Should be Doing...

Great expectations at the local movie house

BERNARDSVILLE, N.J.—“Shouldn’t you be working in the governor’s office or something like that?” Such was the question posed to me as I stood behind the concession counter at my local movie theater folding kid’s combo trays. My inquisitor was the father of a friend from grade school. My response was some glib remark about the governor not paying interns, a comment somewhat ironic in that ticket-taker-cum-popcorn-popper is certainly not the most high-paying job I could have obtained for summer employment.

Despite my flippant manner, however, this question has been nagging me since classes ended: What am I supposed to be doing during the summer? Clearly, I know all too well that adult acquaintances expect more from me. Every Harvard undergraduate, every top student, invariably feels the burden of expectations: Mediocrity is unacceptable.

Yet, I’m not the only overqualified employee at the theater. One of my colleagues attends NYU. Another goes to Dartmouth. One cannot help but wonder why this movie house has such a credentialed staff.

It’s certainly not the pay. Nor does the job offer great excitement or intrigue. Rather, the draw seems to be very mundane nature of the work itself. After traveling through the academic year at warp speed, a languid summer comes as a blessing. There’s something soothing about selling movie tickets and popcorn. It requires little mental exertion, and there’s no creative thinking involved. The math required to ring up orders is done by the register. Once the movies start playing, the lobby empties, and the staff is free to read, chat, or goof off until the next set of shows. Few jobs pay for pleasure reading. It’s as if the mind can finally shut off for a much needed nap.

But the nagging voice of general opinion lingers, still telling the butter-drenched popped-collar crowd to go do what we’re supposed to be doing. Maybe that’s why my Dartmouth friend volunteers for an archeological organization. Or why I found myself at a publicity event in a swanky restaurant for a campaign to end child prostitution and sex slavery.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with working for either of these groups, as long as one works for to them out of true interest, and not just because of those great expectations. And it seems that the notion of what one is supposed to do drives too many college students’ summer plans. Why else would so many undergraduates strive to spend their summer as investment bankers? Most would admit it is not for a love of finance. Rather, it is because being an investment banker fits the profile of what a Harvard student is expected to be: wealthy, prestigious, and hard-working.

Of course, I may be guilty of embracing the psychology of PBS children’s programs too much, that you should always do what you love and enjoy, and everything else will work out. Clearly, a person sometimes needs to complete an unpleasant task to get to a more enjoyable one, and even more clearly, many of my peers’ current internships will lead to immediate job offers.

Still, I worry that many undergrads are just hurtling forward, filling their schedule with activities they are supposed to be doing, making their lives so busy they don’t have time to figure out if they’re happy or not. Granted, they may end up appearing to be what an elite college student should be, but will that be what they truly want?

So, for three months, I say adieu to the fast lane. I’m off to the theater to work the early shows and then catch the new Superman movie. From what I gather from the trailer, even the man of steel needs a break every now and then.

Andrew B. English ’07, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is an economics concentrator in Cabot House.