In eighth grade, I remember writing a letter to my high school self. Not by choice, of course–it was an English assignment. The whole shtick of the ordeal was that my teacher would send each of us these fated letters for our future selves to receive on graduation day. Frankly, though, part of me wasn’t buying it: is this teacher really going to hold onto these letters for all four years of high school? It was a seemingly empty promise, but the romantic within me went along with the plot and placed all my faith in receiving that letter four years down the line. Long story short: I never got the letter. And, what’s worse, the thought of that letter was in the back of my mind for the entirety of high school. It wasn’t a burning passion I thought of on the daily, but I would remember it from time to time and think, Oh, yeah. Wonder what that’ll be like. To not receive it–well, I wasn’t entirely surprised. Let’s face it, I was suspicious from the onset of a “promise” being placed on the table. Nevertheless, here I am now, about to complete my first year of college–without that letter from my eighth grade self. Clearly whatever hodgepodge advice I scrapped together in the 15 minutes we had to complete the assignment wasn't very pivotal. But that’s besides the point. I’d like to commemorate that letter forever lost in the time-space continuum (otherwise known as what I can only presume to be the trash) and give back to my former senior year self–the hopeful kid waiting to get that letter from his eighth grade self. At least in this way, I’m getting something out of those four years of anticipatory angst. And, who knows, maybe you’ll glean something out of it too.
Now, the circumstances surrounding this letter are a bit different. In my eyes, the jump from middle school to high school is less daunting than the jump from high school to college. I was one of the hopefuls who so desperately wanted to get out of their hometown. Likewise, I put a lot of expectation on college to be my way out. Herein lies a romanticized picture of what college would look like. Not so fast, though. Nothing says “change of plans” quite like a global pandemic, so you can probably imagine the complete mental overhaul I and so many others have had to go through when it comes to our conception of college. The romanticized college experience is just not reality, at least from what I have tasted thus far. These are words I would have been disheartened to hear a year ago–it does sound like a letdown on the surface. I’m happy to report, however, that in this reality, in this unfiltered portrait of the present, I’ve learned lessons more than a college course can teach. So, Ben. Here’s two things you will learn in your first year of college.
You’re a work in progress–hence why you are at school.
I’ll admit, this is not a groundbreaking observation. It seems like it would be a pretty self-explanatory concept, right? Well, cut to the final stretch of my second semester, and I am constantly reminding myself this as part of a daily ritual. Every class, every flute lesson, every recording session–they are not going to be smooth-sailing ventures through and through. Most of them are far from it, in fact. But that is part of the journey in bettering yourself. I never saw college as the place where you will go through so much struggle. For one, coming to Oberlin was one big sigh of relief in and of itself. After accepting my admission offer, my high school self was listening to a non-stop loop of the same soundtrack day after day: You did it, Ben! You’re going to college; things will be great–studying what you love! Won’t it be wonderful? While the celebration is totally warranted–Oberlin is a wonderful place–studying what you love isn’t necessarily “easier.” It is definitely more fulfilling and validating, but this can also raise a bit more challenging mental hurdles. You dedicate yourself to what you love and, along with that, comes the endurance race of Learning. And by proxy, along with Learning comes her ugly step-sister: Failure. Annoyingly, failure is what a lot of learning encompasses. So, if there is one thing I can impress upon you, high school Ben, it is that you should try to get accustomed to failure as fast as you can. This isn’t to say you will fail all the time–success does happen–but the faster you realize that your time at Oberlin will be spent in a transient period of your career, the more you will be able to get out of it. Put simply, your best work will not come from the time spent at Oberlin. But that is the point. You are a work in progress–so the expectation of being perfect in any context is pretty meaningless. Now, while this is something I know, I am still dealing with it–especially when it comes to performing. The realization of paradoxically being a performance major that is struggling with being able to perform… Well. It has called for quite the identity crisis. But that’s another lesson for another time–preferably when I am on the other side of it.
Find a community that supports you.
This can be anything. Community means so many things to so many people. So, I raise you this, Ben: find what community means to you. A group of friends, a club, an online space, anything. Find people who will help you while you are going through all the rough times and will celebrate with you during the great times. This is one of the reasons why I love Oberlin so much. I’m constantly inspired whenever I enter a room of my peers. It’s no secret that I often feel like I am the worst one in the room 24/7. But, frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s how I know I am acquiring knowledge I didn’t already possess. And seeing others succeed–even when you may be going through it–there is something to be said for that too. One of my friends booked a classroom and did a performance run-through for our small friend group before her studio class performance the next day. It wasn’t a big ordeal; it was a time where we could come together and support our friend when she needed it. In turn, I like to think it helped each of us. We all got a glimpse into what she had been working on–what had been taking up her time during the past few weeks–and she got to show us the product of her work. It’s small experiences like that that make a community. People here also know the difficulties that come with holding yourself to a high standard–to always be striving for more. But I’ve found that the culture here is doubly sympathetic to taking time when you need it. Whether it is time to just decompress after a long week or perhaps time away from your instrument altogether, your worth is not based on your productivity. You have to look out for yourself, and having a group of people who believe in this fully–I can’t express how crucial it is. I’ve found myself taking it for granted, which usually results in nights of lots of stress and isolation. As an introvert, it can seem counterproductive to find people to hang out with in times where I’m already exhausted and just relying on that next cup of coffee to get me through. But study sessions aren’t the draining social outings I made them out to be and actually bring about a much needed sense of camaraderie–who would’ve thought?
So, senior year Ben, that’s all from me. Nothing I’ve said is earth-shattering; you probably already know quite a bit of this already. Internalizing it and believing it, though, that's the difficult part. It’s the daily trials–the small things–where you may find solace in these small reminders. In any case, this may not make up for the eighth grade letter you yearned for, but your current self isn’t doing half-bad without it. :)
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June 12, 2021