Opinions, Column

The Myth of College in the 21st Century

Once upon a forlorn strand, I met a most interesting instrument of adventure: the B line of the T. Without the convenience of a direct route to the city, she lurches deeper into Boston along serpentine tracks.

It was a usual fall night, which is to say the night air called me to make something of it. 

Perhaps it was the mixing of autumn air and charcoal fumes from the Mods that called me to the monstrous beast. Or perhaps it was my associates yelling obscenities through the phone that Copley Plaza was “the place to be, among other incomprehensible statements. Perhaps it was a text from one of those colorful associates reading, “They’re bonding over their BU girlfriends. Save me.” 

The reason for my departure from Boston College, now as it was then, remains minimally important. There was a story evolving around me on that particular November eve. The mission had taken hold.

My journey would be a righteous one. I was called to save my associate, damn it! I descended from the fifth floor of that great skiff, Vanderslice Hall, and crossed by St. Ignatius, with its steeple reaching high into Genesis 49:27. 

The first character I met on my journey was an incidental ally. Aside from the fact that I’ve almost certainly seen this man in an episode of Better Call Saul, we were strangers. We made eye contact at the BC T stop while still at a distance, and neither of us was willing to break it. He sat on the benches beside the entrance door to the trolley car. I became a cartoon character in a leather coat—quickly approaching him, whispering things under my breath. We were locked in silent combat. I gave him the old faux-look-away routine. Look to the left—oh that’s a cute little bunny or whatever—and look back! Still?! His tiger eyes were like secrets locked onto me, a predator stalking his prey.

Alright, I’ll play, I thought. How will we end this war of attrition? How do we de-escalate these tensions?

As I approached, I reacted on an automatic level. My mouth spoke before my brain could calculate. “Why are the doors closed, man?” The doors were in fact closed, and it was cold. Yes! I thought. I’ve mended our differences with a common experience: the frigid deep.

“What?” he said with icey curtness. 

The bastard. If he wants to play hardball, I can play hardball

I repeated myself. “Why are the doors closed?” It was the Cuban Missile Crisis of our time.

“I don’t know, man,” he responded.

“It’s cold.”

“Yep.”

I received a call the following morning from Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, informing me that my Peace Prize would arrive in the mail in five to seven business days. 

(I did not, in fact, earn a Nobel Peace Prize as a product of this conversation). 

The confrontation concluded, and I climbed into the bowels of the beast—the Green Line T. With a deafening screech, she lurched toward the promised land: Copley Plaza.

I met other friends along the way, though our relationships were limited to my attempts at eavesdropping on their conversations. The voice of an eccentric Boston University student behind me filtered into my thoughts.

“Why did we get iced coffee drinks,” one of his friends asked. 

“Because we’re Bostonians,” he said.  

His tone reminded me of a word one of my associates gave me a day or so before: “Sonder,” which refers to the momentary realization that those around you are living their own lives, each with full individuality. I was a mere passenger on his journey. I looked around the T. Each of these strangers—the two women discussing being late to work (she would always leave her coffee on the counter) and several artists who seemed to be strangers (though they gave me the distinct impression of traveling as a pack)—all embarked on their own adventures and lived full lives. 

Perhaps they were mundane. Perhaps they just finished a day at the lab, where they discovered the cure for cancer. Was this the discovery the journey had to give me? Was I meant to learn here that I am only part of the greater mechanism of humanity? 

But, my time with these Bostonians was short. I descended from the T at Copley and emerged onto the wide-open Boston streets. 

After another expletive-filled call with my associates, I headed due north to meet them on Newbury Street. The night seemed impenetrable. I thought I would never find them until I heard the distinct shrieking of four closet nihilists. I had met my interlocutors. 

They were inebriated, but we had a common vision. We walked along for some time. The street, usually bustling with gaggles of BC students out for their “one night in Boston” per semester, was deserted.

But again, why were we there? It was a question I had been unwilling to entertain until that point. We had come this far, but the night was cold, and my discoveries so far seemed incomprehensible. 

“What are we doing? Why are we here?” I asked. 

“Because this is the place where we can scream,” my associate responded. 

We took turns shouting up into the frigid night. The space between the quiet and effacing walls of Newbury Street was our amphitheater. In the strange, twisted way that only American college students without responsibilities could, we owned the avenue.

Looking up into the space between the street’s walls, I ran out of questions to ask. We wandered through the streets before encamping in an abandoned T stop entrance. We took pictures. Was this college in the 21st century? Is this the mission I embarked on? I did not know at the time.

I could say now, but I won’t. I agree with author Joan Didion that there ought to be an irreducible ambiguity to certain narratives. It leaves room for the story to breathe, I think. 

This, however, is the part of the story when I offer you some advice or lasting rhetorical utterance. Forget where you came from or where you’re going. You know yourself well enough to leave your mind trinkets unattended for a while. There are innumerable Billy Joel songs that illustrate this point. 

What is the purpose of our daily activities, anyways? In retrospect, do you see the long series of events that led you to this day as linear and simple or episodic? 

A journey is surrendering oneself to the river. A journey teaches us where we fit in this large world. I am increasingly convinced that this is what the Jesuits have been trying to communicate with their retreats, classes on “Engaging Catholicism,” and cura personalis rhetoric.

I find BC’s way of teaching it lackluster. But spiritual journeying does not begin and end with the overburdened platitudes. Sometimes it takes the right kind of self-prescribed journey to realize that “care for the whole person” is the self-prescribed journey.

January 10, 2023
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