Myself & The Aliens: A Ridiculous Part Of A Ridiculous Education
"People tell you who they are, but we ignore it, because we want them to be who we want them to be."
- Don Draper
There were 3 phases of my formal education.
First up was primary school, spanning ages 6 to 12. I was a well-behaved kid who got good grades.
Then there was high school, spanning ages 13 to 17. I was a moderately-behaved kid who got good grades.
And finally there was university, spanning ages 18 to 22. I became a badly-behaved young man who got bad grades.
On face value I’m the archetypal “peaked-too-early” type of person. In primary school I remember people telling me, “You’re gonna do really well for yourself one day”, all the goddamn time.
Because my final high school grades were good, I could pick pretty much any uni and course in my home state of Western Australia. I went with Psychology at the University of WA.
I only lasted one semester doing Psych. There was far too much number-crunching for my liking. So I transferred across to the most generalized degree of all time; a BA in Communication Studies.
In Australia, if your parents can’t or are unwilling to pay for your tertiary education, the Government offers student loans which covers the costs of all your classes, and you pay it off once you start working. This was called the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS for short), and I signed up for it on O-Day.
Furthermore, the Government provides a student allowance for those who a) maintain a full rotation of four units per semester and b) move out of their family home, which I did at some point shortly after transitioning over to the Arts department. The allowance was only something like $400 a fortnight, but this felt like a huge amount of coin at the time.
I didn’t purposely sabotage my uni career, and I remember feeling genuinely optimistic when it all kicked off. But looking back, my patience with classrooms must’ve fizzled at the end of Year 12.
My priorities were far from scholastic. I wanted to get stoned with my housemates and watch Oliver Stone movies. I wanted to go to band practice. I wanted to go on dates. I wanted to go out clubbing several nights a week. I wanted to get drunk and play Mario Kart 64 till four in the morning. I wanted to talk about pretentious bullshit with anyone who’d listen. Anything related to uni was just a distraction, and from the jump my attendance was dismal.
One night during a mid-semester break I was getting drunk in my mate’s jacuzzi when I remembered that the deadline for selecting my next batch of units was only a few hours away. I toweled myself down, went into my mate’s study, and logged onto my student account on his family’s PC. I was half-cut and couldn’t be arsed doing too much research about my elective classes, and simply picked whichever classes sounded the most interesting. The clear winner was an English unit called “Myself & The Aliens”, which sounded like the best class of all time going on name alone, so I added it to my next semester rotation.
True to form I missed the introductory lecture for MATA, so I was automatically assigned a tutorial. I stumbled into the first tute which ran from 4-6 in the afternoon. I’d been in the uni tav since lunchtime downing jugs of Tooheys.
The tutor was a nebbish fellow who spoke like Truman Capote and looked like a friendly little mole from Wind & The Willows. Trying my best to maintain the air of a sober person, I told my tutor that I’d missed the first lecture and asked if he could provide some details about the structure of the course. He let me know that MATA was a creative writing unit, where half of the students would focus on biographical writing (Myself) and the other half would focus on science fiction (The Aliens).
“And so what are we gonna do in this tute then?” I asked.
The tutor smiled.
I was a little bummed. I’d always dug creative writing but wasn’t much of a sci-fi man. But in terms of expected workload, I’d hit the jackpot. All we were expected to do was critique the draft versions of each others’ short stories during the tutorials, and turn in our own finalized story near the end of the semester.
Despite not being at all concerned with academic performance (“P’s get degrees, maaaaan”), like many Arts students before me, I definitely felt like I had something to offer the world as an elegantly wasted intellectual. Before many MATA tutorials I would rip Powerade bottle bongs on the Swan River foreshore then glide up to class. My scathing critiques would always start with the following disclaimer; “I’m not a sci-fi fan, but……”
My own yarn had more holes than a bukkake vid on YouPorn. It was inspired by The Beatles song “Julia”. My relationship with weed was becoming particularly hot and heavy at the time, and the “White” album from which Julia appears was speaking to me in Mansonesque ways. The story was about a boy who loses his mother at an early age when she drowns at the beach. Flash forward twenty years and spoiler alert, Momma Julia didn’t die, she was actually abducted by yellow submarine-faring aliens who hide in our oceans, and the young protagonist goes into the depths to find her. Taking the Beatles homage into overdrive, I even lifted lines directly from the song and used them as dialogue. Old mate Wind in the Willows loved my story and my willingness to offer others honest feedback, and gave me a strong Credit for the class.
But, unfortunately, there were a lot of other units that didn’t suit my temperament so well.
At the beginning of each semester everyone had a two-week window to figure out whether all your units were gonna work out. You had the ability to transfer to a different class, or drop the class entirely. And as long as you did this within the first two weeks, you wouldn’t incur any long-term HECS debts.
The problem was, I got too good at sniffing out all the slacker-friendly units. There were my compulsory Communication Studies classes, but on top of that I only wanted to do classes that resembled MATA. And in order to maintain my precious student allowance (aka beer money), I had to maintain a full rotation of four units per semester.
So when I accidentally selected something that sucked, I got into the habit of staying enrolled in the unit beyond the two-week deadline, but not attending any classes whatsoever. This meant I was incurring HECS debts for classes I wasn’t taking, but it also meant I kept receiving 400 bucks from the Government every fortnight, which along with my cruisy retail job, was funding my debauched lifestyle.
My whole mentality was about having the most fun possible in the moment, and worrying about the consequences later. I felt like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, running up a killer bar tab, and laughing in the face of anyone who questioned me.
Between purposefully flunking classes I found beneath me, and taking a full year off to travel around Europe, it took me five years to complete a standard BA that should’ve only taken three years. But unlike many other unmotivated uni students, I actually finished my course.
Perhaps the funniest relic from this time is my finalized university transcript. Because of my poor attendance, I literally got awarded 0% for several classes. So even though I completed my degree, my weighted average is a mighty 35%.
Ironically, my dismal performance at uni didn’t hold me back during the beginning of my professional life. A friend of mine worked for a huge Australian media company, and she hooked me up with an internship during my final semester. This led to a full-time position immediately after I graduated.
Now that a lot of time has passed, I realize how lucky I was. Australia is one of the few places where you can afford to be a bludger. Or at least it was when I was studying approximately ten years ago. Despite my best efforts my total HECS debt didn’t amount to anything too scary. American students who behaved like a nihilist Joe Pesci at college are probably not feeling as chipper.
But the one thing I do feel good about is that I didn’t force myself into a degree or future that wasn’t right for me. I fucked around for sure, but at that point in my life I strongly believe that I had no way of knowing what the right path was. I had the Oasis lyric “these could be the best days of our lives” plastered on my bedroom wall, and I really walked the talk.
In Mad Men, Don Draper gets Roger Sterling drunk and bluffs his way into a job. For me, this scene offers amazing insight about how the real world actually works.
The obvious takeaway is the old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”.
But, in addition, the scene illustrates the importance of understanding who you are in relation to others. At uni, it was obvious to me that I didn’t belong. And in the nicest way possible, all my lecturers, tutors and fellow students let me know just that.
When I started work at the media company, no one checked that I got 0% for the Julio-Claudian era of Roman History. And even if they did, no one would’ve given a shit. When I walked into the interview, I sensed that they were looking for someone fun, someone dynamic, a wildman with a sense of humor who could spice up the dull office environment. So that’s what I leaned into, and I got the job.
It’s a hard gig this life direction bullshit. But if you really look at other people, you’ll pick up some wisdom about yourself.
Take me for example. At uni I was an alien.
But today, I’m myself.