Back when I was in high school, I became really close to the art teacher (even though I was a terrible artist). I used to come to his room every day at lunch time, and he would usually have lunch for me that he made from home. We would sit and talk for the whole period about life. He would listen to what was going on with me, he would tell me what was going on with him, etc. I have no idea how that started, but it lasted for a couple of months in my senior year.
During one of these lunches, I told my teacher a secret that I hadn’t told anyone else yet: I was going to take a year off of college. I knew if I told my parents what I wanted, they would be mad at me. My friends wouldn’t understand my reasons and would try and encourage me to go straight to college after I graduated. But I didn’t want to be convinced.
I explained to my teacher that I had a crap situation at home and that I thought it would be much smarter to take the year off, work full-time, save up money so I could leave, and then start school once I was out of my parents’ house. I told him my plan was to get a job that paid $20,000 a year because I could save exactly half of it and end up with $10,000. I planned to live on that money while I went to school because $10,000 is a lot of money and should be able to cover me for a while. I would get a super cheap studio and use my savings to pay rent. I’d get a part-time job to cover other, smaller stuff, but I could definitely survive mainly on my savings.
He listened to my entire idea with patience. He said nothing except to nod his head and smile. I remember thinking there was something behind that smile, but I just couldn’t figure it out, so I put it out of my mind.
That was back in 2004. It’s ten years later, and I currently live in the space between two ideas: I am much wiser than I used to be, and yet there is still so much left for me to learn. Things absolutely did not work out the way I planned them, and that turned out to be a good thing. In any case, ten years later I found myself sitting with a college senior, having lunch and talking about life. I asked him what his plans were after graduation, and he said that while he wasn’t sure yet, he was in the process of looking for a “good” job, one that made use of his skills and expertise, had benefits, etc. His eventual goal is to get into politics, but for now he’d be happy being the manager of something. He was aiming for a job that paid $60,000 a year, because, you know, he couldn’t take just ANYTHING, not with the thousands that he’s going to owe in student loans.
I listened patiently, and I smiled the same smile my teacher did ten years ago. The meaning finally clicked.
The smile was many things. It was a stifled laugh, not only at the absurdity of the idea itself, but also at the idea that life can be planned at all. It was pity for the person who does not yet understand how many pieces of the puzzle he is missing. It was hope that the person would get what he wanted anyway, but it was also a cynical, knowing smile. It was the suppression of the urge to say, “It doesn’t work that way,” because not only do you not want to destroy someone’s hopes and dreams, you also know that he won’t listen to you anyway. He has a plan.
He probably never noticed all that was behind it, but if he did he’ll probably store it away in his head and realize the meaning years from now.
College kids are supremely unrealistic gamblers. They take out these insane loans hoping that the risk will be worth it, but really they have no proof that it will be. If they would simply pay attention, they would realize that there is actually a lot of proof that the risk is NOT worth it, that student loan debt can be crippling, and that if they can’t pay this one bill they are sort of screwed for life.
(I am definitely overgeneralizing, but bear with me)
But I wonder how much of these unrealistic outlooks on life can be attributed to the naivete of youth, and how much can be explained by society itself. As societal values go, the College Education is among the most highly regarded. We tell kids, “Just go to college, whatever the price. Once you get the degree, your horizons will broaden significantly and you’ll be super successful right away. And by the way, after all the hard work you put into your education, you deserve success.” We do not do a good job as a society for preparing teenagers and young adults for the realities of the world. No, most people to do not start out of the gate with a bachelors degree making “only” $60,000 based on their “skills” and “expertise.” This idea came from the lies that higher education has fed this young man, and while I do hope he gets what he wants, experience tells me he won’t. I think it’s sad that he wasn’t better prepared by society at large to think realistically and logically.
For the record, you absolutely CANNOT live on $10,000 for four years in NEW YORK CITY. This was definitely unrealistic, but I was never told this was possible by anyone. I made this shit up in my own stupid 17 year old head. So when life did not work out, all I had to blame was myself for my foolishness. I was never sold a lie.
I used to think that the students I was surrounded by here were much better prepared for everything than I was. They had supportive parents, they had the ability to make their college educations happen sooner rather than later, and they were making connections that would help them in the future. In truth, I have realized I was really lucky to have dropped out of college early. I got to have a few years of actual life experience before the Higher Education Machine could get a hold of me and convince me that my bachelors degree would have some magical effect on my life. I am prepared for the challenges I’ll face after graduating next year. Unfortunately, these students not prepared, and I can’t help but think that while there is something to be said for youthful naivete, society itself has fostered this unpreparedness.