I spent much of my youth pretending to be a Ninja Turtle. Along with several friends (including one girl, who was rather cruelly forced to be my friend), I defended my neighborhood from the dastardly Shredder and the dangers of Ooze. Even at a young age, I knew that I would never become a Ninja Turtle. But I didn’t let that stop me—I had a great time pretending.
While sitting through a particularly atrocious a cappella concert recently (Jews in Drag? Unaccompanied Rhythm?), my mind sought refuge from the brutal assault on my ears and I began thinking back fondly to my days as a turtle. Suddenly, I had a somewhat shocking realization: College, too, is about pretending to be a Ninja Turtle. Most of us have wild ambitions for life. We want to be famous professors, renowned scientists, great singers, successful playwrights, or syndicated columnists. Will it happen? Probably not. It doesn’t take a University of Chicago–trained mind to realize that in most potentially glamorous fields, supply greatly overwhelms demand. At home, your mother reassures you that you’re a brilliant writer. In the real world, you’re just another recent graduate with a half-baked script idea and parentally subsidized rent.
Indeed, in a culture that trains us from a very young age to believe that we can do or be anything our little hearts desire, growing up is sort of a letdown. Most of us begin to realize that there are very few things we will actually be able to do for a living. Perhaps a few among us will escape the surly grip of obscurity and achieve fame and fortune. Most U of C graduates, however, won’t reach such dizzying heights. We will lead relatively modest lives. There’s nothing wrong with this, and many of us will be satisfied with our adequate jobs and happy families.
And yet, I did not grow up dreaming that I would be a successful mid-level bureaucrat in the State Department. I fantasized about being a Ninja Turtle. Now I fantasize about being a famous writer, even as I begin to see that my making it big in writing is only slightly likelier than my becoming a hero in a half-shell. As a college student with one foot out the door, it is becoming harder and harder to reconcile dreams with reality.
The destruction of our hopes and dreams, however, should not be depressing—at least not yet. College is the best, and possibly last, place to indulge our crazy fantasies. In college, we can experience the sweet glory of sports victory on our house intramural teams, even if we will never be involved in sports after graduation. At UT, we can command the stage in an Oscar Wilde play, even if our dreams of Broadway are never realized. In Sosc class, we can force people to listen to our ill-informed rants about Marx, even if academia will rightfully reject them when we are seeking tenure a few decades later. At the Maroon, I can be a regular columnist and write for the main student newspaper. Will I write for The New York Times? Probably not, though Bob Herbert has a regular column there, so who knows?
It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-year still finding your way or a fourth-year drowning your B.A. sorrows at the pub. (See you all at Pub Night!) Join an RSO, do something wacky, and have fun. Being an aspiring actor in college is cool. Being a 40-year-old office manager heavily involved in community theater in the desperate hope that some waylaid talent agent will accidentally see your show and grant you a big break isn’t.
You probably won’t end up famous, but that’s exactly the point. This may be your last chance to pretend to be what you’ve always wanted, and you can have a great time doing it. Who cares that there clearly are not enough talented singers to fill the 73 a cappella groups on campus? Wannabe musicians, go (poorly) sing your hearts out! For those still looking for words of inspiration, I can offer nothing better than the wisdom of a renowned modern-day warrior named after a Renaissance painter, a fighter who managed to capture his carefree, adventurous attitude in a single word: Cowabunga.