Choosing Friends

Half a dozen young men from my high school planned to attend Miami University, where I spent my first year of college. I was not close to any of them, but I was okay with that. I thought it would be great to meet new people and possibly develop into a new person myself.

Jim Brown was a classmate who had also selected Miami of Ohio. In high school, he hung out with the geniuses. You know, the kids who were in the chess club and got perfect scores on the SATs. He asked me to be his college roommate, so he put my name down as a roommate on the housing application, but I didn’t put his name down. We were assigned to live in the same building, but we did not share the same room, since we both did not request each other.

My parents drove me to Oxford, Ohio. Cars for first-year students were not permitted, but I didn’t own one anyway. You could walk through downtown in five minutes anyway. I went to a brief orientation session, and then we moved my stuff into Dennison Hall. There wasn’t a lot of room in the room. There was a triple bunk bed, one double desk, a single desk, three built-in closets, one big mirror and built-in dresser drawers. I had a chest, some clothes, a TV, and some records. The community bathroom was down the hall.

My one roommate was a bit taller than I. He seemed friendly enough. He made friends with some ROTC freshmen from the first floor, so they came by that first evening, and they sat on the floor in a circle passing around a bong. My other roommate, Bill, a black-haired, slightly overweight guy, had brought two guitars. One was an electric guitar, a cherry-colored Les Paul, that was collectible even back in 1976. He couldn’t really play it in a room the size of chicken coop, so it was just for show and his comfort. It spent most of its time in the closet. Bill left when the bong came out. Pot really wasn’t my thing, but I hung out to be sociable.

Jim’s room was on the first floor. One of his roommates had an expensive stereo. Since college students back then spent a good deal of time listening to records, Jim’s room was a popular hangout. Jim wondered why we were not assigned to the same room. I told him I didn’t put his name down–I think I said I did not know I needed to, although I did. I wasn’t sure about hanging out with a nerd. But, we ended up becoming good friends, and I regretted not being his roommate.

Bill was difficult to live with. He could not get over the loss of his high school girl friend. When he wasn’t in class, he was in the room, since he had no friends. He played the same record repeatedly. By Jefferson Starship. “If only you believe like I believe, we’d get by. If only you believe like I believe, we’d get high.” Over and over and over. I’d return home and I’d hear the song through the door and turn around and head someplace else, anywhere else. He’d try to call his ex every week, but she would not answer or would make it clear to everyone but him that their relationship had ended. You see, there were no cell phones back then; we shared a common land line phone. No privacy and high cost. Bill asked for a different room after Christmas break. He was being picked on, a bit by me, but others living in the building found him annoying as well and did things like order the Time Life series of books called “The Gunfighters” in his name. I was too immature and self-centered to realize he needed some counseling. I was actually the closest thing he had to a friend, but did not realize it at the time.

My other roommate began to do a bit of buying and selling drugs. He’d borrow a car and travel somewhere out-of-state and purchase a pound of marijuana, put it in the trunk, then bring it back and sell it to his friends, so he could have his pot for free. He began taking more trips. After the first year, I heard he had started selling additional kinds of drugs and operated on a bigger scale. He planned on being a doctor like his father, but his arrest, as a part of a large federal sting operation, ended his medical career.

I do not know where Jim is today. I saw him a few times after I transferred out. He introduced me to the science fiction author, Philip K Dick, back before PKD became a cult figure. I subsequently purchased everything PKD published in his lifetime. I wish I had bought more first editions back then, since several of the first editions are worth more than a thousand dollars. Jim also turned me on to philosophy. I took a philosophy class at Miami where the readings were popular books, like Carlos Castaneda’s “A Separate Reality.” I had no idea that people talked about reality, perception and drugs in school. Jim and I both loved listening to Frank Zappa albums like “We’re Only in it for the Money.” This album has a cover that parodies The Beatles “Sergeant Pepper.” Funny. Jim and I probably recited some of these lyrics as often as Bill played the drippy love songs. Monty Python was another thing Jim introduced me to. It took me a while to appreciate the humor, but I soon became hooked. Jim exposed me to a great deal of Counterculture stuff. The sixties were not quite dead by the mid-seventies. Some of us wished we were born ten years sooner. But, no offense, at least we weren’t born ten years later and coming of age in the 80’s.

In the eyes of an eighteen-year-old, away from home for the first time, everything was new. New people to meet. A new home. A university with ivory towers. The college town of Oxford, Ohio. What they called 3.2 beer. New authority figures. Being away from home, on one’s own, and responsible for one’s actions, produced a mixture of excitement, stress, and loneliness, I rarely experienced since.

While Jim and I drank a bit too much, or at least I did, and we did some juvenile things, or at least I did, we both kept focused on doing well academically. We took some of the same classes. We read the textbooks, kept up on the assignments and often studied together or shared notes when we missed a class here or there. I made the dean’s list. That was a bit more of a challenge back then than it is today, due to grade inflation. We broadened our horizons a bit, exploring new things and ideas, but we didn’t know enough to develop goals for ourselves. I think he made me a bit more nerdy and I made him a bit less nerdy, so we were probably good for each other.

The point is that it is important to choose your friends wisely. I could have hung out with my drug dealing roommate and his ROTC friends (who were constantly getting into trouble) or I could have opted for going insane and spent more time with Bill in the dorm room. Had I done either, I would be a different person today. You see, we tend to become like our friends. We adopt their values and behave like them. Our self, some sociologists like Mead argue, is composed of the reflections we get from others. The self is jointly created, so the individuals in a close-knit group learn to act like each other. Peer pressure in a way.

So, choose your friends wisely. Don’t hang out with people who value partying over school. If you do, you’ll soon be making excuses for missing class or not doing assignments. Don’t join the group of people who don’t treat others with respect. You’ll soon think you too are better than everyone else. Don’t go near the people who lie, steal or make trouble. You know why.

Instead, do your best to meet a lot of people who are not like you. In high school, people tend to hang out with the same small set of people. In college, do your best to have a wide range of varied friendships. This will help you to recreate yourself. Engage in the process by forming friendships with people you admire, so you too can develop those marvelous talents you may not have even realized you have. Be open to people and new ideas, but take care of business. Enjoy your new-found freedom, but think about the kind of future you want and who you want to become.

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