Those words, scrawled in bright yellow letters across my friend Bryan’s T-shirt, sent scowls through a maximum capacity crowd gathered in the theatre. Early in the first semester of 2007, an “Undergraduate Awards Evening” was planned for top-grade students to celebrate their Outstanding Achievements. It was the sort of evening where parents could sit together and compare notes on their children’s success. A collective pat-on-the-back for teachers, school administrators, parents and – least of all – students with not much else to do in early October.
I sat in the middle of this Business Casual crowd, clad in black suit and tie, a fedora, and a broken pocket watch. Bryan sat two seats down. He was unshaven and unkempt, with dirty blonde hair and even dirtier blue jeans. Members of the crowd who lacked a sense of humour seethed silently. To them, Bryan’s dress and manner showed a complete lack of respect for the institution of the Honour Roll.
In fact, Bryan was there to accept an award for Excellence in Mathematics, and his marks are some of the best in not only the school, but likely the country. The Evening had been planned for him, after all, and he was going to enjoy it in his own way…and so was I, although my mockery was somewhat less obvious. He was a thumb in their eye, and I was a feather in their cap.
* * *
Welcome to the Comp. It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Typical of any high school, it is a bizarre collection of upper-class Hillbillies, Stoners, Preps, Drunks, Brains, Jocks, Geeks, Freaks, and a variety of other Doomed People. More importantly, the Comp is a massive, intricate network of money and people and books which has been given the seemingly impossible task of preparing every student for life after high school.
Basically, what that means is that at some point in their three years at the Comp, a student will be called into the guidance counselor’s office, sat down, and asked very politely, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Indeed, it’s assumed that by age 17, a kid should know how they want to spend their next fifty years.
“WHO DO YOU WANT TO BE?”
…The first encounter I had with The Question came one sunny spring morning last year. I walked into a counselor’s office to talk about changing my timetable, when The Question was popped.
“So, tell me, Robert, what do you want to be?”
“Well…what are your plans for the future?” “Plans?” I said, “What plans?”
“I mean, do you intend to go to university, or college, or…”
“Right, umm…actually, I was planning on going to university.”
“Great! Now, what fields of study are you interested in? What kind of career are you looking at?”
“My God,” I thought, “Here it comes.”
I listed off every possible career I could think of. I told the counselor I wanted to study law, or education, or writing or aviation or physics and maybe train as a welder, too. Most careers I listed were nowhere near what I was considering job-wise, but that didn’t matter. In the end, none of this information changed my timetable, but it did nicely answer the counselor’s questions. Unfortunately, people keep asking me The Question, so often that now, whenever I hear it, I instinctively answer, “How should I know?”
Over the past year, I’ve seen that uncertainty isn’t just my problem. It’s almost everyone’s. While a good number of people I talk to have some sort of plan for the future, few are overly enthusiastic. The careers they’ve decided on aren’t careers they’re passionate about, but more or less a way topay the bills. And for them, that’s all that matters right now…
Here’s the deal. It scares me to think that somewhere along the line, someone somewhere has replaced The Question…
“WHO DO YOU WANT TO BE?”
…with the much less important question…
“WHO DO YOU WANT TO WORK FOR?”
At some point, the two became identical for a lot of people. For them, wherever they work and whatever they do, that’s who they are: they become their jobs. The purpose of high school is to prepare them for Higher Learning, which prepares them for a steady, high-powered job, which prepares them to raise a family, and if they don’t die of stress-related heart failure, they can finally retire somewhere sunny and out-of-the-way.
It’s my belief that people who think this way at age 17 should be hung up by their ankles and fed to savage dogs. These are the same kind of people who only truly begin enjoying life at the age of 75; when their RRSP kicks in and they’re too fragile to do anything but fart around all day. And usually, at that point in their lives, farting around is the most enjoyable thing going for them.
* * *
…There’s a feeling of absolute panic and disorder that comes when a person can’t immediately recognize where they are. The easiest way to experience it is to go find some strange place to crash for the night. It doesn’t matter where you go – house party, friend’s place, a filthy ditch – just find somewhere alien. When a person can’t immediately rationalize where they are or why, their brain will try every combination of theories and ideas and wild guesses to make sense of the situation. That’s where we see ourselves now, I think: all gripped by that murky, nervous feeling of waking up in The Unknown. Some people seem powerless to deal with this lack of direction, and others thrive in the chaos…
Back to my point…We are collectively reaching a turning point in our lives, each and every one of us. Right now, we all have nearly limitless possibilities: in fact, more possibilities than we may have ever again. However we are all being coaxed – and in some cases, forced – to start limiting our options, to start picking a clear path to our futures. And to a few, including me, nothing on Earth could be more terrifying.
If I can say anything to the Grads of ‘08 (and apparently I can because I’m in the paper and you’re still reading), I ask that we all make an effort to always remember the core function of education: to prepare every student for life after school. Whatever any of us chooses to do in order to pay the bills, it should never conflict with who we are, and who we strive to be. And if you want to be a thumb in the eye of Old Wisdom, feel more than free to do so. A person’s image of what they want to be may make their life worth living, but it’s the moments when we challenge convention – like Bryan that cold, windy, nervous night in October – that make our lives truly Outstanding.
Now, get out there and make some bad decisions. I know I will.