I missed the window to buy the cap and gown for graduation.
I don’t know when this period of time started or ended, simply that the time started and has already ended, and I am no longer able to get a cap and gown. As it turns out, all of those emails that read “URGENT: GRADUATING SENIORS MUST READ” in the subject line were urgent, and graduating seniors were supposed to read them.
A stern-faced woman clasps her hands on the University bookstore counter that separates us. “Ma’am, I have no control over who decides the dates that we give out the caps and the gowns.”
“Are you sure there aren’t any sitting in the back? Like, maybe someone who was going to graduate but then had an overdose or death in the family or something?” I flash her my best smile.
“Next time, pay attention to university emails.” She sashays away to another counter, before I have a chance to point out the flawed logic of her “next time” argument in the given context.
I missed the window, and my mother is going to kill me.
The cap and gown thing is just the beginning. College graduation is awful. The movies lie; the Hallmark cards deceive. It’s not that romantic tossing-of-caps moment. Instead, it’s the part in the movie where the protagonist looks down, touching his hand to his stomach only to find blood, thinking, “When did I get shot?” When did I get old? Why do I have to leave now, right when I finally figured out how to properly annotate a bibliography and to pour a beer that isn’t half foam? Beyond the general sadness and nostalgia of exiting the only point in your life when yoga pants and crop tops are appropriate everyday attire, graduating from college is seriously, debilitatingly stressful. Most of this stress derives from one major symptom that manifests early and never goes away: questions. Where are you going next? Why are you doing that? Who are you doing it with? I don’t know when I was supposed to learn these answers, but I must have skipped lecture that day.
Despite receiving them nonstop, I am never fully prepared to answer these questions. Sometimes they reveal truths that haunt me, like the moment I realized I didn’t know the purpose of my major.
That moment happens in the fall of my senior year, when I am on the phone with my sister as I walk to class, and I can tell my parents have been pressuring her to give me the and look how well I turned out! speech. Like, “Hey, Jimmy, I know you’re having a tough time with that heroin business and all, but hey, I never made the varsity squad for the basketball team, and look how well I turned out!”
So she’s telling me all about the people who work in her office and how they all have different backgrounds and majors. But she’s going out of her way to ignore the difference between those people and me, being that her coworkers have a strong grasp on math and statistics, whereas I recently left a $40 tip on a $20 check due to some technical difficulties with carrying a decimal.
“... And anyways, there are plenty of English majors in the office ... “
“Lauren, I’m not an English major.”
Slight pause. “You’re not?”
“Are you joking?” I stare at my phone. “I’m a history major.”
“... Is there a difference?”
Later on, I would blame my quick hang-up on a malfunctioning satellite in outer space. What really happened was a frantic thumb against the “End Call” button, followed by an even more frantic Internet search of the difference between history and English majors. I found no answers on the topic, which did nothing in the way of reassuring me.
What’s your major?
In high school, I planned on a pre-med track in college. It was an easy answer with a steady plan, a paved road through college with a pre-packaged lifetime tied in a bow. I was recruited to college for athletics, and I ended up at the University of Virginia. I warned my coach that I would be taking lab courses, slugging through organic chemistry exams and studying for the MCAT. But my brain is not wired to memorize the periodic table. I dropped that plan quickly, but not before it gave me two Cs on my transcript and what felt like a mild case of PTSD after dissecting a cat named Sally.
In the first year of college, the admissions reps advise you to “Do What You Love.”
I love to write. I love sports. I’m an excellent public speaker. But these answers aren’t sufficient. You’re supposed to answer with a buzzword: finance, medicine, law.
The fall of my second year, I declared a major in history, then a second in foreign affairs, minoring in English as a war concession to myself. Science was tough, math impossible, but 40-page papers? Bread and butter. If I had to tread water in the murky depths of academia, I would over-compensate with sheer volume. I promised myself I would be the Taylor Swift of humanities, spewing out a new release of papers every two months, littered with pun-infested titles and sweeping rhetoric (“Hot N’ Cold: Why Gorbachev Was the Original Katy Perry”).
But the guilt hung thick like fog. Even now, in my senior year, with both majors completed and a diploma on the way, I’m no closer to an answer for what my education means or why it matters.
“What’s your major?” my roommate’s mother asks over soggy calamari at an overly priced restaurant near campus.
The rubbery substance sits in my mouth. “I’m a double major in politics and history,” I say apologetically. “I’m also minoring in English.” I’m sorry.
Why doesn’t anyone ever ask, “Hey, are you by any chance an asshole? Do you have psychotic tendencies? Any weird fetishes I should know about that may affect the workplace atmosphere?”
But no, I only receive the major question. Or worse: What are you going to do with your life?
* * *
I’m in the car with my parents over spring vacation my senior year. We are driving to dinner, and I am counting in my head to see if I hit triple digits before my parents bring up The Future.
I get to 47 when mom turns around.
“So, sweetie, any thoughts about this summer?”
“I told you I’m going to apply to grad school.”
She smiles and squeezes my knee. “You know, Antonin Scalia took a year off before he went to Harvard Law.”
“Smart guy,” my dad pipes in. “Real smart cookie, that man is.”
My mom has a habit of casually mentioning Supreme Court justices and finding ways to compare them to me. Like how Ruth Bader Ginsburg loves holding dinner parties, and don’t you love dinner parties too, Caroline?
I smile back at my mom. 62, 63, 64 ... My parents are older than most. Both are in medicine, both having sustained a clear trajectory their whole lives. This yields two parents who have very little applicable advice about the job field in 2015. There are a lot of smiles, vague head nods, and me counting to the triple digits.
What do you want to do with your life?
I want to be my mother’s daughter. I want to stay this age so my parents can sustain those Supreme Court visions for me, and argue in favor of infinite possibility. I want to be sure of something. I want to feel like my education wasn’t a waste.
As each day looms closer to graduation, I entertain the thought of maxing out my credit card on a plane so I can write looping letters across the sky: I DON’T KNOW, AND DON’T ASK.
For a week in April, I wondered if I should volunteer. This was not met with the gratitude and awe that I was expecting. Instead, I got responses that felt like thinly veiled versions of: What, so you think you’re better than me?
My friends stared back at me as I mentioned it to them over beers. “So you’re going to, like, travel?” Squinting eyes, shared glances.
“Well, no, I mean, I’d find some sort of volunteer job. Like, at an orphanage or something.”
Muted smiles. Furious typing on a group chat I’m not a part of.
I made a joke about becoming a yoga instructor with dreads and a parrot, and they laughed, perhaps relieved that I recognized there is a real world that I have to join eventually, the same vision of a proper life that we have all been gently guided towards.
The questions conquer all.
They keep me up at night, whispering of mortgages I haven’t signed and deadlines I haven’t met. As the seconds tick by, they grow in volume and multitude. If I don’t answer, they ask again. They punish. They are relentless.
When you graduate from college, people demand answers of absolutes, of periods and colons. I can only speak in relativity, in brackets, parentheses, ellipses.
What they hear: I don’t know what I want to do. I don't have a job yet. I am unsure.
What I am saying: I am unsure (for now), I don’t have a job yet (nor does it scare me the way it scares you), and I would be okay with all of this if it wasn’t for the look on your face right now.
* * *
My father calls me on the phone, two weeks before graduation.
“Your mother and I will be driving down on the Thursday after next. We can’t wait.”
I clear my throat. “Yep, pretty exciting.”
Then, without preamble: “Don’t worry about the future, Caroline. Just enjoy this success. The rest will come.”
His voice is sure and steady. He knows that I will be fine, because he has ensured it through his own life’s work, through decades of a career that has allowed him to provide for me and keep me safe, healthy, and happy. He doesn’t understand my fears—not fully. To be fair, I don’t understand them either. I can’t explain to him that sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night afraid I’m going to stop breathing, choking over the opportunities I’ve missed and the doors that have already shut for me.
I’m silent on the phone, and he cuts the white noise by talking about the weather they’ve had at home. I’m not sure if I want to cry or scream or thank him for his steadfast, relentless confidence in a future I don’t even know exists.
“Just enjoy this moment. It will be gone soon enough.”
The rest will come. You’ll succeed at whatever you do.
What is his metric of success? Will he find me successful if I volunteer at an orphanage in Africa, or only if I accept that sales job with dental insurance and an annual bonus?
I know my parents will worry if I don’t go to grad school. There will be hushed conversations, concerned glances, and untold days of counting but never making it to a triple-digit number before the questions come.
One of my final college papers was about human trafficking in the United States. Millions of girls ripped from warm beds every year. I wonder what questions they get asked.
One can learn everything about a person’s life through the type of questions they have to answer.
The questions people ask me, although posed with urgency that rings true, are lazy questions for a life that they expect will extend lazily into the future.
What are your plans after graduation?
I think about women my age across the world, living in war zones, without clean water, with husbands 40 years their senior. How would they answer?
What do you want to do with your life?
I think of the thousands of years of humanity that lie behind me, boys who went to war at 14, women who were beheaded for witchcraft. What they might think of that question?
“Well, today I’m going to try not to die. And if I manage that, I’ll try not to die tomorrow.”
This is a dramatic comparison, no doubt. But here are facts: The future I fear—of a cubicle plastered with curling pictures, of a lukewarm marriage that ends in a heated divorce—is a self-indulgent nightmare. It is the stomachache after a meal too luxurious to digest properly.
My junior year, a professor argued in my lecture class that it is pointless to subvert one’s experiences by comparing them to something arguably worse in theory. Your emotional pain is real, and its source is irrelevant. And that may be true. I have no way of confirming that the stress of chemotherapy is any more or less damaging than my Aunt Bette reminding me of my biological clock. Maybe they’re all the same neurons firing into the same synapses, giving us an equal and immediate sensation of urgency that distorts the sense of actual threat to our wellbeing. Maybe the need to pay off my student loans really is as emotionally exhausting as the need to buy groceries for my children.
Maybe misery is relative, the questions abstract and the answers personalized, like the questions people ask me. But here is something that is absolute, questions concrete and answers visceral, like the questions that they don’t ask: Are you running out of water? Are you healthy? Are you afraid for your life?
I could write an alphabetical list of the world’s ills and read it every morning, and at G for Genocide, I would be wondering which coffee place to go to later, because I like the place that makes the lattes extra foamy, but I always get that same barista there who puts whole milk in when I ask for skim, and yes, it makes the latte creamier, but it’s also extra calories, and since I won’t have time to workout later because I may have to stay late at work to make sure I get my annual bonus, it all feels like some sort of universal sabotage, and honestly, is the barista deaf or just stupid?
I’m selfish. I know this. But the questions I am asked, and the answers that are demanded of me, do not require selflessness. They demand singular, relentless focus on self. My plans. My future. My choices.
When I am older, I hope I don’t look back and question why I didn’t fight for a higher base salary, or study harder for that entrance exam to graduate school.
But I do hope I remember this feeling I had when I was young. The all-encompassing fear I felt that I had no answers to the questions of my life, coupled with the certainty that these were the most important ones to be asking at all. I hope I think about how childish and selfish these fears were, especially in the moment after my lukewarm marriage falls apart, and then again 30 years later, when I peel faded pictures from my cubicle wall on the day of my retirement.
I hope I remember how long it took me to find out that these were the wrong questions to ask.
When my daughter is browsing through college pamphlets and losing her appetite over the amount of white on her resume, I will ask her, “Are you healthy?”
When my second husband pours a drink after a meeting with the accountant, after we learned that it’s worse than we thought, it’s going to be tighter than we thought, we are going to worry after we thought we would never worry again, I will ask him, “Are you going to live until tomorrow?”
And when I am 90 years old, shivering in my floor-length fur coat and staggering against the weight of my diamond encrusted limbs, I will hobble over to the 20-year-old girl who’s also waiting for a coffee, and I will smile at her through my breathing tube and I will say, “Are you running out of water?”
But first, I need to find a cap and gown.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.