As T. S. Eliot might have said, it’s that time again—April, the cruelest month for high school seniors, breeding college admissions out of dormant applications, mixing longing and aspiration, stirring anxiety with judgments from on high. A first love with a perfect quadrangle rejects, an inviting suitor plays coy with a waitlist, and an underrated wallflower beckons “choose me, choose me!” Hearts are broken, dreams rent into pieces. The Paths That Will Not Be Taken calcify into stone for all time.
It all seems to matter so terribly much.
And yet it doesn’t matter, not really, or at least far less than you might think.
What does matter, dear senior—oh so critically—is your attitude. What matters is whatever you do next year, and wherever you do it, you develop (or reinforce) a lifelong habit of learning and growth. Perhaps you realize a bad attitude can render even Harvard a useless experience. What you may not be so sure of is that a good one can transform even a transitional year at community college into a work of living art.
Life is strange. It surprises, weaves and darts. It throws us curve balls, pushes us in directions we are sure we don’t want to go. It disappoints us, crushes us, picks us up by our heels and shakes us mercilessly until we cry uncle. Until we are ready to open our eyes and see that what it’s offering us might be exactly what we need for our growth, albeit in ever so strange a way.
Some of you may not like what life is offering you right now. Some of you may downright resent it. You’ve worked hard, you say (and you have!); you deserve more. Many of you may have financial constraints that harshly limit your choices. It’s easy to be bitter about a supposedly meritocratic system that gives advantage to those with more money. It’s easy to be angry at an institution that says, with little camouflage, “You’re not good enough for us.” Most damaging of all, perhaps, is when the decisions do go your way, when elation whispers like a cunning Iago, “You are now one of the select. Your future will unfurl before you in swirls of effortless glory.” All of these responses are traps.
Let’s be clear: The college you attend does not define your worth as a human being. (Nor do a few three and four digit numbers sum up your ability, your potential, or even say much about the inner workings of your mind.) Truly. Even if there weren’t wild amounts of randomness and luck involved in college admissions, even if your parents’ income and background didn’t matter, even if a test existed that could somehow measure the depth of your soul, the loving nature of your heart, the soaring possibilities of your spirit, there would still be no way in twenty minutes (the time admissions personnel may spend on your application if you’re lucky) that your value to the world could be evaluated. Not possible. Toss the very notion from your head.
Nor does the college you attend predict what you can do or achieve in life. You can learn new skills, find talented teachers, and encounter kindred spirits anywhere (although these teachers and kindred spirits may look different than you expect and hence be hard to recognize.) In addition, in the US, with the right effort and attitude, almost any college can be a springboard to another. Take advantage of this if it makes sense for you (but never out of bitterness or scorn.)
College is not a reward for hard work, nor is it a perfunctory ticket to be punched on the way to a job. College is an opportunity, one that you may put to good use or squander. It is also an investment. This country collectively pours enormous resources into its tertiary education system not because we want to create a playground for you to twiddle away your next four years, but because what you can learn, do, and become during your time at college—both in the classroom and outside of it—is vital to our long-term welfare as a nation. (A note: even though education is valuable, be judicious about the loans you take on. Debt has consequences.)
What is important about the next four years is not which school you go to, how famous your professors are, what books you read, or what facts you memorize. It is not your major, your degree, how much money you will earn after you graduate, which renowned diploma will or will not imbue your life with its ineffable prestige. What is important is your growth and exploration as you become the person you are meant to be.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are large (very large) (even formidable) problems looming ahead. Many, I’m sad to say, were created by my generation and the one before it—or at least these problems weren’t addressed and were allowed to snowball into enormous size. Through no fault of your own, the bills are coming due, someone has turned off the party music, bad smells waft from the bathroom, and the lights are flickering ominously. I am deeply sorry about this. However, since my generation is fast fading from usefulness, yours will inevitably be the one obliged to grapple with the aftermath as best you can. Much will be called for, including your focus, your passion, your commitment. The world will need your energy, your tenacity, your ingenuity; it will demand your compassion, your courage, your strength. And you will need all sorts of skills and knowledge, some that may not even have been invented or discovered yet.
Luckily skills and knowledge can be gained many places from many sources. In fact, life may surprise you with just who your best teachers turn out to be. Because the world is wide, varied, and rapidly changing, your years at college will at best only give you a sample of the larger whole. There can be no resting on laurels. Having lived half a century, I can say three-fourths of what I know I learned after I left academia behind. The good news is that learning keeps you energetic and interested in life. The good news is that huge problems offer huge opportunities. It is possible the challenges ahead will draw from you and your cohorts creativity and camaraderie that will be absolutely exhilarating.
We are all interconnected. All of us who have come before you need you to hold up your share of the sky. For all our faults and failures, we have also held up our share and know both the joy and the burden that await you. I don’t profess to know what your life’s purpose is—it’s a seed inside you that you must feed and nurture and then see what blossom results. Who knows? You might turn out to engineer low-cost water purification systems for African villages. You may design urban parks that create oases of serenity as well as provide a third of a neighborhood’s food supply. You might be a teacher who can convey the beauty and usefulness of math, or a social worker who helps broken people heal enough to beat their drug addiction. You may do a stint as an endlessly patient and loving stay-at-home mom or dad. You may end up a politician more concerned with the well-being of your constituency than your campaign contributions who guides your community through useful and intelligent change. You may even be a sci-fi short story writer who is also a heck of a shoe repairer so that you both stimulate the collective imagination and ensure your community stays fit and mobile in well-maintained footwear.
Whatever path you choose, as long as your integrity, commitment and energy are high, the outcome will be valuable and significant. Yes, in the large scheme of things, the college you go to is of little consequence. But you, dear senior, are very important. Though it may seem incomprehensible right now, what you do with your education and your life matters to each and every person on this planet. Your very existence gives hope to those of us who’ve come before you. We await your contribution. Don’t waste a moment. Go forth, seniors of 2012, and shine.