Every Thursday since last September, some local grunge-beatnik revivalists have organized an outdoor open mic near my friend Sonya’s apartment. We’ve tried to go every week, so, naturally, we’ve only been like five times. For a while, we were just too “busy.” Sonya was finishing a social work master’s, and for about a year, I’d been saying “yes” to every freelance writing assignment, right down to every random copywriting job (except one—I’ll tell you about it privately). We were both overworked and eye-strained and restless.
When the fog of school and the fickle winds of freelance demands cleared, we finally converged to spill wine on my blanket and repay all the cigarettes we’d bummed from a cheerful futurist the last time we were there. True to form, the show wasn’t ever really good, but the time was: The daring, only loosely planned event unspooled around us, holding on by the grace of fair weather and spontaneity, like a flyer taped to a telephone pole. After a very crunched, hard-working year, we eyed the grunge beatniks’ attitude with renewed admiration.
As we watched an elfin French guitarist sing a bluegrass standard in the style of Courtney Love, I whispered to Sonya, “How could we have ever missed this?” Our accomplished to-do lists, our pleased professors, our marked-as-completed everything: Enough of that for us! After spending the recent past, and, really, our whole lives as try-hards, we wanted to be bad students.
The bad students I’ve known don’t go out more… they just do nothing more. In a time-scarce culture, that’s the most rebellious thing they could do. And it’s not only that time scarcity is at an all-time high because of work and other pragmatic demands: Now that people are venturing into the world again, we’ve also collectively added a layer called “making up for lost time.” Under these conditions, adopting a worldview that is overtly lavish, careless, and easy about time feels especially daring, in a passive type of way. Our aimlessness can be something to guard fiercely.
Sonya and I, being who we are, compiled an ambitious list to help us excel at our new goal, being bad students:
– Be tardy to obligatory functions.
– Stay up late at every whim.
– Inelegantly scrape by with passing-grade quality work.
– Indulge in the lost art of hanging out, aka, long, formless hours spent together, doing whatever, without a set activity or meal to gird them.
– Maintain a fuzzy, antagonistic relationship with rules.
– Make time for extended-release drugs.
– Read a lot, but not the assigned stuff.
– Make out with our neighbors!
– Get annoyingly serious about listening to music again.
– Chase free food.
– Take long walks home.
– Never be diligent!!
– Sleep on each other’s couches.
– Adopt a more casual relationship to laundry.
– Have overly meaningful exchanges on stoops with people whose names you are on the brink of not remembering, oh there it goes, it’s gone.
– Embrace dehydration.
Sonya wants to nap more. I want to get worse at email and better at texting. Maybe I’ll just read until 4 a.m. and ruin my brain for the next day, when I have a meeting at 9:30. Maybe I’ll miss it.
When someone asks me, What do you do? or What are you working on? I want to get all awkward and be like, Ummm…
The bad student can be an exquisite lazybones. They can also futz and putz without giving any mind to measurable productivity, which I sense will be my path. I don’t have the technical skills to be in a band or write poetry, but I’ll figure out my temporal, niche, imaginative equivalent. Maybe painting? I do art forgeries on request for people’s birthdays; my automatic thought was to check if anyone has a Cezanne request for me. But no! I don’t want to worry about being good or purposeful. Maybe I’ll go abstract with my painting instead.
There are opportunities to fuck off everywhere. I say I love taking trains for the views up the Eastern Seaboard, which is true, but also, I cherish that the world doesn’t seem to interrupt me while I’m working in transit. In my previous life as a good student, I’d take a train ride to complete all my work, listening to something thinky and ambient as rivers and sailboats and inexplicable dirt piles floated past.
But the bad student wouldn’t catch up on work on Amtrak. The bad student would catch up on sleep, or not catch up at all. They’d read a weird book that they got from a grimy bookstore even though it doesn’t fit in their backpack. So that’s exactly what I did last week, and it was great. Eavesdropping was not an inconvenient assault on my concentration, but instead a delicious, if boring texture of life: Everyone had gone to a party! Sixty people in one beach house, I heard, including “a beautiful bisexual man, we love John—he wants to do straight drag.” He was actually a really good dancer! (And, if I can be helpful: I sense there was a “missed connection” regarding someone wearing a pink hat.)
The main way I have succeeded at slackerhood so far is within my new practice of getting ready to go out. I’ve started to block out (do you see how I’m still failing) a full hour to flutter around my room and try on various clothes and play music and open a second beer. Only one outfit will emerge, so it’s an experience of failure, but I couldn’t love it more. I feel like a fizzy glamourpuss, a Marlene Dietrich, a strapping young princeling, a rueful camp counselor, a nihilist in a pink satin mini-dress. A bad student, for sure.
The bad student’s relationship to work is the hardest hurdle for me to overcome, yet perhaps the defining element of their status. Not working as hard as I usually do feels… unethical? Risky? But, then, I’ve seen work I’ve done where I’ve really tried, and I’ve seen work I’ve done where I haven’t tried at all, and guess what? There’s no correlation between how much effort I put in and how much I like the work, which is both a bolstering and depressing fact.
I still fret that if I don’t clutch onto my work tightly, all my gigs will vanish. But the bad student is perhaps always at risk of expulsion, and so that is what I must do. I bet I’ll love the high of almost losing something, like the one you get when you just catch the train. I’m trying to align more with my belief that if it’s temporary, a little self-sabotage can be delicious. That to flunk out is to be free. Even if it’s just for a month. Even if I only fall asleep on Sonya’s couch once.
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