A collection writings and thoughts by artist Gary Llama.

On College (and how I’m probably not finishing)

I never thought I would go to college. Growing up, my grades were either great or horrible. One year I’d be having trouble, and the next I be doing great. A lot of it had to do with me not really fitting in, and other bits had to do with issues at home. Another part was that I didn’t know I was intelligent. I’d figure the failing grades were my ‘true’ grades, and the good grades were just luck. So I dropped out of high school in the beginning of 11th grade and never looked back. Luckily, my dad pushed me to get my GED a few years later.

While most of my friends were in college, I was working pizza delivery, and using my extra money to save up for recording equipment. I’d get about 200 extra each month, and I’d save it and then get things for my little home studio. Then my girlfriend suggested I get an internship and do it proper. So I did. And I was good at it. I worked freelance, then opened my own shop doing mastering. Then I got sick. Like chronic, sick. And so I shut it all down.

So in 2008, after doing design for a few years, and bouncing between things, I decided to give college a shot. The reality was, I had been applying for disability for a few years due to my health, as the only jobs I could really do were no more than four hours a day, and even then, with 1-2 absences per week due to health. But, as I had never been to college before, and was over 24, I learned I would qualify for Pell Grants to pay my tuition. And federal loans would help me be able to survive while going full time. So with college, I could a) try it out, following my love for sociology, and b) have a little cushion for the time being, hoping that my health may get a little better, and I may end up with a degree in the process. Win-Win, and way better than just scraping by with little thought to my future.

My ideal situation would be to work towards being a sociology professor. So I applied to VCU, got accepted, found my sister’s old backpack, and entered school as a 29 year-old freshman. Another reason I decided to go when I did was I’d rather be a 29 year old freshman, than a 30 year old freshman. So in I went.

College blew my mind. For about 7 years previously, I was in a relationship with someone who was a college student, first through her undergrad, then masters, and I never really gave her experiences much respect. I figured ‘How hard could it be?’. To be honest, I had a chip on my shoulder. My life had really revolved around making your own path. College, was a pre-drawn path. So I just dismissed it all as bullshit. But by the end of my first day as a full time student, I was nearly in tears for being such a fucking jerk about it to her. This shit was HARD.

At that point, I was in a period were my health was relatively OK by my standards, and I got about 4 months of ok health, and was able to go full time for the semester. When I got to winter break, I had a 3.8 GPA, was on the Dean’s list, and for the firt time in my life, was very proud of something I had done in school. That winter break, I drove up to Chicago to visit my sister, and pick up an old car she was getting rid of. I drove straight back, Chicago to Richmond, through snow, and made it home in about 13 hours. The next day I tried some new oatmeal, which I can be allergic to, sometimes, depending on how it’s prepared, and the following day I developed an abcess.

It was crazy, I had never experienced anything like it, and had no clue what was going on. A few years later, I’d learn the condition had a name, Hidradentitis Suppurativa, but for the interim, it just destroyed me. I went to the ER and they cut it open, then spent the next week going to the student health clinic once a day to have it packed with gauze. This was during Flu season however, and I caught the Flu during the process. So my first semester, I ended up having to drop half my classes, and miss most of school. Not good.

My practice of choosing classes back then was to sign up for a bunch, then randomly dropping the ones I didn’t like until I was back at 12 credits. I learned this was a bad thing to do, when a few semesters in, I had to sign what was called ‘Satisfactory Academic Progress’ contract, as my attempted credits and completed credits was below 67%.

That summer, still with a good GPA, I got a job as a student worker. The car my sister had given me had died, and so I moved in with a friend so I could walk to work / school. Eventually I got a bicycle, which caused more abscess problems. That winter, the same thing happened, big abscess, flu, and I was out for a month again. The folks at work got together and gave me a gift card to the grocery store, knowing my month of no work meant I would probably not afford groceries. I had no idea I could qualify for food stamps, and looking back, I wish I had applied for them. But that spring, as I had dropped my classes due to health, I could no longer qualify as student worker, to which my work responded by hiring me out of their department budget. But within a few months, with the financial problems the state was having (This was 2008/09, housing bubble etc), I was soon out of a job. Not being able to afford my rent with no income, I moved in with my grandma, about an hour away.

In 2010, I came back to Richmond, and after months, was in a more stable situation. So I began school again. I believe I had about 20-something credits. This time, however, I decided to take it easy, and go part-time. So I did, and I did well, and by the fall of 2014, still had good grades, and was finally a junior.

But then I realized something: I remebered there was a cap on how much financial aid you could be loaned. And after a bit of research, I realized I was going to hit it the following semester. $54,000 was the cap. I was right there. My part-time attendance had really minimized my amount of classes versus financial aid. And so I talked to a social worker, and realized I had two options: A) Apply to a school that would cover my tuition, or B) Stop going to school. But after realizing the closest school that MAY be able to cover my tuition was an hour drive each way, and factoring in the current state of my health and our car, which if anything happened to (like breaking down from wear) might leave my spouse, and our 21 month year-old daughter, without transportation; I decided to stop going to college.

It’s been a sad thing to process. I was one of those students that was really there to learn, partly because of my age, being an older student, and because I love sociology and learning. I love writing papers. I love writing essays. Hell, I had been writing sociological essays for four years before I even went to college, and once a freshman, was one of the few that had already read Veblen, Mills, Goffman; not the interpretations, but the actual texts. And the access I get as a student, to JSTOR, to the libraries, was amazing. Any book, even new, I could get throught the library and read. I used inter-library loan through the university A LOT.

But the biggest thing that scares me, is, in talking with and befriending some of the professors, I was surrounded by a culture of learning, and the reality is, I’m a person that loves to think. It’s as big a part of my life as music, art, or anything else. My brain, in the university, is one that is being nurtured, exercised, with new thoughts and theories to test and pick apart. And life outside the university, is not like that at all. Everything is watered down. And our society is Anti-Intellectual as fuck. And where you do find conversations of thought, there is much of an echo chamber, leaving little room for new ideas. So not having that place to be challenged, and introduced to things, in an environment where it is encouraged to disagree, to dissent, to pick apart a thing and discover something along the way, really scares the fuck out of me.

I knew going in, that with my health issues It would be a struggle. And I never really knew if I could do it. Before college, school was a place I couldn’t reliably do well in. I couldn’t control my work effort. But I learned in college that I could. And really, to keep getting good grades, I didn’t even have to do much painful work. Just do my work, a little research, but not any horrendous amount of effort. The majority of my struggle was in physically getting to the class, making it to class when sick, and keeping my mind in a place where, despite illness, I could remember my assignments or be in a position to finish them. My last semester at VCU, I ended up dropping one of my two classes as I couldn’t even make it to the classroom due to illness among either me or my daughter, and then the one I completed online, I think I may get my lowest grade ever, which before had been two B’s, but now, because of everything going on, may be a D. My last grade, a D.

So in all honesty, perhaps it’s better that I’m leaving now. Being a parent, with chronic health issues, and a student, is pretty damn hard. And as my daughter gets older, coinciding with health and school, could mean that one of those things is gonna have to suffer, and I have to fight for my daughter as well as my health.

So maybe in a couple years, I’ll give school another shot. Maybe I’ll be in a position where I have the money to go, or find a college that will give me a scholarship. In the meantime, I will be continuing my independent scholarly work, writing essays, writing books, and working to keep a culture of new thought around me in everything I do. That’s just who I am. But I will have lost a good partner in that process, the university.

P.S. I lucked out and did great in that last class, earning a ‘B’.

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Llamatism is a collection of things, a cabinet of curiosities, and reports from explorations on things, by Gary Llama.

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