At the beginning of the semester a student occupies an energy state called READY. Rested, fed, and hopeful, full to the brim with anticipation, skis locked on, goggles on tight, poles dug in. She crouches, eager for the push.
The first week is misleading, like a bunny hill. A slight downward grade. Still sufficient hours to sleep, eat, and laugh. Lectures don’t seem like time wasted when she should be writing a report or studying for a test. Even the professors smile.
End of the second week: activation energy gets sharply and suddenly steeper. The climb out of bed and into the flow of the day is exothermic. Labs start, homework is due, that first orgo quiz looms like dread in the closet. The universe demands your tithe of entropy. No time to fold the clothes. Just let them rest where they land.
Third week. Lectures no longer seem bright and shiny. That cute guy smells unwashed and hasn’t shaved. Professors pile on new material every damn day. Skipping a lecture isn’t worth the hole it digs that you’ll have to climb out of. No time to eat. Just grab a coffee. No time to exercise. Just lug the heavy bag half a mile across campus. No time to brush the hair. Just pile it on top and jam on a hat. No time for make up. Just wear yesterday’s mascara.
Fourth week. First round of exams. Why do they all schedule them at the same time? (Do the math. It’s logical.) Someday in your real life after college, the baby will puke on you and the tire will flatten when you’re late for a flight while time shrinks to a pin-prick. College is life training; it’s a preview to show you how much you can take while your choices lead you to the life they all told you you wanted.
Fifth week. Are you kidding me? There’s still a month until Fall Break? You climbed the activation energy required for that first round of exams, did your best, blamed each exam for the one-letter-grade lower you scored on every other one, called mom and cried twice but then talked her down and begged her not to come to campus. You tried to find that blue shirt that matches your eyes. You tried to find two matching socks. The universe has shuffled the world. Instead you found half a granola bar and ate it anyway.
Week ten. You count 40 chapters of material learned in five courses so far. Well, maybe “learned” is too strong a verb. That much material cannot get in and actually stick. You glossed over most of it. Hoped the harder parts wouldn’t be tested and maybe you could guess your way on the multiple choice. If only your dog was here to hug.
Fall break blooms like four dizzy days on an oasis. You will eat. Laugh. Play. Catch up on everything. Instead you sleep like the newly dead. You do not shower. You hardly speak. You take energy in to try to climb back up to that READY spot. You can see it but it’s too high. You rationalize there are only six more weeks, so you only need to get halfway back to READY. You fall asleep on your mother’s clean rug, exhausted from thinking about it all. You awake hours later under a blanket someone has draped over you. You smile and drift back down to sleep some more. On the Sunday before you have to go back, you decide to drag your bags of laundry out of the trunk, a bit worried about the odor you’re certain to find there. Instead you find clean and folded clothes, socks matched, towels fresh for the first time since August. Mom.
First Monday back you go to 8 am lecture and the room is full. You’ve never seen these people before.
By the second day back, you have decided you’ll make less laundry if you just wear the same clothes until they must be changed. Most of your clothes are comfortable enough to sleep in anyway. Wednesday morning 8 am goes by without a thought and you miss a quiz. You email the professor asking if there is any way you can make it up but never receive a response. You email a second time and craft a mild catastrophe, an excuse, a cry for mercy. The notification dings on the email response: read the syllabus.
Four weeks rush by with no notice of the passing of time, with no day-by-day plan for survival. You simply fight each fire. Another round of reports and exams leave you wobbly and weak. Sleep and food are for wimps. You’ll sleep in December.
You lift your eyes to the horizon on the Friday before final exam week. Before you stands the highest mountain. It is your own personal mountain and must be climbed alone. You hoist your brick-laden pack while cold rain pelts your face and the only rations are Ramen noodles and coffee. Gotta get to the other side with your soul and some sanity still stuck to your core. Buckle up, buttercup. A college degree is printed on hefty parchment in indelible ink for a reason. You are here because you are smart, so smart. And determined. And worth all of this effort. Ask your mother. Ask your dog. Heck, even your professor sees it.