independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Listen here, college dudes -- and learn from my eight weeks of Trinity trauma

Maggie Armstrong

It was not a good day, my first day in college. But it comes back to me unrelentingly this week as thousands of fresh-faced 18-year-olds flood the campuses, embarking on scholarly life. Those were the days.

I went to Trinity to study English and French in 2002. I was 18. I had an excellent Leaving Cert. I could do anything I wanted -- leave home, campaign against the Nice Treaty, buy vodka, tattoos, herbal goodies. It was so exciting. And so dangerous.

At my first lecture I was in the front row, the only seat left. The lecturer said to her 200 students: "I want you all to close your eyes and imagine you're four. It's your first day at school. Are you afraid?".

I was. It didn't feel right. The French lecture seemed to be about child psychology. "What is this?" I asked the girl beside me. "Froebel," she replied. Oh My God. I was in a teachers' training class.

There's a special walk you do when you realise you are in the wrong lecture. It's more of a scuttle, like a hunted deer, with a gathering up of books, the way the fawn in Narnia, Mr Tumnus, gathers his parcels. I hope you won't ever have to do it.

I liked freshers' week. The cobbled campus, the fruity old professors shuffling around. The combination of pints and breakfast served up in the Buttery Bar. A typically eager naif, I joined a number of societies: Chess, Anarchist, Caledonian, Metaphysical, Table Tennis.

I learned how to steal tea from the college cafe. As a liberal arts student, I had about 30 hours per week free to roam Dublin city. What fun.

Then it all went wrong. Beginning at the Entrance Award Ceremony when I shamed my parents by downing red wine and drinking rum on Front Square. It was all so formal, what else was I to do? Like many thousands will find next week, I didn't know where to go every day. I thought a woman with a clipboard would approach me and say 'You're welcome, Miss Armstrong. Here is the Jonathan Swift Theatre. Now can I buy you some tea?' But no one came.

In college, you have to find everything out for yourself, my big sister told me . . . too late. You were supposed to fill out forms, scrutinise notice boards, procure passwords, timetables, go on tortuously boring library tours. The library was a vast fish bowl you couldn't bring coffee into. I didn't like the look of it.

Nor did I think much of the people behind the lecterns. When I found the right French lecture a small Irishman with a dodgy French accent said he would be putting all the grammar material on the internet. We could contact him by email. What was the internet? Email? This was 2002. I'd heard of them, but I didn't trust them.

Arts blocks are grim places, built on principles of containment. This one was six low-ceilinged floors divided into cells. Windowless and cruel: a swinging door would hit you in the face, or you would find yourself lost down the wrong interminable corridor.

I promiscuously skipped lectures. Madame Bovary, Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice. All very nice, but who could be bothered? Our most serious subject, the evilly named CCT (Critical and Cultural Theory), took place at 9am on a Thursday, after student night which I tended to spend in a lowly locale off O'Connell Street, smoking green stuff I'm afraid.

You were supposed to 'make friends' but I wasn't sure how.

Beforehand I only knew Irish people. The arts block cultivated wealthy, thespian English boarding-school kids. The first girls I met were called Cosima and Charlotte, for example.

It was fashion that tore us apart I think.

These girls had plundered every vintage shop in London town and they looked chic, with leather boots, mink shawls, gold handbags.

I sported O'Neill's tracksuit bottoms held with safety pins, and a pair of pink ballet shoes with ribbons laced up in a risque display of ankle. This sort of kit just didn't run around here, I learned.

Then one afternoon, sitting in one of the forced student hang-out 'zones', a freesheet was being distributed. Its cover story, 'Magic Mushroom Madness', had a full spread of instructions on where to find them.

Off I went on the bus, with fellow strays, up the Dublin mountains with empty sandwich bags, searching the rushy glens before we struck upon gold. After that, all changed.

I abandoned French to join Philosophy. I spent a month in despair, wondering how to begin an essay on free will and determinism. I opted, unconsciously, for the former idea, and quit college in the first week of December.

"To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail," Sam Beckett said. With a few euro earned waitressing, I moved to Paris and lived in a one-bedroom flat with two other dropouts. And went back to Trinity for 2003, wiser and reformed. Don't screw it up kids. Or if you must do, give it a second chance.

PS: I passed, and I have a job now. At least I hope I still do.

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