After one semester at college, my teachers brought me into a room and told me that it really wasn’t working out for me.
I was attending a conservatory theater program, so this was not an odd, random occurrence. At the end of every semester through one’s sophomore year, the faculty met with the students in what were referred to as “conferences”. A toothless, generic name for what regularly turned into an emotional bloodbath. There were something like 40 kids in our freshman class, and by the time we rolled into junior year, there was something like 12. It was like an Agatha Christie novel, only with clove cigarettes and crying.
The fact that my place at college was already being called into question by the end of semester one was simultaneously surprising and completely expected. Surprising because I was not in the Acting program, but rather Theater Studies with a concentration in writing. The way it worked was that Theater Studies kids did the freshman year of the acting program, and after that, went off and did bad guerrilla Becket at Faneuil Hall, and wrote even worst one person shows about their feels. (As I went to college in the 18th century, however, they were not called “feels”, but rather, “emotional fever havings”.)
So in a way, I kind of thought I would emerge from my freshman year unscathed because I was, for all intents and purposes, a tourist. Just passing through. Doing the things the other kids were doing, but only for a bit, and then moving on to the thing I actually wanted to do, which was to catch Emotional Fever Havings Fever and never recover.
But at the same time, I knew that it was not going well. My overstuffed mattress of a body was not made for movement class, my foghorn of a voice decidedly unideal for voice and speech. And the freshman year acting classes, designed to break students down to whimpering pools of jelly left me, well, a whimpering pool of jelly. So I had that going for me.
As a result, I doubled down on my high school bag of tricks, which was to be AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE AND AS SILLY AS TOLERABLE. The former wasn’t a problem, but the latter ran out on me pretty quickly. (And I have covered my go-to move, which was to “hysterically” drop trou.)
My fellow students, for the most part, were serious and studious, convinced they were going to become the world’s next great actor, or at the very least, the northeast’s next working actor.
I wanted to write sketches and stories, sometimes shouting them myself, or making others do my shouting for me. But until then, I wanted people to JUST KNOW THAT I WAS GREAT! AND LOUD! AND FUNNY! AND FALLING OVER! BUT MOSTLY GREAT!
So when I was brought into my conference, I was expecting to squeak by with a curt, “Tone it down, goofball,” and that was that.
Instead I was raked over the coals, and for the most part, deservedly so. I was simultaneously anxious and arrogant, a distraction in class, couldn’t stay focused on tasks, and frankly, not in any sort of physical or emotional shape for the rigors of theater school.
This, as shitty as it was to hear, was a fair cop. But the teachers went on, and told me that my biggest problem as a student, the one thing they didn’t think they could fix in me was this: I wanted to be liked.
The words stuck in my ear sideways, as if they couldn’t quite fit into my brain. “Wanted to be liked”? Isn’t that why we were all here? Because we were all, in one way or another craved the approval of an audience? To hear the applause, either from the stage or the sidelines, and know that the people out there dug what we did, what we said, what we wrote?
Didn’t we want our teachers to nod their head sagely when we did something right, knowing that something had finally sunk into our thick, clove-addled skulls? Didn’t we come from worlds where we were goofballs, drama dorks, theater geeks, and worse. Didn’t we come together to be with people like us? People who knew what we went through, because they went through it too?
Didn’t we all want to be liked? Didn’t everyone?
I was overwhelmed and anxious by the whole thing, so I didn’t ask any of these questions. But I thought them. I thought about them a lot.
I thought about what the opposite of wanting to be liked would look like. I imagined myself scowling down the hallway, chewing a toothpick and wearing shades. Or maybe I wouldn't walk down the hallway at all, maybe I would hide in my dorm room and not interact with anyone, just a mad, lone genius making art for himself, and damn the world. Or maybe I would just walk the earth and solve crimes. That last one wasn't really a viable option, but it's always been my Plan C.
All of these choices were pretty rotten, truth be told. Because the truth is, being liked was all I wanted. That and to make it through freshman year. Because then, I could stop half-assing my way through the classes I had no business being in in the first place. Because then the other students who saw me flailing wouldn't stare daggers at me, wondering what the hell I was doing there. I could show everyone that I had worth. The teachers, the students, the kids I went to high school with, the world. I was special, goddamn it, and everyone HAD TO KNOW IT.
SO I SHOUTED! AND FLAILED! AND WAS LOUD! AND WAS...
In that one semester of college, I went from being a kid picked on throughout all of public school into a sort of emotional bully. Demanding all the attention and respect without doing anything to earn it. Without even attempting to go through the motions of relating to the people around me. I didn’t want to be liked. I wanted instant applause.
I did not realize that at the time. And I made it through my freshman year without coming to any conscious conclusion about why I was the way I was.
But I did tone it down. I stopped acting like I was just passing through, and I tried harder to be present. Most importantly, somewhere deep in my teenage garbage mind, I knew that I couldn't scream and flail my way into people's hearts. I knew that even though I had worth, sort of, and ideas to share, maybe, this was something that needed to be earned.
I was still a mess. But I was a workable mess. A workable mess in progress, which is about the best thing you can get out of a freshman drama student.
I will always be a workable mess in progress. A mess who still indulges in a bit of screaming and flailing (anyone who's had a long loud night in a bar with me will be nodding their head in agreement on this one).
But my freshman year of college, I went in screaming and flailing first. And this is not a way to get friends and earn respect. And it is not a way to be liked. And I know this now.
Which is why I only scream and flail around my closest friends. Friends I have earned by letting my work and my actions speak for me first, instead of my big, dumb foghorn voice. Friends I have made in worlds where I don’t quite belong, but I respect the hell out of, and do my best to be present and respectful within.
I still want to be liked. That feeling will never go away. And it hurts if people don’t. A lot. But I know I can’t bully them into doing that.
Because if I didn’t, I would have no friends. And then my only recourse would be to walk the earth and solve crimes, and honestly, neither are in my wheelhouse. I’m more of an emotional fever havings kind of guy.