Web Exclusives: PawPlus

July 6, 2005:

Class Day Speech: Worrying about ‘our impossibly bright futures’

By Margaret W. Johnson ’05

Unlike one’s senior year of high school, which near the end begins to resemble scenes from The O.C., senior year at Princeton can feel like life in a fallout shelter – hours of subterranean monotony, punctuated by moments of abject panic. This panic comes in two varieties: thesis panic, which has been safely at bay since the anthropology majors finished their theses 20 minutes ago, and future panic, which still plagues many of us, including myself. Over the past nine months I have discovered that, although I have supposedly been prepared to work in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations, no employer in this nation or any other seems to require my services.

I have long known that I am not cut out to be an investment banker or consultant, which is not to say that I did not feel the same pressure a lot of other seniors did last fall to apply for such a position. It was hard to avoid when J.P. Deutsche-enbach began bombarding us with “recruitment literature” approximately the second day of senior year. “Are you CREATIVE?” one poster demanded. “Think you’re smart?” Though this existential marketing campaign was enticing, it did not ultimately compel me to apply. It did, however, jump-start my panic about next year. How was I going to support myself? What would come of me if I didn’t do something sufficiently prestigious and grueling after walking through the FitzRandolph gate? Would vindictive members of the Class of 1990 come after me with their evil fire hose?

Yet I still recoiled at the prospect of beginning a career I hadn’t chosen. You might say I had entered a quintile life crisis, because what isn’t better expressed in quintiles? I spent winter break skulking around my mother’s house in my pajamas, announcing my failure as a human being to various members of my family, and yet wondering why I and many of my classmates were so worried about our impossibly bright futures.

I suspect that we were and are fearful of a life less structured than our existence has been here within this meticulously raked, plowed, tulip-studded bubble. To participate in this community is to play a part in a variety of pageants, many of which we have thoroughly enjoyed, others of which we have tolerated. Where else would we get to sing as loudly and badly as we did last night in the world’s largest arch sing? And waking up early to study for finals is much easier when someone is building a Reunions fence outside your window.

This heavily choreographed existence has also led many of us during our time here to ascribe to a very slender definition of success, one that involves being selected when others are rejected and recognized for achievements that should feel just as valuable if they are not recognized. In many cases, we have sacrificed individuality and intimacy in order to feel that we belong. What I fear, as we venture beyond the reaches of the Northeast Corridor Line, is that, in our uncertainty about the future, we will leap blindly into an existence as structured as our lives here have been, seeking out more hoops through which to jump for no other reason than that doing so will keep us from standing still. It would be dangerously easy for us to lead unexamined lives, to convince ourselves that there is nothing wrong with serving only ourselves, with participating in systems of exclusion that lead to homogeneity of perspective. If we do live this way, constantly mirroring one another’s decisions, will it not occur to us some years from now, perhaps when it is too late, that we have not made any of our own choices? That we have defaulted rather than considering our real passions and appetites?

Appetite is always a fraught issue for Princeton students, practiced as we are in self-denial. What do we want and what do we need and why? In the coming year, we will not only be responsible for earning our bread, but more importantly, we will be responsible for sustaining ourselves intellectually and emotionally. The hardest thing to do at this juncture is not to accept what fails to satisfy, but to bide our time until we recognize the thing that we have been wanting all along.

What I’m finding at the end of my undergraduate career is that, as much as Princeton has taught me about how best to package myself, it has also taught me to be a discerning consumer. If we are qualified to graduate from this University tomorrow, we are qualified not just to be evaluated but to evaluate. Let us then attend carefully to what we take in, realizing that just as we are what we eat, the activities and people with which we engage will form the substance of who we are. Let us choose our friends and lovers not for their connections or because they are among the few people left at the fifth reunion at 4 a.m., but because they inspire or at least infuriate us.

Let us seek not just fullness but nourishment, the kind gleaned from our more spontaneous experiences at Princeton. Not all of our precepts were “inspired conversations,” and certainly few of our flus were fests, but I will remember the panel discussion at which Cornel West kept calling fellow panelist Robert George “Brother Bobby,” and I will remember the undulating reverberations of Toni Morrison’s voice. These aspects of life at Princeton that were not recommended by any task force or pre-ordered like gold stamping are the best evidence that we should resist the impulse to plan every aspect of our lives. Let us dare to put our fingers in many pies, but one at a time, to make sure we catch the flavor of each. Whether or not we know where we will be next week, let us take time to savor this moment ... and now this one … and this one. Let us make the unstaged aspects of life at Princeton the first course in a movable feast. And, since this is Princeton, my friends, let’s keep it rich.

Margaret W. Johnson ’05, an English major, is from Metairie, La.