Many, many years ago, I was a college intern at a magazine, pitching some wondrous idea for a themed issue. In my memory, it was brilliant, edgy and transformative. Instead of looking at me, my EIC looked at another editor with a sweet smile and said, "don't you love students?" That editor looked at me and smiled sweetly as well, then said, "I really do." I sat there thinking, "so I guess that's a no?"
I didn't get the full meaning of that exchange then, but I got the gist of it, which was "you don't get it." It wasn't done to be demeaning or patronizing, and I hope my description didn't make it sound such. (Said editor is a respected friend, who once gave me life-changing advice: "there's more to writing than being able to string sentences together and flipping a good metaphor every now and again. You actually have to say something too." One of the highlights of my life was being featured on a panel alongside her, and at my alma mater, no less.) It was almost nostalgic longing, like my editors remembered being me-then, before things got complicated, "but do we have the budget?" had to be considered before anything happened, and calls to rage against the machine in anarchy were watered- down to loud whispering and passive aggressive line stepping just far enough across the line to be noticed, but still safely close enough to the narrow bar of demarcation to still toe it and get those corporate dollars.
I mean it was a magazine and there were advertisers to consider after all. And when conservative readers wound themselves into a tizzy and threatened to cancel subscriptions over something you published, you still needed to be able to say a more eloquent (and wordy) version of "did I do that?" and have folks believe you didn't mean it as raw as you put it. Your intentions were good, but misunderstood (cue Nina Simone).
Such is the dance of non- struggling art and properly socialized adulthood in general. It all operates at about the sexual equivalent of "just" sticking the head in, which still counts as fucking and can fuck you over, but with a smile when it's done just right.
College students want to ball-deep stroke and do laps in that piece. They want to hurdle over carefully drawn lines like Olympic long- jumpers. Everything is a declarative statement instead of a run on sentence with ellipses at the end. College students are "discovering" the same things that those old- timers who attend the Homecoming game laced entirely in university para learned eons ago. They're making the connection between thinkers from long ago and their current life experiences and getting pissed that all these years later, the game remains the same. They're learning about how social structures and marginalization and how far they are from real access and they want to lessen the number of bites it takes to get to the center of that metaphoric Tootsie Roll pop. They're learning most of the info they were taught in high school and then regurgitated for the sake of good grades was bullshit, and now they want to make up for wasted time by telling the world about itself on a bullhorn. There are reasons all revolutions and notable social changes start with people under 25.
I watched a video recently of a college student or recent grad (she never said so, but it's pretty clear to me), a woman, speaking passionately about everything wrong with The State of Black Folks with all the requisite mentions of Jordans, and Obama and BET thrown in to keep it three hundred. It appeared to be one of those classic last night shoot-the-shit sessions in someone's off campus apartment that was thankfully captured for The Vine. Change the current POTUS and the size of the recording device, and there's video somewhere of me doing about the same in 1998-- with a shaved head and all. The young woman’s friend punctuates her every exclamation-point ending sentence with the praise of a congregant telling the sweating Pastor without his handkerchief to "go on now!" The woman gets a lot wrong and she gets a lot right too. But I watched thinking less of the strength of her arguments and more of how everyone over 30 could benefit from bottling that passion and drinking it with the same fervor we do Gatorade the morning after a "long night."
Somewhere along the way, my passion bled out. I can't pinpoint a specific time or day I went dry. But watching that video, I saw in her (as I do in a lot of young writers, such as my fav Alex Hardy) what I used to be. And I wonder when I changed.
I started writing to well, change the game; "ain't nobody's hero but I want to be heard" was my unofficial motto. The official one was supposed to be in my high school yearbook. I wanted my goal listed as "the voice of my generation." (I think my parents made me change it. I'd tell you for sure if I could actually find my yearbook.) I wanted college students to read my work in fifty years and have the same "aha! Moment" the first time I read Ellison or Hurston or Walker or Baldwin. But I wanted them to think of my writing as a relic because things had changed so much between the time I captured so perfectly and their new world. And I wanted my words to have an impact that would be part of The Revolution (because there would be a big one, the only one, to ever exist and matter) that made their lives better.
Lofty, I know. I was a student.
And I started my career off that way. Then I crashed too many times trying to move too fast in lanes that were built to go slow (bureaucracy) or uphold the status quo (institutions). I got frustrated with pumping my brakes and trying to change a world that evidently didn't want to evolve on my timeline. Then I got distracted. Change wasn't forthcoming, but party invites were. So I danced and I drank through the glory days of Dirty South music hitting mainstream. And though hangovers retreated much quicker then and Ernest Hemingway allegedly fueled his whole career with "pour up, drank", my passion ain't the same the morning after a "long night" and I'm no Hemingway.
And then, well then, what was left of that passion eventually landed me a high profile job at an institution, where my remaining (and rapidly depleting) fire was an asset, but only when it was tempered to the point of just sticking the head in, ie, just enough to fuck (with people), but only enough to still claim with plausible deniability it didn't really happen when it did. By the time I chucked deuces four years later, I thought I was a rebel, but like the ex -con who still wakes up every morning at 5AM, I was free, but still institutionalized.
I tell college students this not to make excuses for my lost direction, but to explain how easily you can become a weak drink-- too much juice, not enough alcohol to make it potent. I want you to know how jarring it is to watch someone else have the fire you lost that time. It's about like "Eddie Kane"* in the Five Heartbeats thinking he still has it until he sees the new pretty boy lead singer who actually does. He was mad (and high) so he asked, “how does it feel to be me?” I was sad and wistful, so I thought, “oh, college students!" And then I went to bed at 6AM after reading old emails.
Because God works in mysterious ways, my main email—the same one I’ve had since 2001—suddenly started listing messages in ascending order. So I started going through all the e-conversations I exchanged with my best friend in 2003. I stayed up all night, wondering, "Jesus, what happened to me? Where is that girl?" She turned into a woman, but not quite the one I wanted her to be.
It's not the first time I've stayed up thinking about how to become my old self, or more than a shell of her, but, you know, without missing the rent or a car payment. I've had insomnia since January.
But back to the college students: the good people you encounter will nourish your passion and angst in the right direction. The bad people will try to stamp it out of you. Avoid them whenever possible. In ten years (less if you go into finance), most of you will lose your fire and you will show up to your alma mater's Homecoming in university para. But, please, make an effort to hold on to that passion as long as you can. Your eagerness and your aggression are (occasionally annoying) assets in the workforce and in life, even when you're wrong and right at the same damn time. Don’t forget that. Hold on to your you. Avoid compromising too much. And I know you want to be forreal, forreal grown, but don’t grow too fast. You look at the people who have arrived where you want to go and want to be them now. Grown folks look at you, who haven't arrived yet, and want to be you too, but with bigger apartments and more disposable income. With effort, we all get to become who we want to be.