Answering the loathed question

It’s easy to see that Matt Turner (’12), a senior studying writing and rhetoric and an intern in our Be the Change office, is influenced by some of the great classics of literature. I asked him to write a blog post about what it’s like to be facing one of the great changes in life. Anyone with a love of literature will appreciate what he has to say, as will anyone who has sat down at the Thanksgiving table to field the inevitable question aimed at college seniors.  (And see if you can find his nod to one of literature’s most enduring children’s classics! Hint: Yangtze)

 Happy Thanksgiving!

Dubious excitement

(Illustration by Robyn Lee; borrowed from the website Serious Eats)

by Matt Turner

I wait with dubious excitement for Thanksgiving and Winter Break. No homework, home-cooked meals — and the loathed question, “What are your plans after graduation?” wait for my return.

We are programmed to think big and broad. Where will I be? What will I do? But from the help of wise parenting and my own inquisition, I consider: How will I live? What will I value? They are just as difficult to answer and I find all the more important.

Between classes, service projects, and midnight trips to Waffle House, my mind races over potential futures.  I see myself in New York City commuting by bike to my internship. I have a form-fitting Oxford shirt and a skinny maroon tie that gives an urban Ivy League look with my slim cut deep brown pants. My haircut reminds people of the new Captain America or Superman. My parents are happy because I am experiencing the city and hope I get a job out of the experience. My apartment is depressingly small, but I like it because it will look like I came from nothing when I move up the ladder. This is just one option.

Another. With carelessly shaped hair and an emerging beard, I walk in a piazza in Florence talking to Italian girls. Earlier, I noticed they were looking at me as I read my book in a café. They are pretty and like my accent and ask me to join them for the day to show me Florence. I plan to pretentiously tell people I saw the “real” Florence with these girls. I boastfully share they offered me a place to stay and became upset when I told them I had to keep moving on.

These are just two of the ever-changing fantasy futures that cloud me from the actual papers and tests that may decide how true these futures may be. Aware of the conceit and tall tales I tell myself, I do wonder what is worth it? Do I pursue the reckless abandon dream with reckless abandon to only to wind up living with my parents because I missed internship deadlines and all the entry-level jobs are full? Or do I fervently search and apply to every open job and opportunity to get early experience and get ahead of the game, but constantly wonder what it would have been like to travel the world?

This is what happens when I only try to answer the what? and the where? of my life. My optimistic brain wants it all but does not know what to actually choose. Since kindergarten I have been spoon-fed a goal, do well in school. Every year there is the reward of graduation and praise if you do well and then it starts over. For thirteen years I trained my mind to work in yearly benchmarks and repeat. I had to be in school, so that was what I had to be good at. There was a choice to be in sports, but once in, again there were yearly goals every athlete had.

Now I feel the sidewalk is ending and we are being asked to jump into an abyss with an unseen bottom. Some have an idea of where they think they want to end up, but no one knows until we get there. Fortunately, JMU understands they are the catcher in the rye, and their real job is to guide us off the cliff.

Classes and outside opportunities are “make its” and “break its” for future planning. My classes offered have been reasons why I am crossing things off and adding new ideas to my future plan. I am in a Legal Writing class now. Not only is it the easiest class to get sympathy for when you tell friends you have legal writing homework, but it has introduced me to the world of law that I actually do not mind. After reading a case and listening to kids who knew the lingo, my immediate thought was, “I’d rather read Hemingway, and I don’t remember what Roe v. Wade was, so I am not interested.” But after a few assignments and projects, I am learning that the skills I love related to research are heavily useful in the legal world, and I can always read Hemingway when I go home at five or six.

Even beyond classes, where I have been a part of JMU’s literary magazine, Gardy Loo, and a youth ministry called Young Life, I debate: Is my job what I am supposed to be or is it a way to provide for my needs and wants? I need nourishment and a home, but I want art and service in my life. Do they need to be my job or what I do outside of it?

There is also community. I have found lifelong friendships at JMU. Are they worth weakening to pursue ultimate dreams? The movie Into the Wild has a blunt answer to the question. The main character abandons his family and relationships to travel the country and ultimately lives off the land alone in Alaska. He does everything he wants only to die from food poisoning and to write in his book that true happiness is shared. So why go to the big city or foreign country if happiness sits in Virginia? Unless it comes along.

My time at JMU has brought me much joy. Classes, organizations, and friends have given me the experiences needed to understand what is really worth cherishing and how I should continue it after school. I want to have the perfect answer when my five aunts and uncles and 15 cousins ask me, “What are you doing after graduation?” But I have come to know, having all the answers takes the surprise away and no matter what I do, I already know what I need for happiness to join me wherever I go.


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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