When I arrived at my college dorm in the Midwest, I was nervous. My safety net of familiar faces had been cut. I had also been told frequently that I was only one of two Californians in my dorm. It was also possible that it wasn’t nerves. It could have been the slight tipsiness I possessed from drinking a couple of quality, well aged cans of Natural Light with some people I never saw again. In any case, when the circle of introductions came around to me, I did something totally out of character. I acted. I adopted the worst Californian surfer accent possible, and threw in all of the generic surf terms I could think of. Words like “gnarly”, “dude”, “wicked”, “tubing”, “thrashing”, came out of my mouth in an ugly, heinous manner. The result was disastrous.
I received a token laugh. To call it a token laugh was charitable. It was really a sympathy laugh to get me to shut my mouth as fast as possible. What people really thought was: “That guy’s a total jackass”. I could tell they were thinking that because the rust flakes in the Natural Light had given me psychic powers. Placing my supernatural beer-boosted abilities aside, it was later confirmed that my theory was true. Several individuals told me explicitly in no kind terms that their first impression of me in that “Circle of Death” was vastly unfavorable.
Fortunately, these same individuals also told me that their first impression wasn’t entirely accurate, because I did have some redeeming qualities. However, I didn’t have the opportunity to ingratiate myself with everyone I had repulsed, which led to the misperception holding fast in people’s minds for at least a week, and in some cases, all four years of college. There was also one crucial problem about the impersonation that had escaped from my mouth. It wasn’t an impersonation.
I had been listening to myself talk for quite some time. In fact, one thing everyone could agree on was that I liked the sound of my voice. However, my constant talking had led to selective deafness to my verbal flaws. I was unaware that my dialect wasn’t quite normal English. The same individuals who befriended me also revealed to me later that I spoke Californian English all the time – such as, “he was all”, “we were all”, “all were all”. It was a dialect that they found amusing, but would make a grammarian wince. The point was simple. Since I obviously latently talked like a Californian, it made no sense to impersonate myself. In addition to being very stupid, it made me look somewhat odd, and made people seriously ponder if I had a mental disorder.
It was classic small fish syndrome. When I had graduated High School, some of my friends had gang tackled me the moment I left the stage. My super-ego liked thinking that I was a big deal. The reality was that I was no deal or a miniscule deal at best. I was basically a pup-fish, swimming around a small pool in a barren wasteland. I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know how to act. It was like the first day of kindergarten, but with bigger stakes that couldn’t be resolved by cookies and a nap. After the Circle of Death incident, I was crushed, and lagged behind everyone. I decided that once in the dorm, I was going to go straight to my room, and live out four years quietly, and hope everyone forgot about me by graduation.
Then it came at me unexpectedly.
“Hey – Last – right? I saw you on TV!” Heads turned. It was some big, burly guy. I had no idea who he was. “It was you, right?”
“Yeah…I was on TV.” I answered hesitantly. It was true. I had been on TV several times back in San Diego, as part of the local access channel which broadcast our college bowl matches.
“Nice job!” He said enthusiastically. Heads looked at me with new respect as they headed up, reassessing me, now smiling. I was now a king-sized pup-fish that had made it to the ocean by some magical confluence. The part of the conversation that my floor didn’t hear was that by a freak coincidence, the burly guy was the only other Californian, and by some oddity, had lived in my county, and even stranger, had actually watched the show that I had been on. It didn’t matter. The worries about how to act had slipped off in the current, and the dream of a scholarly existence had been replaced by a vocal and sillier thought: I was going to be popular. I was going to be the biggest pup-fish ever.