No, I’m not going to say who. People new to the public eye deserve better than for old acquaintances to leech themselves onto the newly famous so that their writing comes up first in a google search. But writing is what I do, and in the last few days, the memories have flooded back with all the vividness of a hallucination.
College is wasted on the young. When we all still know nothing, we’re deposited into surroundings in which our every need is catered. You might have needed to pay for a scholarship with a part-time job, but nobody forced you to cook or clean, there was no reason to eat well or stop drinking, and who was going to yell at you if you didn’t go to class, your professor?
Generally speaking, the more miserable your high school experience, the more you take to college like a fish to water. You’re no longer at the mercy of the ‘arbiters of cool’ and you can fly your ‘smart flag’ at full mast like the freak you are. You may not have the foggiest idea of the subjects you’re loudly pontificating about, but what other student would ever know enough to correct you? You meet other smart students from all around the world, many become lifelong friends whose couches are how you save money on vacations. You fall in love, have your heart broken, you fall in love again. With friends, you talk endlessly about the brightness of your futures, about how this mountain or that one will be one you move which no one’s ever moved before. You have no idea how out of touch it all is until you hit the real world, and the freak flag must be folded back into the case. Only the frustrations and anxieties and heartbreak of real life can teach you well enough to truly comprehend the subjects for which college first whetted your appetite, and by the time you’ve lived enough to understand them, life has depleted your willpower to learn much about them.
There were years of my youth when the whole world doubted I’d ever be able to go to college. I was a severely learning disabled kid who took an extra year to graduate high school in a Jewish town where so much as a ‘B-‘ was considered a shame to one’s family – a hyperarticulate, voracious reader when his facial and bodily ticking stopped enough to let him concentrate on a page, who could get through a book in a day but couldn’t finish a homework assignment in a week, a manic depressive who entertained rooms for hours at a time when he wasn’t cowering in the corner of the bathroom in despair and terror. A toddler who was fully bilingual in English and Yiddish before he was three but couldn’t tie his shoes when he was ten. A kid who could and did commit whole volumes of music and poetry to memory but whose lack of emotional control until his full majority causes him a lifetime of remorse. The intellectual maturity of a fully grown man at six with the emotional maturity of a small child at eighteen, whom, when he finally learned a modicum of emotional self-control, began experiencing full-blown psychotic hallucinations for years. A child whose experience was the blackest possible joke a Jewish kid can ever experience – to be the smartest and the dumbest kid anyone in a Jewish community had ever met.
But that respite from anguish and dread was only possible in a world that opens up. A cloistered Jewish world, terrified of assimilation and therefore only associating with other Jews, would never allow for the self-indulgence which comes from associating with anyone but Jews who are similarly committed to Judaism. There is no space in a world where everyone has the same goals, the same mentality, the same background; for the outsider, the eccentric, the person whom by their very difference can enormously strengthen the community fabric if only people gave them room to be themselves. But unless they get thrown a life-raft, all hope for a meaningful life is nil. It is only a Jewish community connected at its roots to the influences of outside world, not just professionally and civically and culturally, but socially too, which becomes a community that allows for self-improvement.All it took was a couple years in a different kind of space. I went into university in the learning disabled program to graduating in the honors program.
I won’t say which college either, it was just your average overpriced American university where hugely ambitious students were forced to enroll after being rejected from Ivies and equivalently good places. Obviously, there’s no tragedy in going to a school like that; hell, for me it was an extraordinary event that I even got in, but by the time my generation got to college, the gravy-train for second-tier schools was over. In so many way, it’s as though America lives in the 1920’s again, and ‘where you went to school’ matters. So many kids at this college were just as smart as peers I knew at Columbia and Yale and Northwestern, just as hard working, but success leads to more success. For my generation, the rat race started in the cradle, and if kids who went to state and second-tier want to move up in the world, they have to be more resourceful, more passionate, more knowledgeable, better equipped to do meaningful work than kids whose luck broke their way from the time they were in utero. Ever wonder why Congress seems overpopulated with morons? It’s because 99% of the best and brightest are mistrusted and mistreated for all the ways they’re smarter than the average person. It’s so much more important in life to be lucky than smart or kind or even competent. If Hamilton and Madison were working in Washington today, they’d be stuck in some GS-13 government job in the executive branch, writing policy briefs for some undersecretary which nobody reads.
This now congresswoman-elect is just one of a many dozens of would be Thomas Jeffersons I met during our student days. Most of them were characters, but my god, she was another level entirely. It was as though the person she presented to us was so blindingly memorable because she wanted to hide her true personality from us in plain sight. She seemed to wear the same green fleece vest every day, a stick of gum ever present in her mouth, her accent of origin so thick a professor of linguistics would have considered it its own dialect, and so ferociously intelligent and energetic that she couldn’t finish a sentence before another idea came to her and she was on to the next before we knew what her first idea was. It was as though she was so confident, even at that age, that she didn’t need the rest of us to understand her, we just had to be sounding posts from which she drew more inspiration, and once she figured out what she needed to understand, she filed it away without telling anyone. But the fact that she was tripping over her own thoughts didn’t mean she wasn’t listening. Her sense for what others wanted to hear was positively feral, and hundreds of other students felt bonded to her as a friend. We met in a philosophy class I was retaking after having failed the class first time I took it (my presumptive major no less…), we ended up in the same study group, and it was just the first of probably half a dozen cliques we had in common over those years. Perhaps I delude myself, but while we weren’t ever the closest of friends, there was a time when we were genuinely close to being genuinely close.
Once upon a twenty-one, we were two insomniacs who’d inevitably find each other in the “Honors Lounge” of our dorm around two in the morning (where I technically wasn’t even allowed yet). And well into the bowels of the night, we’d discuss this or that for hours at a time, whatever half-baked theory we’d learned in class this week, the events of our lives which brought us to this point in our oh so matured self growth, the differences and fascinations and vicissitudes of our families and friends; growing up, as we had, where we had, with whom we had. Even now when she exists in my memory so vividly, it’s very difficult to remember too many details, but the conversations seemed to go on forever. What I do remember, rather vividly, is telling her so many of the details of the person I’d seemed to be up to only two years earlier, and however much my eccentricities stood out in college, the mystery of how that life seemed to be lived by another person.
After a fashion, we were genuinely quite close in that way which the proximity of college makes you close to people very quickly who vanish from your life just as quickly. Later in college, we didn’t always get on, finding ourselves in that situation many young people find themselves in which one friend resents the blazing success to which another friend is clearly preordained. I was probably a little in love, not particularly so, and I couldn’t possibly have been the only one, but some people go through life with a kind of halo. You know as much as they do that they were created to ascend to mountaintops forbidden to most of us, and upon the rest of us their magnetism can’t help but exert a charge.
Even then, I think everybody knew she’d end up at such a high altitude. When a friend texted me she’d won, I had to stop myself from bursting into tears in public. The odds of any of us from those days making it so far in life are so astronomically higher than we ever thought they were. Of course, it was her, how did we ever think it would be anybody else? Apparently, even at this school, there are people to whom life comes a little too easily. I firmly believe that other political friends of mine will eventually make it just as far and do just as much good, but for them, for us, success might always be a dogged uphill battle. She will be the only person I know who will live in the highest rungs of politics for her entire career, with the power for decades to improve billions of lives. So many people I knew dreamed of ascending to exactly where she is now. She is in the position to make the difference we all wanted to make. May she use her powers well. I have no doubt she knows how.