Another piece I wrote for my book. Keep in mind this is a rough draft and like all of my blogs, has only been edited by me. So once the book goes through the editing process, this might change quite a bit. But here’s a first look. This section comes from me discussing my freshman year. It will no doubt rub some people the wrong way, but since when is that a new thing for me? Let me know what you think.
The summer ended and it was time to move into the dorms. Coach Foster had arranged for Natalie and I to be roommates. He figured she would force me to be studious and get in the gym more often, and that I would loosen her up and make her have some fun.
Walking into Branscomb (the most popular freshman dorm) was like a trip through the twilight zone. I had just stepped from the real world into an alternate universe populated by designer people from the pages of Cosmo. They all looked so, rich. I looked down at my two suitcases and the plastic bag of sheets Sara had given me as a “welcome to college” gift. I didn’t even have a blanket. And these girls had contacted their roommates over the summer to coordinate curtain fabrics, comforter patterns, and overall design schemes for, a dorm room? Where was I?
I had never seen girls like those before. It was like training camp for the Stepford Wife auditions. They were all so properly friendly and perfectly put together, skipping around like their Chanel pumps had air soles in them. I didn’t fit in, with their clothes and their money, southern charm, and prep-school attitudes. Sometimes I imagined it was a front, and that underneath it they all had eating disorders, drug addictions, and terrible family skeletons, which I’m sure some did. But that didn’t change the Southern Belles they were; it didn’t make me fit in any more. I felt a little better that Natalie didn’t fit in with them either. Of course she had a lot more stuff than I did, and her wardrobe was three times the size of mine. And she was White, with the whole Southern accent thing going on. Nonetheless, she was in no way interested in being a debutante; she was an athlete.
When Nat got there I was happy to see her again, and relieved she was dressed in sweats like me (not Bebe cute coordinate sweats but the regular grey fleece kind). Her parents Cassandra and Jim came to help her move in. They were such incredibly cute, doting parents. For the next four years, I was like their adopted daughter (they gave me a blanket, and much more), and Natalie was my White sister.
My scholastic tastes were much better suited to the college academic structure. In high school, on average, 60% of your grade is from daily homework assignments, while papers and tests make up the remaining 40%. That’s why it had been so difficult for me to maintain my grades senior year. I wasn’t at all interested in doing homework–or going to class–but the tests and papers were a cakewalk. I was relieved to discover that in college, 85% of your grade is tests and papers, while daily homework and attendance is usually only about 15%. So at the beginning of each semester, in my mind, certain assignments were dismissed from the get-go, and you could bet that if a class met three times a week, I was missing at least one of them.
I got A’s in my most difficult classes though, because then I was forced to apply myself. If I knew before hand I could get away with minimal effort and still get a B, then that was cool with me (and if I really hated the class, I’d settle for a C). Daddy and Coach Foster used to tell me that if I weren’t so smart I’d have better grades, which, modesty aside, I think is probably true. But unless a class really intrigued me, I wasn’t going to waste my time worrying about it. There were a few that did, like the consulting class I took which was taught by a guy that ran his own firm, and senior year, a grad school course on the effects mental health disease had on a persons ability to be productive in the work force. As for the others, if I wasn’t going to pay attention in class anyway, I didn’t see the point in being there.
That mindset didn’t sit too well with my academic advisor Gary Gibson, or Coach Foster. I remember the first time I got caught skipping class. It was Friday, and Natalie and I had been out late the night before. We were sleepy and didn’t want to get up for our 8 a.m. class. Nat never skipped, but since I did it all the time and had yet to get caught, she figured she’d stay in bed too. Go figure the one time she decided to skip with me is the time Gary decided to go to our class with his athlete checklist. When we weren’t there, he had to report us.
That afternoon, Coach called Natalie and I into his office. When we arrived, the seniors on the team–Cion, Chavonne, Jen, and Candice–were there too. Coach said that freshman couldn’t be expected to know any better because obviously our seniors hadn’t told us skipping class was against the rules, and therefore, we weren’t in trouble. The seniors however, would have to get up at 6 a.m. the next morning and run a timed mile for their transgression, while we sat in lawn chairs and watched.
Natalie and I looked at each other, horrified. He couldn’t be serious, we reasoned as the seniors glared at us. “No Coach, they told us,” I said. “We were just really tired, and accidently slept in.” “Ya Coach, it’s not their fault. We’ll run instead,” Nat chimed in. It occurred to me that we were whining to be able to run a timed mile at 6 in the morning, but it was the preferable alternative to having our respected seniors run for our mistake. The least he could do was let us run with them. Even that would be better than them suffering while we relaxed.
They let us panic and beg for a couple minutes before the girls exchanged a look and all burst out laughing. I quickly looked to Coach and saw he was grinning smugly too. It was a joke! And they had all been in on it. I fought back a smile as I tried to be mad; they had really scared us.
It turned out only part of it had been a joke. Natalie and I had to get up and run the next morning, but the seniors didn’t have to. In fact, no one came with us. He trusted us to do it, which we did. That’s one thing I’ve always liked about Coach Foster: he believed if he treated us like we were responsible, we were more likely to act responsibly. His belief kept me relatively in check. Disappointing Coach was my nightmare. And of all the things I’m going to tell you, keep in mind there were countless things I did–or didn’t do–simply to keep his faith in me in tact. I can’t say rules would have been enough to do that.
As far as that particular punishment went, we wouldn’t have dreamed of sleeping in or not doing it right. We got there early, timed ourselves, and ran like they were watching. After that, in the process of setting a personal four-year record, I didn’t skip class for a whole three weeks.
Coach chilled out a little when I proved my point by getting a 3.5 my first semester, skipping class and all. After that, I guess he figured as long as I was putting up numbers in the classroom and on the court, there was no real reason to fight with me. And I appreciated it. After all, that’s more like the real world anyway. It’s about production. As long as you get it done, most people don’t care how or when or why. Doing what you’re supposed to do is all that matters.
I hesitated to include this part actually, because I tell so many kids how important education is all the time. I really do believe it’s essential to success. I was, and still am, always eager to learn. The important thing about school is that it teaches us how to learn. It’s not so much what we’re taught as it is realizing our learning capacity, and then pursuing the knowledge to fill it.
For me, I had no doubts about my intellectual ability. I read the material, wrote the papers, did the projects, and took the tests. I made a conscious choice to bypass the stuff I found trivial, such as busy work and non-essential class time. I know I’m not winning over any parents here, and pray all kids don’t think they can get away with this too. I’m not trying to convince anyone with my argument; just letting you know where my mind was at the time.
Whenever the subject of school comes up, I’m often asked if going to an elite academic school like Vanderbilt was hard. I always say yes and no. First of all, I never went to any other school for a comparison, so relatively, I don’t know. I do know I was constantly surrounded by insanely smart people. So it’s my theory that schools like Vanderbilt are more difficult because they’re harder to get into. They only let in the extra smart (or extra studious, there is a difference) people, and everything is graded on a curve, thus inferring a higher quality of work. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that they can attract the most brilliant faculty from all over the world either. So ya, the work was definitely not what I would consider easy, and at first I was a little intimidated. But what do you do when you’re somewhere that’s a little out of your league but you’re determined to stay? You step your game up.
Most of my learning curve was in study habits. Like I said, school teaches you how to learn, and I’d never seen anyone study like these people. I’m talking beyond the color coordinated notebook tabs and highlighting key terms in textbooks. My classmates took meticulous class notes, actually went to the library, spent hours reading background information, did case studies or interviewed people if necessary, and then put together the finished product in a neat little package that looked like something straight out of a boardroom. After I learned how to properly use the library, presentation was the next thing I picked up from them (thank you Kinkos). Once I figured that out, it was all downhill from there.
One problem my classmates couldn’t help me with was my fear of speaking, to anyone. I remember telling Tammy Boclair, who handled our media relations at the time, that I was not doing any interviews; I was too scared. Well, being the new blue chip recruit on campus, there were quite a few people who wanted to talk to me, and Coach Foster would hear nothing of me turning them away. He immediately forced me to enroll, whining and complaining, in a public speaking class.
The day I was scheduled to give my first speech I walked to the classroom door, notecards in hand, looked inside at all my classmates I would have to speak to, turned around and walked right back to Branscomb. To this day, after all I accomplished in my college career, Coach Foster still says his greatest achievement as my coach was that I graduated with the ability to look people in the eye, and speak to them with confidence. My entire freshman year he constantly commanded me to look him in the face, because every time he spoke to me, my eyes went straight to the floor and stayed there. I do so much public speaking these days that I realize what an invaluable gift he gave me.