Kurt Vonnegut once said, ‘True terror is to wake up one morning and find out that your high school class is running the country.’ This line, uttered during a commencement speech, is one of the few things that made me laugh during a two-hour high school graduation ceremony last week. An hour of this was probably taken up with calling the graduates’ names one by one.
I’m in a parched, sun-bleached school field, moments away from melting into a steaming puddle in the grass. I’m enduring this heat-induced coma for my cousin, who is graduating from a school that more closely resembles a correctional facility than an academic institution.
As I stare at the ugly, concrete school complex, with faded black roof and windows with bizarre blue frames, I consider Vonnegut’s comment. Most people would probably assume that the writer of Slaughterhouse Five meant it’s terrifying to see some of your ex-classmates doing things that could affect the lives of millions. After all, these are the people who used to think that the most important things in life were to get a driver’s license and bribe your older sibling to buy you beer. How could these children, perpetually frozen in my mind as careless 17-year-olds, be capable of doing anything but getting out of bed?
The popular kids would undoubtedly be the ones running the country. They would have been ASB president, worked on the school newspaper, participated in multiple after-school clubs and volunteered to be mentors. These are the ones who would have a GPA of over 4.0 (straight As) and would have been promised a place at an ivy-league school, the fast-track to success. On these revered campuses is where you are likely to rub shoulders with future politicians and world leaders. Having these contacts is probably more important than graduating with honors.
This year’s valedictorian at Valhalla High School has an astounding 4.8 GPA (which I thought was impossible) and was going to Stanford. She stood before us and gave a bizarre speech that seemed a tad bitter and heavy in irony. She had a good dig at the school district for not producing more outstanding students. This top-performing young woman may end up being a future leader, but she has a very long way to go before she can rival President Obama in delivering speeches.
Yet, as the school principal tallied off the amazing achievements of this year’s top graduates (all women, by the way), I did feel a bit inadequate. My graduation was two decades ago. I don’t remember much; the only thing that remains with me is the hope and excitement, the feeling that the world was mine to conquer. I don’t feel like this any more. I still look forward to the future, but I don’t fool myself into thinking that I am going to do something that will one day make headlines on the evening news.
It’s a bit deflating, and I do wonder if this is not the beginning of a midlife crisis. Is it waking up one morning and realizing that you are never going to be everything you thought? To realize that all this time has miraculously fallen away, as if from a cliff, and you’ve accomplished what seems to be so little? As a 17-year-old, I didn’t know what I was going to grow up to be, but I thought I’d be successful.
I wonder what my 17-year-old self would make of me now. Would she think ‘I’ve made it’? I suppose it depends on how you define success. Perhaps I am harsh, and harshest on myself, but I don’t really think I’m all that successful. I’m just ordinary.
So it comes to me, then, a second meaning to Vonnegut’s famous quote. Perhaps the writer also meant that there is terror in watching old schoolmates accomplishing so much when you have the nagging feeling that you’ve not done enough. I find it incredible to see people my age as doctors or lawyers or politicians. Some of them have written bestsellers and won awards in their field. Some are journalists working in war-torn countries, others might be researching potential cures to debilitating diseases. These people keep looking younger and younger.
My biggest daily worry these days is what the kids will have for dinner. Before I start to sound ungrateful, I know only too well how lucky I am not to worry about how I will put food on the table.
I should really try to be happy with this ordinary life, a little internal voice tells me, but I struggle with it sometimes. Graduation season has dislodged an uneasy truth: I feel like something is missing.