Getting old and forgetting how to live the dream

So this one time in college, on our way to 48 hours of freedom, a friend of mine hit me with some knowledge.

“You’re one of the most age conscious people I know, Tim” she said, or something to that effect.

“Well that sucks, I guess” was my retort, as I began to drift into an internal dialogue which would later become this very column.

I come here to you all with a concern addressing matters that are potentially ageist and paternalistic in nature. Here I am in my ivory senior tower of ethical philosophy, trying my darndest not to sound too cliché as I spit hot fire about what it takes to “live the dream.” But I remember perfectly well being a loud mouthed skinny and anxious first year, complaining about the unfortunate reality that it would take some time before people started to like and respect me. When it presented itself, I was overly excited by the prospect of making friends with people older than I was. Hell, I was pretty much blown away.

Take for example the regularly occurring off-campus after party. Many of you oh-tenors out there probably remember that what is now Soccer House had a brief jaunt under the expert tutelage of some dirty and abrasive senior type folk, not unlike what I envision my own friends to be. At least, that’s where I know I draw my own senior image inspiration from— the flannel and beards and penchant for loudly played oldies that typified my first-year crushes like Ben Weyl and John Guittar to name a few. Man, I thought all those seniors were put together, that they were just partying non-stop, reading important books, doing cool stuff and more or less living the dream.

But here I am three years later in their worn out Nikes and feel none of that magic which I imagined them to have. Was it all just a dream to begin with, or did I miss something along the way? I also bet that I’m not the only one here in Senior Land without any of those super powers. Now I bet you others might be wondering like me—was that dream living even really what we all thought it was cracked up to be?

What is more, the problem that we are now facing is what to do with those memories now that we ourselves are seniors. How am I supposed to deal with knowing that it’s perfectly possible that any first year I’m talking to might be thinking that I have it all figured out. Because I definitely don’t. But at the same time, isn’t there a lot that we’ve learned in three years that sets us apart from students who have only just started this ‘bogus journey”? How about your second-years, even you guys must feel like those awkward NSO pods are part of the distant past?

It is my contention that there are several psychic dimensions that go into any given inter-year communicatory act. Usually alcohol helps to level out the chaotic EQ of this proverbial jam session, but like a great philosopher once said, “You always sober up.” So let’s run through a few. For example, at any moment of my talking to someone younger than me, I might possibly consider:

1. What does this person think about me and my being a senior and how does that texture our conversation?
2. What did I think when I was his or her age and how would have that affected me in such a scenario?
3. Does this person think about me in any way similar to the way I thought about seniors at his or her age, or is he or she way out in left field?
4. What do I even think about myself as a senior in reference to what I thought about seniors when I was his or her age and how does that effect my relating to this individual?
5. How do I delicately navigate the vast ocean of possibilities that lie between these two poles in order to minimize alienation and maximize connection?
6. Wait, what were we talking about?

Here’s the short end of what I’m struggling with—is there a way to avoid reifying ageism—the privileging of one age group as a better, more knowledgeable, more valuable, etc.—without throwing out all that I think there is to be gained from having seniors drop their knowledge on first years? Because in a way, seniors must have some stuff on lock down, at least as much as anyone can when he or she has mastered the art of using the Listening Room as a encyclopedia of procrastination or generated unique ways of smuggling exquisite sandwich creations out of the D-hall (Yeah, I ‘care to eat’ this sandwich wherever I damn well please.)

But at the same time, it’s downright illogical to punish younger students for not having been through a college experience that has just begun. Certainly we seniors aren’t so established to be beyond the likes of partying with younger students, or even the occasional hookup. How can we fairly delegate the value of student experiences based on accumulated knowledge without hailing kids by their year within a discourse in which we supposedly value difference as much as wisdom?

Where this discussion brings us to is the question of who it is to whom Grinnell culture belongs. Well, obvi it’s not just seniors who get to say what’s what, but it’s also the role of the under-classmen to receive some “The Giver” type gifts that get passed on through the ages. But how do you say, “Hey you, you’re unique and important to Grinnell” while still letting people know that the stresses of deciding a major, making new friends or going abroad are all common, if not entirely anticipated problems?

The goal obviously isn’t to trivialize the experiences that end up being shared by most students, but instead to let everyone know that there was a Grinnell here before them that merits communicating. No, seniors aren’t put together, but they do have great stories about the time before you were born. There’s something to be learned from Grinnell’s past, and that’s what I’m going to assume that most students are committed to believing in.

So, with that daunting list of conversational possibilities aside, maybe my next move is to recall those first year memories which I cherish so much and actually ask a first year whether he or she would like to hear them or not. Either way I’d hope we’d learn something about Grinnell, or at least just ourselves. Maybe then we’d be living the dream.
Not satisfied, deal with it.

-Tim Hederman ’10