To work at a college is to have the opportunity to live your life in reverse. To see yourself as the person you used to be. True for me, anyway. I listen to their stories and hear their dreams and realize both sound familiar. They’re much the same as mine were, once upon a time.
There is a sense of determination among them, an anticipation. It’s almost palpable. They’re at that golden age in life when they’re both informed of the happenings of the world and determined to do something about them. And though the thousand or so students here differ in beliefs and opinions, they are united in this one important sense:
They are all convinced the world needs a good cleaning up.
Many more than you might think are here for simply that reason. They’re learning and preparing to go forth into the dark lands outside these ivory walls and do some good. To clean up. They see The Way Things Are and believe theirs is the generation who will put a stop to it all.
But there’s much they can do while they’re here, too. There are clubs and protests and candlelight vigils for everything from tolerance to global warming to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They write articles for the school newspaper on equality. Each of these activities are undertaken with a sense of excitement and passion you’d expect to find in young adults. They’re fighting the good fight and smiling as they go.
That was me once. I was never one for clubs and protests and candlelight vigils, but I did write articles. And I did believe the world needed a good cleaning up. Believed I was the sort of person to do it, too. I had all the excitement and passion in the world behind me to push me ahead. I promised myself that things would be better one day and that my generation would be the ones to thank for it.
It’s funny what people believe when they’re young. How that excitement and passion is the result of a blind expectation rooted not in reality, but in the idealistic dreams of youth.
You, dear reader, know this. I’m sure of it. Because like me, you likely once thought much the same. But the big dreams we sometimes have tend to shrink as time wears on. Where they once lifted us up in possibility, they soon begin to weigh us down in doubt. We may know of the world at twenty, but we cannot fathom it. Not yet. That comes later, when job and family and responsibility appear. When getting ahead is narrowed into getting by. And we see then for the first time this horrible truth—things are too big for us. We are not the stalwart captains of hope and change we once believed we were; our determination instead resides in surviving this day to face the next.
We no longer wish to change the world. All we want is to make sure the world doesn’t change us. That would be enough. We don’t like thinking we’ll lose in this life, even if winning seems unfeasible. Fighting to a draw, then, is the best we think we can do.
That’s what I think about when I see these students every day. About how their passion will be tempered against the hardness of a world they can only flirt with and not yet love. I wonder how kind the coming years will be to them, what they will lose and then gain from the loss.
And through it all they will be nagged by the very notion that still nags you and me, the notion that the world does indeed need a good cleaning up. We’re all right in believing that. Where they’re wrong now and I was wrong once is believing that cleaning should begin at the upper reaches of our society and drip down onto everyone else. I don’t believe that to be true. Not anymore.
Because now I know better. Now I know that if I ever want to help clean up the world, I have to start by cleaning up myself.