put it kindly – rough. To put it unkindly, still wasted – bleary eyed and falling asleep sitting straight up. My irritation was increased because it just so happened that a major milestone on the way towards the final researched essay in my first-year writing course was due. Some of the rough-looking students who managed to show up confessed to not completing it.

At least they were present. I haven’t even heard from a decent handful of the missing. I hope they’re okay.

So, yes, I’m annoyed. The self-sabotage is, to my mind, obvious and foreseeable. Taking a week to party while school is in session and assignments are due will result in bad things happening, and it’s likely that a number of my students have managed to put a noticeable ding on their semester grades.

Except that, I then remember a particular Wednesday during my freshman year at the University of Illinois when we got it in our heads that a sensible thing to do would be to go to Chin’s and drink flaming volcanoes.

(Mom, if you’re reading, stop now.)

Chin’s was a Chinese restaurant in Champaign, IL. I couldn’t tell you how the food was because I don’t know anyone who ever ate it. As far as I knew, it was just a place where you went and drank flaming volcanoes.

For the uninitiated, a flaming volcano is a rum-based fruit punch served in a giant, communal bowl vaguely suggestive of a volcano, particularly when the center portion is filled with a shot of 151-proof rum and lit on fire.

Because we were boys, and we were careless and stupid we decided to not just drink volcanoes, but to have volcano drinking races with three teams of two. The losing pair would then suck down the shot of 151 in the center of the other teams’ bowls. The punishment for not drinking the rum drink fast enough was to drink more high-test rum.

I know you can see the logic.

I’d arrived at college as a largely inexperienced drinker. There’d been a family wedding or two where I’d scored some loose gin and tonics, and a couple other limited experiments, but my high school friends weren’t partiers and I was serious enough about sports – while possessing limited athletic gifts – that I knew I couldn’t be getting wasted on the regular and still play.

Within about 45 minutes at Chin’s I probably ingested more alcohol than I’d had in my life up to that point.

Leaving the restaurant I felt loose and good. It was early, maybe 8pm. We’d done something fun, something you only get to do when you’re in college. We were young, and free, and awesome. Sure, I had an Econ 101 exam at 8am, but how tough could 50 multiple choice questions about macroeconomics be? Supply and demand, hah! There is a demand for gigantic rum drinks with fire in the middle so Chin’s supplies them. Simple. A couple hours of studying, in bed by midnight, up at 7:30 and I’d be good to go.

I was already sick by the time I made it back to my dorm, just cresting the bathroom stall opening in time to turn my stomach inside out, sending what seemed like quarts of stomach-marinated flaming volcano Exorcist-style in the general direction of the toilet. Thank god we didn’t eat at Chin’s. I can’t imagine that carnage. Hindsight tells me the speed of the flaming volcanoes’ round trip probably saved me a journey to the hospital to have my stomach pumped.

I crawled to my bunk and tried to pass out, except that I was dehydrated and my head was pounding, and enough alcohol had entered my bloodstream that even with the purging I was most definitely still drunk. It was tortured, restless sleep.

When my alarm sounded the next morning, I felt like someone had snuck into my room in the middle of the night and beat the crap out of me. My head was squeezed in a vice of pain. My stomach muscles and even my ribs hurt from throwing up to the point that breathing sent an ache down to my toes. My sinuses were clogged with crusted vomit, my eyes itchy with blown-out blood vessels. I stood dazed, standing and trembling in the middle of the room, not entirely sure how one even gets dressed.

I made it to the test in Foellinger Auditorium a beautiful neo-classical building where they held 1000+ student classes by day and concerts at night. I grabbed a seat on the aisle, as close to the exit as possible and feverishly filled in the scantron sheet, barely reading the questions, knowing that at any moment I was going to be sick again, and doing it on the scantron would make it impossible to feed the form through the machine.

Fifty questions “answered” in 10 minutes, I rushed outside and vomited in the foliage next to the auditorium. Practically crawling back to my dorm, I slept for 36 hours, missing the rest of my classes that day, and half the next. I failed the exam with something like a 35% (just barely better than random guess), and because I was only taking 14 hours and couldn’t drop the class, had to get A’s on just about every assignment for the rest of the semester to claw my way to a B.

This was one of the more important lessons I learned during college, that bad choices come with bad consequences. I can’t say I never engaged in excess drinking again, but the number of times was pretty limited, and always with the knowledge that if I slept for 36 hours straight, I wouldn’t be dooming myself to weeks of catch-up.

I’d learned what it means to “drink responsibly.”

So, in considering some my students’ Halloweek choices, the reason that the self-sabotage is obvious and foreseeable to me is because of my own incident of obvious and foreseeable self-sabotage. They are young, just as I was once. They are and probably should be testing boundaries to find where they draw their own lines of behavior. As silly as it may seem, it’s one of the non-academic experiences that makes residential college a life-shaping experience. Getting a B- instead of a B in first-year composition isn’t fatal, but neither is it entirely painless.

When the wayward return to the fold, considering my own history, I can respond with empathy.

But not sympathy, because my job now is to be the consequences to their questionable choices.

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Is Halloweek a thing elsewhere? Or is it unique to C of C?

 

 

 

 

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