Adults with Training Wheels

Two weekends ago The Fabulous Wife and I went with our wonderful friends L&E to watch the Giants’ top minor league team, the Sacramento River Cats. Fans of the Giants should not expect help from the River Cats — but that’s not the point of this post. Nor is the point that we had a fantastic time with L&E, sharing an al fresco dinner at a Spanish restaurant not far from the state capitol and chatting volubly while walking between our hotel and the ballpark in the balmy Central Valley night.

Sacramento’s Tower Bridge. It really is that yellow.

Our niece and her husband cared for our cats while we were away. To thank them, we offered to take them to lunch Sunday. They said sure, how about a Chinese place they had a hankering for? We met at their apartment and walked to the restaurant. To our dismay there was an immense line. A table wouldn’t be available for 40 minutes.

Oops! We’d forgotten the students are back.

During the summer, Berkeley is a town of 120,000 occupied by only 90,000. You get accustomed to immediate service wherever you go. It’s always a shock to have to share the town with so many 18 year-olds again.

No big deal, though. We found a Mexican restaurant with no line just two blocks away. But the experience got me reminiscing about college students, and Berkeley college students in particular.

A lot of people like to rag on UC Berkeley students, especially when the students protest or otherwise engage in political expression, which happens — well, pretty much constantly. And yes, often the students are ridiculous. But most of the time I think the criticism is unfair, because they’re students, after all. They’re learning. I often referred to them (not in their presence, of course) as adults with training wheels.

The detractors’ supposition is that because all UC Berkeley students are bright, all UC Berkeley students are mature. But in my experience, about 10–15% of students arrive on campus as old souls with amazing emotional intelligence; another 10–15% arrive on campus as utter brats; and most fall in between, exhibiting ample maturity sometimes, a modicum of maturity most times, and childish petulance on occasion.

Whenever I first worked with a student, I assessed his or her maturity level. I was lucky. Most of the time I got old souls who understood that when dealing with administration, you didn’t present a list of demands untethered to reality, you proposed solutions that benefited all parties. We got some great things done with those students.

But occasionally I’d run into a brat. And I admit it, the brats got under my skin. What I wanted to tell them was grow the fuck up! But you absolutely cannot do that at Berkeley. That was the campus’s true political correctness. My Student Affairs colleagues fervently believed that as providers of students’ co-curricular experience (what students learned outside the classroom), we had an obligation to support the young ‘uns — i.e. be their training wheels — and if we couldn’t accommodate them, we needed to patiently guide them toward wiser responses to their frustrations.

That worked with most of the brats, but not all. Every year I’d run into one or two so manipulative I was convinced gentle guidance was counterproductive; unless we slapped them down (figuratively) we’d encourage their pathological side and be responsible for unleashing highly-educated monsters on society.

So now that I’m free, I can say it. The overwhelming majority of college students are either more mature than you think or will become mature in due course, so cut them some slack. But yeah, a few of them desperately need to grow the fuck up.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.