The college senior came up to the front of the room, wearing her anxiety like a hair shirt. The woman wasn't surprised to see it. She had been on enough campuses lately to know that anxiety is the class uniform. The students scratch the way to commencement.
But this senior had been home for the weekend. Her parents had not understood what she was worried about. You have all these choices, they said, will pale green edges to their voices. You are lucky, they said.
The senior in anxiety had broken out in hives, and she slammed the door between them. Now she stood in front of the woman, scratching.
You see, she said, if she didn't get into graduate school she didn't know what she would do. It would be, quite simply, The End. She wanted the woman to hand her some kind of prescription, a solution, some calamine lotion of experience.
Well, the woman had heard so much of that lately. There was the senior who was "desperate" for a job in television, and the senior who "had" to go to medical school, and the senior whose life depended on getting a job in publishing or architecture, or government.
The hair shirts were woven, she was told, out of the threads of the tight professional school market and no-job market. Five years ago, seniors had difficulty deciding just what, if anything, they wanted to do. Now they simply competed for the available slots. They wanted to Get IN - as if life were a final club and they had only one chance.
It seemed to the woman that in their effort to be realistic, to be inalterably pragmatic, to be the dertified public accountants of studentry, they had become incredibly unrealistic.
They believed, among other things, in one-track careers. The senior in front of her had to be accepted for a Ph.D. The Ph.D. ahead of her had to be an assistant professor. The assistant professor wanted only to get tenure. Meanwhile, somewhere, another tenured professor had acquired sidburns, a graduate student and a rash that woke him up in the middle of the night wondering what he had missed, and why he now had the 50-year-old itch.
Recently, the woman had talked and mused with Martina Horner, the president of Radcliffe College, as human and down-to-earth a person as sits in a president's chair. They had come around to the confusing subject of "concern careers." Dr. Horner had said: "I just don't think people are going to have one-track careers anymore. Society can't absorb it. There's going to be much more career shifting, second careers, third careers."
So, it seemed that just when students needed to be open to change, even serendipity, there they were, in their hair shirts, seeking the salves of a false security.
There was a certain bookkeeping attitude among students, and that was understandable. If you paid $20,000 for college, one male student had told her, then surely you should be guaranteed $5,000 more a year than someone who had not gone to college. He launched an anxiety attack against his college - because it wasn't a successful trade school. Relevancy wasn't a matter of socoal action. It was, he said, what looked good on a resume. Scratch, scratch.
The woman knew that colleges were open to that kind of attack. But she hoped that they would not become so pratically impractical.
What, after all, do college students need to know if they are going to have three careers? What is the best preparation for five decades? My answer: Just what cllege was supposed to teach people from the beginning. How to think. About themselves an their lives and whatever work they plunge into, sidle into, or fall into.
The woman wanted to tell the senior something likethat. But she couldn't reach her through the hair suit.
The senior was totally convinced that her life was a problem to be solved. She believed she absolutely had to solve it by the day after commencement. And, wherever she went, she wore that uncomfortable conviction like a second skin.