“I have to go to school today.”
I caught myself saying this out loud this morning as I left the house, not because I’m actually back in classes, but because I have to go up to campus on my way home this afternoon to run an errand. Even though I graduated from Georgetown University years ago, I still refer to it as “school”, even in casual conversation with friends and acquaintances who weren’t classmates of mine on the Hilltop. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that as much as I enjoyed my time there, it was not an earthly paradise.
The fact that years later, I ended up living a few blocks away from the university I attended was not something I could have predicted, when I walked out of those front gates for what I thought would be the last time after graduation. Like anyone else, I left with my head full of contradictory plans, some of which came to pass, and some of which did not. Yet on the whole, I’m better for having left behind the fallacy of believing that my best years were my college years – a malady which, surprisingly, seems to affect a number of people I know.
I’ve been thinking about this albatross-like perception of one’s alma mater recently, in the context of a conversation I had with a friend about the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Best known for his novel “The Great Gatsby”, Fitzgerald did not have a huge literary output, for among other reasons having died too young, and never quite getting a handle on his alcohol addiction. While there are many great things about “Gatsby”, it’s definitely not my favorite work of his. A contender for that title is his first published novel, “This Side of Paradise”, which is loosely based on some of Fitzgerald’s experiences as an undergraduate at Princeton.
In some ways “Paradise” can be viewed as the American version of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, albeit written a quarter of a century earlier. As in “Brideshead” there is the same sense of wasted, fast living by well-dressed young people at a prestigious university, the flickering presence of Catholic faith, and the desire to pursue and win a girl above the station of the narrator. There is also in both works a similar glow about the towers of the collegiate buildings, seen through rose-colored lenses, which alumni of any old, beautiful school can relate to.
Those who find themselves, as I do, within a stroll of the campus where they spent the first, formative part of their adulthood, usually end up seeing things differently. Dear alma mater, which was home for four years, now becomes just another venue for attending events, conducting business, or the like. Alumni who have moved on with their lives, even as they have moved away, can have the same perception. To quote Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve” (as I often do), “I have not come to New Haven to see the play, discuss your dreams, or pull the ivy from the walls of Yale.”
Throughout “Paradise” Fitzgerald himself, although still a young man when he wrote the book, recognizes that his time at college was not something to cling to as the high point of his life, preventing him from doing anything else worthwhile again. “Youth is like having a big plate of candy,” he writes. “Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again.”
At the conclusion of “Paradise”, the main character finds himself out in the world, unsure of exactly where he is to go or what he really believes in, despite all of the golden-rayed images of his time at college. He returns to Princeton for a visit late at night, and reflects on the fact that now, other young people are living in those hallowed halls, learning about the same things he did, having their own experiences of socializing and becoming adults. In doing so, he finds that he does not envy them; rather, he pities them, because he realizes that he is an adult, with adult things to do.
To me, that’s the real lesson of both “Paradise” and “Brideshead”, as well as my periodic visits to my own college campus. One should never completely discard the good things of youth, such as curiosity, wonder, passion, occasional silliness, or a sense of adventure. Yet the focus as we grow older needs to become more about what is to be done in the here and now, particularly in service to others, rather than being caught up in the past, ruminating on the dreams of yesterday and what might have been.
For Paradise, in the end, is not supposed to be a few years on college campus: it’s what our lives right now are supposed to be leading us to.