There’s that saying “if you tell a child not to do something, the more likely it is that they’ll end up doing it.” I’ve found this to remain true throughout most of my adolescence and young adulthood. Luckily, I got most of my mischief out in high school and wasn’t caught in the wave of belligerence that most college freshmen get swept up in during their first taste of freedom outside of their parents’ iron grip. Though my sloppy drinking in high school prompted some very uncomfortable pseudo-interventions with my parents, in retrospect I’m glad that I learned about it through trial and error instead of through my college orientation’s online module about alcohol.
It was a video-based program that we had to watch on our own time, as long as we completed it by the end of orientation weekend. The deadline was spoken about with such severity that I imagined the consequences to be in the caliber of dorm arrest, regular breathalyzing, or expulsion on the grounds of probable cause for dangerous behavior. When we finished, we got a little certificate to print out to congratulate us on our pledge of self restraint– and it probably gave the university plausible deniability in the case that we got fifteen shots one night and burned down a bar to cope with a failed Organic Chemistry exam. Printing cost twenty five cents a page in the library.
I won’t try to explain statistics about blood alcohol levels and calories metabolized per hour because frankly, I don’t remember any of it. I retained only one of its talking points, the rule of thumb it claimed would allow me to make it through any night unscathed and out of the backseat of a campus security vehicle: “Keep yourself to one drink per hour.” As a college freshman, that was not something I was willing to do. Limits like that are for people who drink for the taste of alcohol. I don’t yet have the sadomasochistic tongue of a scotch sipper.
“One drink” is quantified as containing roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol. This equals out to around twelve ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or a shot. A video voiceover rattled off this fact, punctuated with a “And more than one of these per hour would be pretty expensive!” To me, that translated to “Opt for a Four Loko.”
And go loko I did, in the toilets of dorm rooms and the sidewalks outside of house parties. And though it occurred to me to stop, or even ease back, I didn’t because the sober alternative seemed infinitely worse. The students who drank would spiral out of control occasionally in the pre taped scenarios, sure. But their foils: the sober nags, had a constant high-and-mightiness that made them off-putting. They couldn’t just be sober. They lectured, and taught, and therapized their friends in distress during each after school special, and in the end they were the ones that got ridiculed when we unpacked the lessons over dining hall dinner. “God, who actually talks like that?” “If you call me an alcoholic like that I will never speak to you again,” “His glasses are ugly.” There’s something in there about teenage insecurity and group thought. I don’t care to unpack it.
All of this didn’t stop me from drinking irresponsibly, nor did it stop other students given how often I found vomit in my dorm shower (it was only twice, but that’s still too many times for my liking). And I would hazard a guess that the drinking module played a role in that– it certainly didn’t do anything to mitigate the weekly MTV Spring Break that would commence with the last class of the day on Thursday afternoons.
Is the answer to just let students do as they do and send them out into the world of bouncers who won’t look too closely at their fake IDs? Probably not. But it could stand to be a little bit more grounded in the reality of what a college party is actually like. Give me a grizzled campus security officer that starts his speech with “Listen here you little shits…””
I drink significantly less than I did freshman year, as will naturally happen when you move off campus and away from the dorm parties. But drinking is an inescapable part of college life for most. I’m no stranger to the image of the panicked youngster next to their blacked-out friend on the sidewalk while they take a finger-wagging from public safety (not doing much to stop the open head wound or the concussion setting in). Preaching isn’t the way to avoid the consequences of underage drinking. There’s an analogy in there about crime and punishment, but I don’t care to unpack it.
So let them make their mistakes, show them the most trippable curbs, and keep them safe in a way that ensures they end up walking across the stage for graduation to receive their degree. Their drinking will calm down by junior year. There’s only so many blackouts you can take before the smell of tequila makes you gag.