In the documentary about Bob Dylan’s England tour called Don’t Look Back, Dylan gets in an argument with a teenager at a party in his hotel room over a shot glass that had been thrown out the window. They’re face to face, noses almost pressed together. A heavy, merry-looking Welsh singer stands between them, trying to calm things down. In the course of the argument, the teenager blows up. “You’re a big noise!” he says, his hands miming an explosion. “I’m a small noise,” he says, balling his hands together, “I’m nothing.”
At 17, there are a lot of questions about what size noise you are. You are moving into something bigger, into what adults who forget what it was like to be children call “the real world.”
This real world has had all kinds of movies made about it, which usually go like this: A young person has a dream. They work hard to achieve the dream. They leave their home. They start their trek toward the dream. Life in the real world is not what they expected. They fail, they are humiliated. They reach such a point of humiliation that something must be done. So they do or say something that has never been done or said before, and are rocketed to fame and fortune.
It’s not these movies’ faults that they are telling young people lies. After all, they make these movies to excite us, and there is nothing that exciting about people fudging up all the time. But there is one major problem here. Movies are only made about people who are worth telling movies about, and sold to people who would never have a movie made about them. A group of big noises giving millions of small noises big noises to identify with.
Let me get one thing straight. There’s nothing wrong with failure. In fact, it’s one of the most charming things about people, and is where most of our identities come from. This is why in movies a failure must happen. It keeps us interested. We are suckers for pain, as long as the pain stops eventually, or the pain that people are feeling is beautiful.
Unfortunately, a lot of real, non-movie people’s pain is boredom, a pain that neither ceases nor interests others.
How does this all relate to getting into college? Colleges are doing the exact same thing as bad coming-of-age movies do. For tens of thousands of dollars a year, they are selling us the idea of success. I don’t fault them for that. Every college has one or two genuine successes. People’s desire to be successful makes them very easy to exploit, especially in America.
I fall into this trap more often than not. I am convinced in the back part of my brain that no matter my job or what happens to me I’ll become a famous writer when I become an adult. I’ll get a book published and everyone will suddenly be in love with me.
This is one of the main reasons I’ve applied to very selective schools: it will be a good chapter in my posthumous biography.
On the other side of things, for most kids this promise of success is also one of their first brushups with failure. Some kids who are very smart in other ways do not get into schools that are built for them because they are unable to tell a sheet of answer bubbles in what pattern soldier ants evacuate a collapsed anthill. That’s deeply unfair. It gives kids, including myself, a real, deep feeling of adulthood. I was recently rejected from Columbia because I am not too good at filling out bubbles on a sheet. I never felt more grown up.
Colleges are meant to be noise machines. You must be a big enough of a noise to enter, and when you leave you’ll be so loud as to shake the floors. The problem with this is that there is no way colleges can teach people to succeed. Success is completely unknowable. There are ways to teach people literature and geometry, but these sorts of things tend to be on the back burner for most people.
I calm myself down by pretending that I really know how my future will turn out. I will turn out a failure. This gives me a brief jolt of panic, but I slide through it.
I take a look at myself. Maybe I’m in the same home in which I’m writing this article. It’s my parents’ home, with three rooms and a studio where my parents go to be alone and make their art.
Maybe I will be in an apartment somewhere with no windows. What will I be doing? Working somewhere, I hope, or living off unemployment benefits.
I may be completely alone, which I know I will be at some point in time. What happened? I got into the wrong college and didn’t get a good enough degree. Or I did everything right and was still kicked down the stairs by the vagaries of time.
The real answer to what I will be doing is that I will be alive. I will be breathing, existing and sensing. People my age have a lot of concern about their future. The future is a huge foggy mirror in front of our faces all the time. But we forget, we young people, that no matter what that future we’ll be alive as long as possible. Colleges cannot give or take away anything that important.
And I’ll probably still be writing something.