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November 19, 2013

Playing pretend

Students are simultaneously expected to explore and already be found during college.

I recently found myself in Pilsen exploring the neighborhood’s monthly Second Fridays Gallery Night, during which various studio and gallery spaces are open to the public for free. One man’s studio apartment featured, in half of the space, what looked like a mind-blowingly expensive photography setup and, in the other half, a collection of terrible photographs. In the middle of the room stood the artist himself, attempting to hold court with a glass of wine in his hand. He was wearing a white blazer that he had copiously decorated with handwritten messages; the left shoulder read, in large letters, “ABSTRACT IS THE ONLY SENSE WORTH FEELING.”

In other words, he was one of those strangers who make it very, very easy for you to hate them.

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more my scorn turned to a vague sense of sympathy. This guy was affecting what he thought it meant to be a photographer—fancy equipment, studio space in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood, “edgy” DIY apparel—and he was so, so bad at it. I recognized in him the same panicked façade I feel whenever conversations turn to apartment hunting, summer internships, or post-graduation plans—like if I manage to say all the right buzzwords (utilities included, Metcalf, gap year) and continue to blindly proceed down this path of what we’re apparently “supposed” to be doing with our lives, then maybe no one will notice that I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.

This is obviously a delusion. Of course, everyone knows that I have no idea what’s going on, because I’m 19 and in college and don’t know how to even begin signing a lease or figuring out the magic combination of e-mails to send in order to line up the summer plans that will ensure a properly padded résumé. When my friends and I talk about these things, our language is couched in the delicate assumption that this sort of adulthood is something we’re still just playing at. I frequently find myself saying that I need to “be a grown-up” or “try to live a real human life” in a way that makes it obvious that I’m definitely not currently doing either of those things.

Just like the terrible photographer in Pilsen, I’m not fooling anyone. I’m not fooling anyone about the fact that I’m 19 and in college and that this is probably the last time in my life I’ll be able to admit to having nothing figured out. Even so, I still have trouble owning up to the fact that my life is anything but completely (or even mostly) together. Even among my peers, most of whom I know are experiencing the same terrifying uncertainty, any acknowledgments of insecurity are masked with humor. You can’t say, “Last night at 4 a.m., I broke down and cried while trying to write a Sosc paper” without a laugh; otherwise things get too real. We get so close to the edge of vocalizing these shared feelings, but we always back away, because it’s too scary to admit that we’re scared, and because we can’t commiserate over them together, they’re all the more terrifying to deal with in this false sense of isolation.

Even though I am privileged to have these four years of my life to figure things out, and even though college is the time to be confused and directionless, I still feel like I can’t allow myself that time in the face of the overwhelming pressure to perform all the rituals of maturity, despite the fact that they lack any substance. In the end, though, it’s useless—the result is not the appearance of adulthood, but rather that of a child lugging her mother’s briefcase. And because everyone seems to be attempting these same rituals—in many cases more successfully—even attempting to create a space for vulnerability feels like a failure when I’m trying so hard to do well in school, set myself up for a job after graduation, and measure up to those who seem to effortlessly have everything figured out. So I keep chugging on, comparing inner feelings of inadequacy to the outward appearance of others’ success, inevitably coming up short every time.

Clair Fuller is a second-year in the College majoring in gender and sexuality studies.

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