End Games

I think often of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up, with its opening salvo of nonchalance and pure haunt. It is a useful reminder of how, no matter one’s levels of self-awareness, revelations will lag: 

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. 

Or perhaps it’s even simpler, as the Princeton man remarked elsewhere, in what might carry a bit more direct relevance for my case: “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” 

Let’s get the bio stuff out of the way: I was a first-generation college student at Harvard, and most days I’m still pretty pissed off about my experience there. I am also, to be clear, very grateful, but not disposed to dwell on that. What’s positive is boring and the Big H needs no pat on the back.  

Now that I’m four years removed from walking in this institution’s commencement, some recent news invoked familiar feelings. Amid the scramble to give its students an admittedly communitarian boot amid COVID-19, Harvard was reminded of the inconvenient truth that many of them simply have nowhere else to go. While more comfortable students fretted about which of their families’ summer home(s!) would best suit a permanent spring break, it is no exaggeration to say that some low-income and first-generation Harvard students faced displacement, plain and simple.

I don’t mean to retroactively appropriate an experience that was not mine. Had I been on campus as the pandemic hit, it would have been easy enough to go home, as my parents lived only an hour’s drive north of campus. But the first-gen experience is anything but a monolith, and a readily-accessible support system like mine is not a rule or even a norm—even at Harvard. 

But forgive me this enduring belief: Getting into Harvard is supposed to mean that you will be okay. It is this concept, and this promise, that has upped my blood to boiling so many times throughout the past four years, and which this pandemic has so forcefully exposed as a lie. 

We, meaning first-generation college students at Harvard and other institutions of varying prestige, ate up this lie for years. We ate it up in the form of big cultural statements and personal whispers from everyone—parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, professors, classmates, and advisors. The lie that we had made it. The lie that the hardest part, thanks to those toilsome days and nights running ourselves ragged to produce corporate executive-like resumes for the Common App, was over. More hard work would surely follow and this was no time to coast, but things would ultimately be okay no matter what happened. We were, in no uncertain terms, set. 

The lie did not come from malice. It was congratulatory, delivered, usually, with the best of intentions. But it was dangerous. It does damage to sell people such a tantalizing and all-encompassing idea of success so early in life. It inculcates ideas you can never wash out.

If nothing else, perhaps forced exodus will give students a preview of what graduation actually feels like, the tearing away of a faux family that was always meant to be transient. Perhaps it will cause an early reckoning with the failing economic system we have no choice but to join and are expected to dominate. 

Months before I knew my admissions status, our high school debate team had the unexpected privilege to attend a national tournament at Harvard. For a group of kids from public school accustomed to state and local circuits, the Harry Potter-esque Sanders Theater may as well have been heaven itself. After another travel weekend spent in a sleepless haze of teenage exertion, and more hours away from home that do not feel like time lost until years later—things you hear retired athletes and soldiers talk about—the trophy presentation began. To this room of Ivy League hopefuls, as debaters tend to be, the tournament organizer repeated one line which revealed, intentionally or not, the point of the whole charade: “You’re going to be the bosses of your generation’s workforce.” 

As we leaned forward to receive the most impressive resume items of our young careers, neither intellectual rigor nor rhetorical creativity defined us. It was our presumed capacity, years later, to climb ladders and run things. 

I did not understand at the time why such a dark shadow crept across our coach’s face as he heard those words. He was unable to speak for several minutes. I never asked him about it, and so can only speculate as to what was going on, but I think at that moment he saw the inextricable connection between his educational mission and the abject careerism into which his students would soon enter. K-12 teachers know that education isn’t about becoming anyone’s boss. Harvard, by and large, does not.  

Fitzgerald’s words proved true for me. Instead of the envisioned process of enrichment and the building up of a mind, college was more of a protracted crack-up. It was happening, but you don’t know it at the time, then someday you look in the mirror and see burnout for what it really is and realize that the competitiveness that got you into the school of your dreams is precisely what made it a living nightmare. 

Because if you’re first-gen, you probably can’t win. And if you keep trying to play the same game after graduation, it does not get better. 

Your expectations are your psyche. Manage them well.

Photo by Erin Doering on Unsplash