This is the way we go to school

Advice for making an impression that matters on who really matters

Illustration By Glenn Watson

Who is this guy?
Jaime O’Neill is a retired Butte College English instructor and a frequent contributor to the CN&R.

They say that you only get one chance to make a first impression, so it may have been unwise for a pretty young black student to show up on the first day of her college classes wearing a T-shirt that read “Fuck a Nigga,” or for a young frat-boy to plop down in the back row, prop his feet on the back of the chair in front of him, while proudly displaying a T-shirt bearing the immortal words of a Pink Floyd song, “We Don’t Need No Education.”

Yet another young woman sat herself in the front row, just inches away from the instructor, and proceeded to pick at imaginary insects on her forearms, delicately dropping each invisible bug to the floor, one by one, through the entire 50 minutes of class.

As it happens, that instructor was me, and I would later learn that the obsessive habit of grooming oneself to eliminate bugs that aren’t there is an activity often associated with frequent methamphetamine use. But whatever might have created the compulsion in that front-row vermin picker, it was inordinately distracting, and that distraction grew as the semester wore on until there were days when I had to restrain myself from shouting, “Stop with the picking, already!”

Teachers, if they’re much good at all, will fight to fend off forming impressions that might prejudice them against a student, but teachers are also human, and unless you are absolutely committed to making some sort of statement proclaiming your rebellion against authority and all things bourgeois, you should be prepared to pay the consequences for the tone you set with the appearance you choose.

Speaking for myself only, I’m so damn sick of baseball caps worn backward that I could spit. For a couple of decades, there were at least four or five guys who wore such caps in such a manner in every single class I taught. What those caps said to me about the young men who wore them was this: “I am a hopeless conformist, and I’m not terribly bright. I wear my cap backward because that was the fashion I inherited, and just who am I to question it?”

Now it goes without saying that over those decades of meeting so many students who wore caps backward that there were a few of those guys who overcame my initial poor judgment and who showed themselves to be as intelligent and as sensitive as any students I ever had. But more than a few lived up to the stereotype they were setting up for themselves.

In any case, though it’s an old-fashioned thought, the idea of wearing a cap or a hat indoors still carries, for some teachers, an air of disrespect for the enterprise you are engaging in with them. In this instance, it would probably be better to err on the side of caution and attend that first day of class bareheaded.

And it’s probably also a good idea to avoid wearing clothing bearing a blatant vulgarity of any sort. Sure, I know; it’s a free country, and in these rather loose days, no one is likely to tell you much of anything is inappropriate but, since you don’t know the taste nor the temperament of the three or four teachers you’re going to be meeting on this first day of class, it might be best not to run the risk of setting up a negative image of yourself in their minds.

Over the long haul, it could affect your grade if, for instance, you end up on one of those narrow divides between a B- and a C+, and though your instructor may never realize why it happened, that T-shirt you wore on day one might have nudged you over into C territory. Was the thought behind that “I’m Hot and I’m Horny” T-shirt really worth a whole damn letter grade? I report; you decide.

Though I’m an old guy now, I haven’t forgotten that their profs are often the last people students are thinking about impressing on the first day of class. Rather, they want to style themselves in a way likely to earn positive recognition from their peers.

That’s why so many instructors find their focus distracted by young women in low-cut blouses and midriff-baring shorts. The Britney and Mariah Carey bimbo look was big during my last few years as a teacher, and though it produced some eye-pleasing spectacles, it’s doubtful that very many teachers were inclined to take the young women who affected the bimbo look more seriously as students or budding intellects.

I suspect there are somewhat more experienced students who might read this and think, “Oh yeah, well, what about the way the profs dress for class?” I will admit that more than a few teachers show up for class in ways many people would agree are inappropriate, or whose attire and grooming set entirely the wrong tone.

I taught with guys who wore flip-flops, baggy shorts and T-shirts, affecting a hip-hop look well into their early 50s in pathetic attempts to identify with their young charges. And I knew other teachers who hadn’t gotten the memo that the ‘60s ended nearly a half-century ago.

But here’s a lesson that will apply long after you’ve left college.

The instructors who present themselves like genteel bohemians, or take on the look of someone recently homeless, do not depend upon you for a grade or a paycheck.

You, on the other hand, are engaged in the great American pursuit of a GPA, and that slob at the podium has it in his or her power to make your pursuit more difficult. You, on the other hand, won’t have such power until or unless you jump through a whole series of hoops that slob at the podium or behind the desk has already jumped through.

Is it fair? Nope.

Is it real? Yep.

That’s lesson one from day one.