Facing a World of Worlds
Unlike nearly every other member of the Class of 1999, I do not have plans for next year. I don't have a job. I have not been admitted to graduate school. I did not win a fellowship. I have purchased no plane tickets for a Grand Tour of Europe. Beginning today, I am simply unemployed.
Believe me, this is not normal for a Harvard graduate. When I reveal my lack of plans to friends and acquaintances, it is as though I've acquired a strange disease they've only heard about. "What does it feel like?" they ask. "Are you scared?" Or they take on the reassuring tone of a healthy friend offering optimistic assurance. "Don't worry. You'll be fine," they insist. "I'm sure it will all work out. You'll be okay, I know it."
Then there are those whose friends or family members have been stricken. "Oh, remember Dave from Lowell? He didn't know what he was doing at graduation and he turned out fine." Or, "My cousin didn't have a job by the time of Commencement. Now he's married and works at Goldman!" Still others don't seem to have heard of the disease. Frequently it takes several tries to explain my condition. "So you're taking time off," they insist repeatedly. "Not exactly," I say, "since it's not really time off from anything." "Oh," they respond, with a blank, lost stare.
Such non-comprehension is probably to be expected. After all, Harvard is filled with people who have been gunning for years for Harvard Med or Yale Law, who applied to 23 fellowships or who bought suits for on-campus recruiting sophomore year. While I remain fully confused, with the raw materials of my life scattered around me, they are building their little worlds. They have a job, a place to live, a new routine ready to swallow them up and spin them around a few times. They are ready to disappear into these worlds, populated by a few friends, a boss, some coworkers and a neighbor or two. The rest of the world will be at their fingertips, but they will have no real impact on anyone or anything outside their bubble. If they make waves, they will lap up against the glass that comforts and confines them.
Inside these bubbles, recent alums will spend long hours at the office or hitting the books; they'll see movies, play video games and go shopping, sleep, exercise, eat, go on dates every so often. After a few years, they will find mates, get married, have kids, leave one bubble and enter another.
I say this will happen to them and not to me; I say they are in bubbles, implying that I am not and never will be. I say this not because it is true or even possible but because it is what I still want to believe. I do not want to fall into a small corner of the universe and live out my days and nights there, always longing to transcend my narrow existence but never seeing a way out.
I have applied to jobs, been interviewed and offered positions only to pull out at the last minute in fear--fear of accepting the fact that I must choose, that I cannot be everywhere and everything. I have nothing to do next year because I am not yet willing to channel myself in a direction that will mark me, limit me and steer me forever. Yes, you can quit your job. You can go back to school. You can move to a new continent. But you cannot recover the past. You cannot ever get back on the highest diving board, clean and dry, once you jump into the pool.
Indeed, that is where we are now, each of us, on the highest diving board there is, with the world sprawled out below us. We have a Harvard diploma. We can be anything we want to be. Most of us have made the leap, but I keep waiting for inspiration to strike, waiting for a way out of accepting the need to jump at all.
I live in a state of total choice, perpetual indecision and delayed certainty. I can take a job, quit and move on. I can work for a while, go to grad school, get a job, quit and move on. I can live for the moment. I can write, read, run, drive to California and back. Yes, I will need money. Eventually I will grow tired of being on the move, mentally if not physically. I will find someone and settle down. I will have a career. I will advance in the ranks.
But for now I try to rebel. I don't want to start paying my dues, not knowing whether I will cash in. I don't want to make a self I won't want to be.
Of the several dozen columns I've written on this page in the last two years, the one which generated the most response was one last fall titled "Ready for the Real World," in which I listed all the things I was sick of at Harvard. The point was that I had been here long enough and was ready to graduate. Although some contacted me in fear that I was seriously depressed, many more said "Right on!" or "You hit the nail on the head." I suppose I tapped into a broad sense of frustration among many students, a general fatigue with Harvard life. Nonetheless, somewhere in that column I predicted that a time would come this year when my Harvard sickness would be replaced by a wave of sadness and nostalgia as the prospect of leaving approached.
Surprisingly, that sad wave never came. Between really enjoying senior spring, keeping up with classes and pursuing jobs (to little avail), there was no time to be melancholy about my last trip to Hilles, my last helping of General Wong's chicken or my last section. Indeed, eight months later, I am still sick of add-drop forms, Ma Soba, the Grille and Harvard chairs. I am still ready to leave.
But with that famed real world no longer looming in the distance, I have at last realized what I really will miss about college. While I can and will keep in touch with many of the great people I have met here, starting today I lose the only bubble I have ever really known and the only bubble I have thus far been willing to accept. Like many of the Class of 1999, I will probably enter graduate school in years to come. But we will never again be here--we will never again be simply students facing a world of worlds yet to be entered. We may be frustrated with having to choose one world, leaving others unexplored for the moment. We may be scared about going somewhere, knowing that we will never come back the same. But this fear, this frustration, this choice--having these is the greatest privilege of all.
Geoffrey C. Upton '99, a social studies concentrator in Leverett House, was editorial chair of The Crimson in 1998.