“By graduation or by the fire?”
“Whichever gets here first.”
There's nothing quite like the deadline of your house being burned to the ground to spur the instantaneous, revelatory remembrance of four years of collegiate life. Talking to my mother on the phone, standing on Hoover Street watching the Griffith Park fire race towards L.A. proper, I knew, in one way or another, my time here was almost up.
On campuses across the country, students are now cast out of the ivory tower with the voices of fancy commencement speakers echoing in their ears. Anything is possible. Follow your dreams. Take care of those less fortunate than yourselves. Remember your boundless sense of wonder .
But how ivory really is this tower? Bronze at best. Maybe cardboard.
Beneath all of these bon mots simmers the underlying assumption that maturity and responsibility will soon set in, effectively sealing away these collegiate glory-years forever. But truth be told, is this as good as it gets?
Take the en-masse preparations at USC. For several weeks, crews of workers have been power-spraying the cement around campus to remove the grime that has naturally accumulated underneath a billion yearly footfalls. All student bulletins on outside billboards have been ripped down, and the boards immaculately repainted.
New flowers blossom from normally empty planters. The institution of USC, collectively and with great mature authority, is cleaning out its bongs and beer cans in anticipation of parents knocking at the door.
The immaturities learned in college do in fact last a lifetime. Everyone sweeps their dirty laundry under the bed, everyone kisses that security deposit goodbye, everyone is at some point reduced to tossing their belongings out the window into the proverbial bed of their pickup truck.
The only problem lies in the hypocrisy – don't think for a second that those power-washed, pristine walkways are the ones that supported you each day as you drudged to class or scampered away from campus security. College at its best is fought, won and lost in the dirtiest and most unseemly places imaginable, and to forget the tough times, the tragic moments and those genuine streaks of ugliness is a shame.
We do ourselves a disservice, remembering “those good ol' days” without acknowledging what put that tassel and cap on your head. It's not the easy exams or the nights of senior year sitting comfortably, at ease with a group of longtime friends, that defines the collegiate experience. It's those days when you fall headlong into something you're entirely unprepared for and somehow make it through.
It's the extraordinarily difficult realization that everyone has worth and a place in this world no matter how repugnant or obscene they may seem to you. It's the sacrifices along the way: living in a 12x18-foot room for a year with a smelly roommate, working a miserable summer job to make ends meet, swallowing your pride when you accept that, despite what your mother may have told you, you are not, necessarily, the smartest, kindest, strongest, most terrific person in the whole wide world.
Which is why colleges and universities must, on this great day of reckoning and continuation, confront their own failings as well. There is an ever-so-fine line between the childlike wonder of academia and childish , fearful petulance of university governance.
In incidents this past year at UCLA, when student Mostafa Tabatabainejad was tasered by campus security officers, and at USC, when the administration responded to a sit-in of 13 students protesting the university bookstore's labor practices by threatening to revoke scholarships and housing and calling the students' parents, we see that in these institutions of “higher learning” maturity and responsibility are still very much in the eye of the beholder.
There exists in this country a grotesque and ever-widening discrepancy between individualism and responsibility, illustrated nowhere better than in college life. We, as ostensibly educated and worldly students, have come to believe that “being true to yourself” stands in direct opposition to responsibility and imposed order.
University academicians and administrators, meanwhile, continue to pay mere lip service to the charges of character-building, maturation and civic responsibility, treating students like children, yet demanding mature behavior in return.
Blame is to be shared equally among all, and though the solution is doubtless complicated, it begins with the simple understanding that what is worthwhile is rarely easy. We must rediscover the value of failure, appreciate the unseemly and welcome the difficult.College is not a tassel sliding from the right brow to the left on a warm morning in May, but the key turning in the lock of a freshman room as the smell of stale carpet and cement wafts out from the new, the challenging and the bold.