My last word on Stanford is that it is expensive and has many fountains and I’ve a degree from it.
One day I was early for early for class, and sat at a big table in a small room to wait; one other student was there.
“It’s stuffy in the English department,” I said, ratcheting back and forth on a swivel chair.
The girl’s eyes widened. She seemed surprised by this statement, thinking I was criticizing the people of the department, rather than the air circulation. Stuffy. You see, I am simple and am often mistaken for more.
In her face, suddenly taut, I saw the ambiguity of my language. “I mean the air.”
“Oh! I’m not a very good…”
“Rater of climates?”
“Rater of climates.”
Then she asked if I knew some literary term that she was trying to find in the textbook.
“Oh,” I said, “I don’t really know anything.”
“Ohh.” She looked at me like I had just revealed a private handicap. More people came in. The professor was late and apologized, and said his office was filling with smoke, or something like that. “Strange air,” he said. I looked smugly to the girl, as if the professor was corroborating with what I had already said, but she was staring intently at her blank notebook.
This meaningless exchange is the sum of all things—I’ve hardly been able to comment on air conditioning without ruffling feathers, and I’ve hardly been motivated to discuss anything more or less profound than the indoor weather.
Once, I was sitting with some Communications professors, who were discussing how new technologies are always criticized for transporting risqué subject matter.
“I remember the telegraph controversy,” I said. “Really lascivious stuff going on.”
“Really?” one professor enthusiastically asked.
“Yes.” And then another professor told him I was kidding, adding that I was “the English major.”
After lying to him about telegraphs, he told me I would “go far.”
I overheard, one morning as I ate a completely decent brunch, some kid in Stern talking about how we’re all the future, and he’s damn proud to be part of it. Damn proud, he said. I felt sorry for the girl he was with, who listened voicelessly. Then, I thought, this blueberry muffin is surprisingly good.
We are the future! Date your oversized philanthropic checks accordingly. We’re the future. I hardly know what that means. Every person with a thumping heart is “the future.” Having a $180k education means that your own future might be beautiful and filled with neckties and Ikea furniture.
Some will use big words and small ideas, and some will say very smart things, and very little of it will matter to anyone.
You could say it’s all about image, as it takes veneered presentation to get into a school, and to get a job, and that the image does not have to run deep. I hardly care about that anymore.
The people who claim to be “the future” will likely be future leaders. The most sheltered people are the ones who will be in charge, because if you can afford to learn about the world, and about the difficult, unending trials of mankind, you can also afford to live away from those trials. The brave curious opt for a balcony view, or an IMAX film.
I was talking with a friend at one of the gnarled woodland tables of the Coffee House about who we would give money to, if we were to ever have large amounts of it to give away—the point being that I did not understand why people make large contributions to Stanford, of all places that need money. He said he’d give his wealth to the custodial and kitchen workers. I suggested a ridiculous twenty-story public library rising out of East Palo Alto.
Why do we have any antipathy? I asked. Because it claims to be something it’s not, he said. I suppose that’s true. I don’t know what it means to be. It is a school, and that is all. But to attract people with famous pasts, the university spends graciously on the aesthetics of its property, like a well-credentialed amusement park. If it did not, the people with famous pasts could just go to a prettier school with more comforts. And as a student, if you’re paying forty five thousand dollars for nine months of sitting around, that giant S flowerbed better bloom real nice and the blueberry muffins better be real good. It seems to be the biggest difference between a public and private school: the flowers and trees and the muffins.
I can see now that:
-My curiosity’s been blunted—but maybe that’s just age.
-Opportunities have been torrential, surely, and more often than not I’ve waved gaily as they passed by. That much has been my mistake.
-It is pleasant to walk across campus as the sun sets, when no one seems hurried, and the air has a sort of thickness as it cools, thick with the dull color of champagne. Sunday mornings are similar, but the colors of a morning are paler, and fresher. The shelter of Stanford can be appealing in this way.
-I’ve said my one success was my degree—that isn’t true. The degree is part of the big joke. My one success is that someone as curmudgeonly as myself has friends——
To those of you who have read anything I’ve ever written—thank you. Unread writing is like undeveloped film. It may have been fun to look through the lens but there’s hardly a point if no one sees the photos.