How I Became An Alcoholic And Failed Out Of Dartmouth College

Dartmouth College is an elite school with a beloved fraternity culture, which has contributed to the failure, arrest, suspension, or expulsion of countless students. The following candid account is excerpted from a new Dartmouth memoir called “Three For Ship” by Crispus Knight from the class of 2003:

I make no excuses, nor can I adequately explain what happened. The truth of the matter is that I failed out of college. I ask myself how and why this happened over and over. The question still keeps me up at night. A young man who scored in the 98th percentile on his college entrance examination boards with no Kaplan classes or even serious prep work beyond a few home administered practice tests. A student enrolled in all honours and AP classes who finished with near a 100% weighted average. A national merit scholar and AP artist who had never been drunk or done drugs of any sort right up through his senior year of high school. This is your college flunk-out protagonist.

While my experience was not at all typical of students at Dartmouth, the lifestyle I describe is common enough on campus. Not everyone was a Ship Professional [someone obsessed with a certain type of beer pong], but there were plenty of panarchists, shitbergs, gatesmen, hardguys and other disaffected students who adopted lifestyles that led them to flirt or fuck with failure. Perhaps mine is an extreme case, I’m willing to admit that. Not everyone feels compelled to write a Beer Pong themed memoir. Perhaps we should say that despite honest efforts by smart minds, some students will unavoidably fall through the cracks and that I am an example of that and nothing more.

The fraternity is the obvious scapegoat in my story, and certainly the person I became was largely influenced by my environment and the people I surrounded myself with. Balls [Knight’s fraternity nickname and alter ego] was the product of the Dartmouth fraternity system but it remains unclear how much responsibility my fraternity specifically has for the emergence of this usurper. Would this have been my fate if I pledged another organisation? I have to say I think so. The truth is that I allowed this to happen to me and it could have been anywhere. For this reason I can’t place one iota of blame on my fraternity or the brothers in the house while I was enrolled or the Greek culture in general that was so pervasive at the school. I just wasn’t ready for it and as a result, I abused the house — the house didn’t abuse me. My story was sad, yes. Sad and clearly my fault.

Chi gam dartmouth keystonethreeforship.comIt happened at Chi Gam.

The hardcore drinking and games that went along with it that eventually did me in were an inevitable conclusion given Dartmouth’s isolation, history, and almost complete lack of other social outlets. With the existence of the CFS [Coed, Fraternity, and Sorority] houses there was a well-developed delivery system in place that could supply an unlimited amount of beer to the campus in a setting perfectly conducive to social interaction. With Beer Pong we had a highly accessible, campus wide game that was competitive, social and athletic but which invariably lent itself naturally to binge drinking. Then there was the pride of our drinking tradition — a sense that we all had to faithfully carry this torch to earn the distinction of becoming a “real Dartmouth student” — an accession to adulthood by way of a specific brand of debauchery we called “raging”. These factors combined in such a way that Dartmouth without Greek organisations and excessive drinking seems unfathomable. We were smart kids, smart kids forced to learn to love to drink. And the vast majority went on to successful lives. Were they the ones who let me down? No, at various points my friends as well as the organisation had all tried to help me. But a clown continues to paint his own face, even when all the other freaks think his act has gotten out of hand

The CFS system at Dartmouth will not vanish for a good many years, if ever. Alumni support is strong, and the frats themselves hold too many bargaining chips for the system to be dissolved outright. Ask the average student, male or female, and a healthy majority will tell you that they support the idea of a CFS system at Dartmouth. The alumni will tell you the same, though the specifics of what that idea entails may vary. We want the CFS system to be better but we don’t want it to disappear.

I do think there is a mental health issue on college campuses that needs to be addressed. Why are so many students seemingly so willing to suddenly disengage from the larger world around them? You will find a Balls or two in almost every class of pledges in every fraternity on campus. Some made it through, others such as myself didn’t. Is it ok to ignore these often troubled kids? Perhaps these Greek Organisations are a unique portal to access this at-risk student population on campus. Administrations and student leaders can and should do more to provide support to these students. Often these dangerous behaviours are hidden within the context of a general sense of group chaos and can be difficult to identify but would exist on campus, fraternities or not. A specially appointed Greek mental health counselor is one idea I’ve tossed around in my head whereby the administration could help fraternities identify kids who may be suffering from mental illness to provide resources for that student. Parents, usually footing the bill for this whole operation, can and should be involved if necessary. What I think I personally needed most of all was a sign, any sign really, that somebody out there cared enough about me and what I was doing to myself to talk to me about it with a real understanding of the complexities I faced in my everyday life.

At the end of the day the decisions I made were mine alone. The result of my continued infatuation with a fucking drinking game. There was a fire burning deep inside me, a very real feeling that Ship itself was a sacred ritual and that my thirst to be running table was not only natural but something that should be continuously cultivated. Nothing purer has ever existed for me. Even 10 years later, as I sit here putting the final touches on this swan song to Beer-Pong, my nostalgia for Ship has not abated in the slightest.

Beer pong ship collegethreeforship.comShip is one variation of beer pong (with a paddle) played at Dartmouth College.

The Chi-Gam legend of Balls existed for years after my departure and I think this has something to do with the fact that some part of everyone wanted to be Balls, and there was a sense that what I was doing was foolish and courageous at the same time. Sometimes it seemed that the only thing keeping my peers from sinking to my level was an evolutionary survival instinct. Both an internal and external expectation that you could and would at all costs maintain the persona of someone who had his shit together. I seem to lack this predisposition and suspect that I am not at all alone in this. Balls created himself using the raw materials of Hanover and nobody, especially not me, saw the transformation in time to save him.
My story resembles that of a Stockholm victim. The Pong lifestyle came naturally to me, and I mean the whole wonderful idea of it — the aesthetic principles of the game, its sacred rituals, and intense drinking requirements; the late night binges, missed classes, punishing drunken aftermath and obligatory hangovers — all set against an outlandish academic backdrop. It made sense in some twisted way that by assuming this character of “Balls” in the basement of a Dartmouth fraternity each evening, I was accomplishing something much more meaningful than was perceptible, some substantive life-value that few others could ever pursue. I had an opportunity to try to become the very best at something. A truly elite Pong warrior and the most degenerate kid you’ve ever met. And all I had to give up in the process was the thing in life which I should have held most dear, my bright future. Balls I now know has always been inside of me and this has been our goal from the beginning. To out- best the Dartmouth kids at what they did worst. This was my fantasy and it had to be believed in totality to continue to perpetrate what amounts to an ongoing charade. A travesty unfolding on a Pong table, hidden from view behind a vainglorious curtain, which had been lifted to reveal nothing more than a scared little boy who had lost the ability and will to engage the outside world in any meaningful way.

As I prepared to leave Dartmouth, I was a broken man.

Editor’s note: Six months after being separated from Dartmouth, Crispus Knight appealed his expulsion directly to the Dean of the College, citing the “extenuating circumstances” that he had failed to present to the academic committee who had overseen his first appeal. The decision was reversed and Knight was cleared to enroll in classes the following term. Following the winter of 2005, seven years after first being accepted into the school, Chris Knight left Dartmouth College for good — a degree in hand.

This excerpt was taken with permission from “Three For Ship” by Crispus Knight.

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