Colleen Coover

Other than cell phones, the internet, and the fact that third base now involves anal sex—not much has changed about being a teenager in the 14 years since last I was one.

You're still underserved by a culture that holds you captive even as it thrives on your disposable money and fickle taste. You're still undernourished by a public-education system that barely even knows you're alive unless you decide to kill yourself or your classmates. You're still undervalued by all the same people who keep trying to tell you how special you are, and how each day is a magical gift from the deity of your choosing (let's call him Jesus). Most importantly of all, you're still young and full of promise. And like everything that is good and beautiful, this, too, will soon pass.

Welcome to college, where nothing gold can stay—now more than ever!

It's tempting to end this essay right there, if only to allow the truly devout among you a less painful tattoo experience when you inevitably carve these sage words onto your fine, soft flesh. But no such luck. This is The Stranger's Back to School issue, where you, this year's crop of strapping young college entrants, will be given a truckload of the thing you want least in this world: advice and more advice.

And not just any advice.

The collected wisdom in this issue is dispensed by writers and editors in varying states of decrepitude (moral, physical, chemical, social) who have achieved exactly enough status in life that we get to hold forth once a year to a bunch of snot-noses like you about the pleasures and dangers of sex, drugs, miscegenation, and the many other delights of life in this mirthless city. We are united not by our opinions about how you should live your lives—as you'll see, there's a wealth of perspectives represented in these pages (from liberal outrage to homosexual liberal outrage, and damn near everything in between)—but by our conviction that you should have access to a multiplicity of voices before you decide how your life is going to look. We're just telling you what we know to be true. Whether you accept it or not is up to you.

Spoiler alert: You're going to be hearing that a lot.

One thing is certain about the step you've just taken into adulthood: You're going to be making decisions, a lot of decisions, all the time, about every little thing: what you eat, what you wear, what you major in, who you know, what you think, what you say, how late you stay up, how you treat your body, how you treat other people's bodies, and so forth.

Your parents used to make these decisions for you, and in some cases, they still do. By going to college, you begin the process of weaning yourself from their decisions, and of living with your own. These decisions will affect you in tiny ways and in massive life-altering ways. Sometimes the effects will seem tiny and become massive. Sometimes just the opposite will be true. You won't know. You can't know. And if you think you know, you're bound to be wrong. There's joy in this confusion, but there's a lot more sorrow. Or maybe that's just how I decide to see it.

You could decide, for example, to stop reading right now. Go back to the home page, click another link. There's nothing here that you can't learn on your own given 5 or 10 years of solid experience, and besides, you know you'd rather be looking at porn. That's a decision you can make, too. If you believe certain people, you'd be promoting the subjugation of women by making the decision to look at that porn (no one believes that male porn models are victims, obviously, so if that's the porn you like, feel free to skip the next few lines). According to others, that decision would simply represent the indulgence of a fundamental human hunger. Still others would think you a total fag for even hesitating. Every decision you make, however insignificant, involves several others. The trick is figuring out whose voices to consider before you make it.

Why consider ours? Because you're feeling the first real leash slack you've ever felt. Some find this exhilarating; some find it terrifying. While you may still be reporting to your mom and dad, taking their money, wearing the clothes they bought you—the truth is, you're in charge now, and going to them for advice will make you appear and become weak. Nevertheless, at 18 you probably know about as much as we did at 18—which is to say, not much at all—and you do need advice.

A prediction: In the months ahead, you're likely to become insufferably arrogant. You're likely to develop drug problems. You're likely to adopt and renounce all manner of belief systems—either in direct opposition to, or in surprising connection with your parents'. You might become political. You might become apolitical. You might come to believe that those two things are essentially the same. You might come to believe that people who believe those two things to be essentially the same are worse than those who believe either of the original two things in the first place.

Each of these is a decision you get to make. It may originate as a passionate impulse, but the step beyond the passionate impulse, the day after the amazing up-all-night-on-hallucinogens epiphany, that is a decision. (So is the night of hallucinogens, for that matter, but we'll let Dominic Holden tell you about drugs on page 109.) And all these decisions have consequences. And though these consequences may affect others, no one owns them but you. Even though you may feel like you're living a rough draft of your life, never forget that the decisions you make today have the power to shape who you are 5, 10, 20 years down the road. Each one counts.

As opposed to what your parents, teachers, and college counselors may have told you to scare you into studying for your SATs (guess what: your score officially will never matter again), this is not a state of affairs to be scared of. It's something to run toward, not away from. You're young and flexible (I know because I've seen your MySpace pictures). Years of contradictory convictions about religion, politics, art, academia, and morality lie ahead. Before your first year of college is up, you may find yourself doing things—heroism, betrayal, heresy, prayer, bong hits, sobriety—you never imagined yourself capable of even considering. The best decision you can make is to not be afraid of making the wrong decisions. You're going to make them anyway; it's inevitable. Make them with abandon. Or don't.

It's really up to you.