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Not So Humble Opinion: June 26, 2012

Graduating Into Someone New

High school graduation is upon us, which means this would be a good time to tell the current graduates everything I wish someone had told me at the time. However, I’m not sure if the things I would like to be able to tell my younger self— like “Don’t attempt to go to school anywhere where an average snowdrift in November comes up to your face,” and “The people who told you that you could create your own major with ease were dead wrong,”— would be of much use to anyone else.

Instead, this time of year leads me to contemplate an interesting puzzle, something I didn’t understand at the time I went to college at all but find endlessly fascinating now. Basically, you go to college to start achieving your dreams, but if you actually succeed in that goal, you might be doing something wrong: college is supposed to change you. If you go through the kind of intellectual growth that college really should provoke, the dreams you had when you were 18 will likely not be the same dreams the new and hopefully improved, 22-plus version of yourself treasures.

So if you’re well on your way to achieving your high school-era dreams when you receive your BA or BS, have you truly succeeded? Or did you miss the opportunity for a revelation about life, the universe and everything that would have put you on a different path entirely?

Though I somehow managed to graduate in four years, college was a tumultuous time for me. I had decided to attend SUNY Buffalo for primarily financial reasons, only to discover after one semester that I hated the weather and the content of my major was not what I had been led to believe it would be, but that’s another topic. After that I attended a vocational school for a year, eventually realizing that I did in fact like books and reading and maybe I should give this whole “higher education” thing another chance.

So I went to SUNY Albany to study English for my final two years of college, where although there was wintry weather, I could be reasonably confident the snowbanks would be waist-high at worst. Tip: if you go to a SUNY, attend school somewhere else for a year, then go to another SUNY, you will not be able to carry over your scholarship from the first SUNY (cue The More You Know starburst graphic).

Studying English, particularly John Milton, is what really changed me from a kind of larval form into the person I currently recognize as myself. I’ve changed since, but I’ll probably never again change so much in so short a period of time. In some respects, remembering things from pre-English major times is like remembering someone else’s life.

Filled with ambition and Paradise Lost, I combined my old love of drawing pictures with my new respect for the power of literature and decided to become a comic book writer and artist. Whatever practical ambitions I’d had in regard to getting a BA in English soon went out the window; I wasn’t the same person who had made any of those plans.

The life of an itinerant comic artist didn’t work out so well for me. I did write and draw a lot of comics, but I never approached being able to make a living at it, and the menial jobs I worked to support myself often left me too tired to draw anyway. Eventually, I floated toward journalism almost aimlessly, yet it worked for me: it was interesting, and I could even get a job doing it that didn’t involve a mop or a cash register. Now, it’s been almost two years since I’ve even drawn a comic page.

Is it shameful that I failed in pursuing my dreams? I don’t know; while I haven’t become a successful comic artist, I have done a lot of other things: found someone I love, become a blogger, journalist and then columnist, started writing traditional fiction and much more. It’s possible that what I’m doing now is simply more relevant at the moment than writing and drawing comics.

Also, does the lack of immediate success necessarily equal failure? There’s no reason why I can’t go back and draw comics, of course. But if I were to do it now, I would do it in a different manner for different reasons; even if I were to experience incredible success, I’m not sure it would be a continuation of the same dream anymore.

Some people are fortunate in that they start out from a young age with the dream to be a doctor or an architect and never really deviate from that, and that’s nice; more power to them. But I can’t say anything about that, because that hasn’t been my experience. For me dreams are complex, and I can’t always tell where one ends and another begins; I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this.

Graduates, some people will tell you that in order to find happiness, you must follow your dreams. Others will wait until the beaming optimists are safely out of the room, then tell you with a somber expression that dreams are all well and good, but you need to pursue something that will put food on the table. Neither group is wrong, but they may be missing the point; what does following your dreams even mean when you’re so often chasing a moving target? You not only have to decide, but constantly reassess that for yourself, and when you do, you may encounter situations that don’t seem to fit neatly into the categories of “success” or “failure.”