no pomp due to circumstance

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

To the second-semester senior who has been unceremoniously dispatched home by the coronavirus, just when you were about to depart on your victory lap:

I often think back fondly on the final weeks of my time at Vassar as the only time in my life when I both truly gave no fucks and was old enough to say “fuck.” I was done with auditions and done with room draw and done with fooling anybody — including myself — into thinking that I was chill. I had made peace with my B average. I’d started eating again after months of mostly not. It was an enchanted and rowdy six weeks during which I made precious, wild memories, did a lot of stupid things expressly so that I’d never regret not having done them, and played at being someone I’d never been before and would never be again.

In retrospect, it was only semantics that made me feel free; things would quickly become just as consequential as they’d been and I sank back into my natural state of being (neurotic and pathologically rule-abiding).

I was very hungover and absolutely not wearing that hood properly.

I hope all of you who have been unexpectedly put adrift can find that sense of freedom within yourselves even without the Senior Week booze cruise and nearly garroting yourself trying to put on your graduation hood. Here are a few things that you might keep in mind, especially as the unexpected time alone (perhaps in a place that you always thought of yourself as escaping) might be sending you into a tailspin:

  1. When great isn’t in reach, good enough will do. This isn’t to say you’re perfect as you are — you absolutely need to be washing your bedsheets more often than you do — but rather that you don’t need to regret having failed to peak during college. I never found my footing in college and by the end of senior year had made peace with my B average and haphazard curriculum. This period of quietude may be a good time to think about what it is that you actually like so you can look for it as you build your career. (I liked writing and persuasion. I started out selling shoes and freelance SEO blogging and later landed a job as a proposal writer. The people hiring me cared that I could write, not about my thesis or whether the classes I took added up to a coherent curriculum.)
  2. The operative phrase is “good enough.” Don’t totally check out (I say, having taught myself to bake bread yesterday while I was nominally working from home). A B average doesn’t maintain itself. Perhaps it will be easier to be productive from your childhood bedroom, where nobody is stopping by to offer you homemade Skittles-infused vodka (an offer you should always decline, as long as I’m imparting my most valuable lessons learned during undergrad). Consider limiting your use of social media to after nine P.M., like I did with Facebook after I graduated so I could force myself through the grind of applying for jobs that didn’t involve touching children’s feet for a living. (Yes, Facebook. Yes, during my spare time I also enjoyed calculations on the abacus and milling flour by hand.)
  3. You aren’t written in stone. Just because you’ve never done something before doesn’t mean you can’t do it now. Just because you do something now doesn’t mean you ever have to do it again. As it turns out, this has always been true and will always be true; it’s just easier to see when you give no fucks. (Oh, and just because you’ve never done something before doesn’t mean you have to do it now, either. I repeat: Decline the offer of Skittles-infused vodka.) There may be few opportunities to try on a new identity while you’re social-distancing, but idk, don’t millennials mostly live online now, anyone? Post a SoundCloud or whatever. A tock-tock. And when the global pandemic subsides, go kiss somebody unsuitable.
  4. One phase of your friendships is ending, but an even better one is beginning. During the weeks leading up to graduation, I gave myself heartburn trying to commemorate and lock down my friendships before I returned to my hometown on the other side of the country from where everyone else was settling. This wasn’t the only reason I staged an awards night for my friends that I called Phi Beta Krappa where we presented one another with awards that were decidedly un-academic, but it was part of it (mostly I was just obnoxiously declaring my lack of fucks given over not making actual Phi Beta Kappa). On the other end of the spectrum, one of my four best friends with whom I lived during our senior year Irish-exited campus during our post-ceremony party while everyone’s families were eating sandwiches on the lawn and I didn’t see her again until the following February, and we’re all still friends. In fact, I just messaged our WhatsApp group to see whether anyone remembered their Phi Beta Krappa award (that’s a no. Some things are too precious to last). Nobody forgot anyone else. We remember one another so well, in fact, that it’s something of a liability at weddings when we’ve had too much champagne and want to regale one another’s loved ones with our favorite stories from undergrad. We’ve now been out of school for longer than we were there, and the memories we’ve made since are even more indelible (mostly because we actually remember them), from the terrible bars of our early twenties to the terrible dates of our mid-twenties to the terrible jobs of our late twenties and now into our thirties, which were going great until… now. There are friends you’re stuck with and that’s foreordained. No early dismissal from campus can get in the way of the awful and embarrassing toast that they’re going to give at your wedding a decade from now.

Above all — know that a polyester gown and a few bad speeches were never going to give you the closure you needed. This transition was always going to be brutal, and I feel deeply for everyone for whom it’s infinitely worse than it was meant to be.

I can’t pretend that I felt as lost and disoriented as the 21-year-olds around the world who just got drop-kicked out of senior year, but I certainly didn’t feel like I was done, ready, prepared, equipped, or complete in any way that I expected to be when I left school. I felt like a failure, like I’d squandered my college experience, and deeply lonely without friends living on the other side of my bedroom wall, and I can only imagine what it’s like to feel all of that and to be battling suburban hoarders for the last of the toilet paper to boot.

So, if it helps at all, here’s a spoiler: You’re not a failure, you didn’t squander your college experience, and it’s actually more fun to be friends with people when you don’t share a bathroom. Graduation ceremonies are boring, booze cruises are overrated, and you already have within you the power to give no fucks. Channel it, and be grateful that you don’t have to embarrass yourself trying to put on that godforsaken graduation hood in front of every boy you imprudently made out with between freshman year and now.

P.S. For many students, campus closing is more than an emotional burden — it’s a significant and possibly insurmountable financial one as well. Fellow Vassar alumni with the means to support students in need can donate to the Vassar Student Support Fund, and I encourage alumni from other colleges to see whether their alma maters are doing something similar.

freshman disorientation

Nothing prepared me for the first time that I tried to walk from one building on Vassar’s campus to another alone. It was before smartphones or even the proper signage that the fire department recently forced the college to install. I was hell-bent on finding my own way, no way was I going to ask anyone for directions, never mind that I was so obviously a tourist that I might as well have been wearing a fanny pack. (I was, after all, wearing a lanyard. At the time, it felt sophisticated. I was eighteen! A college woman! I drank vodka! Out of Nalgenes, and it was raspberry-flavored, but still.)

I don’t remember how I managed to get from the lawn outside Josselyn House to Main Building. I assume it involved a map, although that’s one of several details from my first months in college that I’ve excised from my memory on the basis that I was way too cool to do something as lame as look at a map while wearing a lanyard. Similarly, I never threw up in public, and that series of photos that keeps cropping up in this week’s “On This Day” where I am wearing what looks like the entire Old Navy clearance rack in at least one size too small is obviously Photoshopped.

What I do remember is that that was when I realized that from that moment on, it was up to me—for the first time in my life—to figure out what to do next. Driving was like this too, to a degree; nobody puts 20,000 miles on a car in Las Vegas without finding themselves on the wrong Durango (am I right, Las Vegans?). But that was only ever temporary. I’d pull over and study my MapQuest printout, maybe cry a little bit, but I was always on my way home eventually.

And the next morning, even if I ignored my alarm, my mother would be there to drag me out of bed and to school, where I went to the classes that I had selected from a diverse menu that offered things like A.P. English, Honors English, and English where they’re going to assign To Kill a Mockingbird for the fourth year in a row in the valiant hope that someone will read it and encourage the rest of the future valets of America not to vote for Trump. I would eat crackers with peanut butter for lunch and I would do my calculus homework. I would date the boy who sat next to me in biology class, and then we would break up and I would write poetry about his Converse sneakers, and then I would date his friend, and then I would date his other friend, and then I would have run through all of the straight men who weren’t being assigned To Kill a Mockingbird for the fourth time in a row. It had all been laid out for me.

So there I was, eighteen years old, realizing that not only did I need to figure out which of the seventeen sidewalks in front of me led to the building where I could sign up to audition for a cappella (I got rejected) but I also needed to downselect from approximately one billion classes to five and figure out which of the oodles of straight boys who lived on my hallway was the right one to stick my skintight Old Navy tank top-clad chest at. My map, needless to say, did not provide me with the information that I needed to choose wisely. (Particularly for that red herring of a last question, whose obvious answer is “don’t shit where you eat,” or more properly, “don’t shit where you all use the same gender-neutral bathroom.”)

But it was thrilling. I was kept on a short leash as a kid. I went to college 3,000 miles away to sever that leash as completely as I could. I was free for the first time to chart my own path not just across the maze of sidewalks—seriously, did Vassar design the residential quad intentionally to fuck with freshmen’s heads or is that some kind of midcentury landscape architectural feature that I missed out because I never took Art History 105-106?—but to draw, from among thousands of possibilities, what my future looked like. I had done what I’d been told to do up until then, smart kid, take A.P. English and don’t go to parties and don’t, God forbid, try to pursue a career as something that doesn’t involve a steady paycheck.

I was free, now, at last, to take my map and my lanyard and find out who I was supposed to be. (Naturally, the first answers I found to that question were things like “a person who sleeps through 9 A.M. Italian” and “someone who gained the freshman fifteen because she ate grilled cheese for every meal.”)

The sensation was powerful. I’ve spent my adult life chasing it back down.

I moved every year for the first four years and then finally I stopped, and then I started traveling for work last year. Trying to order a coffee in Fitzrovia in London was the closest I’ve felt to being an eighteen-year-old with a lanyard around her neck and the world at her feet, so I kept going. A hundred thousand miles later, I suspect that that might be the last time I get to feel that way. After London and Wellington and Toulouse and Sydney and Melbourne I know now that there are a lot of things that are possible, like the world’s best grilled cheese sandwich or that you can be a person whose commute is riding a ferry past the Sydney Opera House every morning.

But I also know that possibilities are not unlimited. By the end of my fourth year at Vassar, I could have crossed that maze of sidewalks with my eyes closed, and I had lost any illusions that just leaving Las Vegas would turn me into someone worldly. The forehead in the Global Entry kiosk photo is the same forehead that left Newark five or ten or fifteen days prior. (As an aside, someone should let Customs and Border Patrol know that they should have considered the full of range of adult heights when they were ordering those kiosks. Maybe if they ever review my file and realize that it’s just a gallery of pictures of the top of my head, they’ll put in for replacements.) I have changed more walking six blocks down Second Avenue, the length of time it takes to get in an argument that puts the wheels in motion for disaster five months later, than I have flying 15,000 miles around the world.

It’s not the setting that transforms me, in short. What in retrospect turn out to be the precipices off which I’ve fallen into new states of being are less exciting than the ones I would imagine them to be. It wasn’t the guy I “met cute” at a bar in a snowstorm whose medicine cabinet now holds a shelf of my things; it was the one I’d known for a year prior. Going to college 3,000 miles away didn’t turn me into the person I suspected I might be; auditioning for the spring musical there did. The world has always been at my feet, regardless of where those feet are situated. (And I still can’t find my way without a map, although at least now I can at least pretend that I’m texting while walking instead of bumbling around like Clark Griswold.)

In June, I went to my five-year reunion. Crossing campus was disorienting—it wasn’t quite like riding a bike, not after five years that I’ve spent learning to navigate so many different cities. My mind only has so much room, and most of it is filled with things like the names of every member of the Kardashian family. I felt a little frisson of remembering what it was like to be younger, to have illusions of what the world was going to be like now that I got to decide whether or not I woke up for class and what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I got lost more than once that weekend. I guess that a place that I once knew like the back of my hand can still surprise me.