Classes begin tomorrow at my old school, the University of Wisconsin at Platteville.
The very first class I attended on my very first day 32 years ago was Introduction to Philosophy, a culminating moment in this geek’s life. I’d been an amateur philosopher for quite a while, so I thought this was turning pro. I would discover, however, that students in an introductory philosophy course do not spend as much time pondering the meaning of life as I expected. We spent much more time figuring out the difference between epistemology and ontology (for example) and reading deceptively thin books that were so dense they were hard to lift.
The only other course I remember from my first semester was Elements of Mathematics. Based on my test scores, I had been slotted into pre-calculus, but during the registration process I insisted on signing up for the easiest course I could get. It was taught by a professor who was at least 200 years old; only later would I learn that he was a much-decorated former chancellor of the university (they eventually named a building after him), and despite the fact that he was long past retirement age, he continued to teach one course a semester because he liked teaching. I have often felt guilty about the cavalier way I treated him and his course—more than once I handed him a half-blank test paper and then said something snotty on the way out, and his was the first class I ever cut. By semester’s end, I was hardly going at all, although I managed to pass, somehow.
(Ever since then, I have had a recurring dream in which I’m back at college, it’s the last week of the semester, and I suddenly find myself having to take a test in a course I haven’t attended. It is almost always a math course.)
What I remember most about that first semester, though, is how miserable I was. Part of it was the adjustment process—I didn’t handle the drastic changes brought about by college life very well. It didn’t help my adjustment that I went home almost every weekend; thus going back on Sunday night was often extremely difficult.
Part of it was romantic—my on-again, off-again high-school girlfriend was also at Platteville. During those first few weeks, we were predictably on again, seeking the familiar, but it wouldn’t be long before we were off again, and I didn’t like that one damn bit. There’s a song on my Desert Island list that reached its Billboard chart peak in mid-September 1978: Chris Rea’s “Fool (If You Think It’s Over).” Even though it’s about an older man consoling a younger girl who has just suffered her first broken heart, I heard it as “We’re not done here.” Better I should have paid heed to two key lines: “The pains of seventeens/Unreal, they’re only dreams.”
The song remains on my Desert Island list not for the time it represents, but for its irresistible vibe: Rea’s cool delivery, plus the actual vibraphone and electric piano that accent it. The album it comes from, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini?, was produced by Gus Dudgeon, who gave Elton John’s mid-70s work its characteristic sheen. I’ve read that Rea has disavowed the album, going so far as to re-record “Fool” for his 1988 best-of compilation; today, Benny Santini is unavailable on CD. Here’s a truncated version of Rea and band lip-synching the song on Top of the Pops in 1978.
“Fool (If You Think It’s Over)” is an artifact of September, a September I can recall if I choose to . . . but I don’t often choose to.