By Susan Clark
Sunday, May 17, 2009
It is a drizzly after-school Thursday, and as a particularly garish Post-it on my steering wheel dictates, I must navigate to Staples before I pick up my little sister from her school. I need envelopes for my college applications. Apparently, it falls to me to house my application materials in crisp uniforms of unrecycled envelopes -- preferably of the self-stick variety, as my guidance counselor has cautioned us against the perils of getting paper cuts on our tongues.
Never has my get-it-done gusto been in fuller swing or in better company. It's the fall of my senior year of high school. For 12th-grade overachievers, autumn marks the final sprint to being a certified college kid. Every late-night study session, every sports practice, every meeting of an after-school club: They are like soda tabs dropped into a recycling bin -- individually meaningless, but just you wait. It is all going to pay off. Isn't it?
I make it in and out of Staples in nine minutes flat and emerge the proud owner of a mammoth box of 9-by-12 self-adhesive white envelopes. This $40 monstrosity is the only size they sell, and I will use maybe eight of them. College is already bleeding me dry, and I haven't even set foot on a campus. Fabulous.
Okay, overpriced postal products: achieved. Now onward down the list of things I scribbled during fourth period: Pick up sister. Spanish Lit. Food. Calc. Gov. When life is a sequence of little tasks, it's easy to hop from one to the next, frantically and unquestioningly. But if you stop for just one second, look around and ask, "What's the point?" ... Well, let's just say that's not one of the "Seven Habits of Highly Successful People."
I pull out of the parking lot, on to the next mission. It is not so much drizzling anymore as drooling. Yech. I flick my windshield wipers to life and marvel as they methodically guillotine the rain out of my line of sight. Oh, to have their uncomplaining efficiency!
I ramp onto the Beltway. My little sister had field hockey practice today, which means she will be craving Taco Bell. I weigh her satisfaction against the time I would waste in the drive-through. Even as I jockey my Civic into the fast lane, I am mentally prioritizing my evening tasks. My life is a Jenga game of to-do's. If I only knew that I was going to get into a good college, that I was going to find a way to pay for it. If I only had some guarantee of my future, perhaps the present wouldn't seem so precarious.
I play a stupid game with myself. On the highway, on long stretches where there is no one else, I see how long I can close my eyes.
The sky is fading, and the rain matures into little crystals of sleet. I get off the Beltway onto the street that will take me to my sister's high school. I would be on By the time I make it, she will be waiting irately under one of the school entrance's overhangs, shivering and hungry. She will ask why I didn't bring her one of those awful tacos with the fake cheese that she likes. Since it's Thursday, she will complain that she has sooo much work for tomorrow, and I will roll my eyes and think of my stickynotes and say, "You have nooo idea."
This is how it is, on the track toward somebody else's definition of success. We actually manage to make how stressed we are into a competition. This is the last year I will be my little sister's ride home from school, and we've spent much of it bickering about our workloads. Is this how the world works? The message is to always do well in high school, so you can get into the right college, so you can get into the right grad school, so you can get the right job. Do we define ourselves by where we are going, at the expense of where we are?
I turn into the high school parking lot and stop where my sister can see me. I flash my lights and wait for her to gather her backpack and sports bag and shuffle across the sidewalk. As she does, the sleet ages into snow. The flecks accumulate, quietly, on my windshield between beats of the wipers, and I think about switching them off, letting the snowflakes gather and cocoon my windows, my windshield, until I am nestled in a bed of white. It would be like closing my eyes.