Approaching 40: Try not to breathe

My first two years in college were a kind of on-the-job training at independence. I wasn’t very focused on the actual classes in my sophomore year and my grades suffered to some extent because of that. In the summer that followed my sophomore year, however, my and two friends got an apartment just off campus. We decided to spend the summer working in the dorm cafeteria and I decided that my grades would improve the in the fall. I’d changed majors at the end of my sophomore year and would be a political science major.

Sometime early in my junior year R.E.M.’s album Automatic For the People came out. Listening to that album reminds me of the early days of my junior year, but I have a very specific memory of the song, “Try Not to Breathe.”

I spent that entire summer working hard in the cafeteria, but also trying to figure out how to become better at studying. I put what I learned to use as soon as classes started in the fall. I had a new method for taking notes, for instance. I developed a kind of short-hand for taking my notes. Each evening, I’d type all of my notes up into a file for each subject, using Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS–the single best word processor Microsoft ever managed to produce. I’d do something similar for my reading notes. When it came time to study for a test, I’d use the “index” feature in Microsoft Word to highlight keywords in the notes file and have an index of all of the keywords (in alphabetical order) generated, with a reference to the page or pages where they’d show up in the document. I’d think print out the notes, turn to the index, read a term and see if I knew what it was all about. If I didn’t, I had the page reference to my notes on the subject right there.

Whenever I hear “Try Not to Breathe” I think of studying the notes for my first political science mid-term. I believe it was a European Politics class. A friend of mine was taking the class as well (as an elective) and we studied a bit together the night before. I remember sitting at the dining room table in the apartment, working my way through my notes, with the R.E.M. album playing on the stereo in the background.

I went to class the next day and took the mid-term.

The following week, at the end of class, we got our midterms back. I thought I’d done okay, considering how much of an effort I put in, but I was a little nervous because I was essentially testing out an entirely new method of studying. The professor handed me my test: I got a perfect score.

It was the first time since starting college that I got a perfect score on any test.

You can’t imagine the confidence that filled me with. My method worked! Indeed, for the rest of my time in school, I scored mostly A’s, with a few minor exceptions, and in the very last semester of my senior year, while taking 24 units (with special permission) in order to graduate on time, I received straight A’s. And that despite working in the dorm cafeteria as well.


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