Columns

Simon ’16: I’ll have the special

By
Opinions Editor
Thursday, November 12, 2015

I don’t remember too much of my freshman orientation. It was both four years ago and, well, let’s just leave it at it being four years ago. And yet I have the distinct displeasure of vividly remembering one particular orientation session led by two faculty members, which was attended by what appeared to be a large percentage of the freshman class.

We were bombarded with empty rhetoric on tradition, education, exploration, success and a smattering of buzzwords best left for corporate America. Then, one of the session leaders posed such a nauseating question that I knew, from that point on, I’d have to be killed three times over to ever rinse it from memory: “How many of you think you’re special?”

“Raise your hand if you think you’re special.” He was serious. Several students raised their hands — many presumably had the gall to think about it. He reassured the remaining pupils in the auditorium that we were all special, which naturally stroked our vulnerable freshman egos, and thus the brainwashing merrily continued.

But for the duration of the assembly I wanted to vomit. Then I wanted to burst into fits of hysterical laughter. Then I wanted to cut loose and walk out. But I was seated in the front row, and that would have been impolite. So I composed myself and wept internally.

The word “special” has become a recursive incantation of educators, parents, Lady Gaga and the Disney Channel. Its use is hijacked daily by doting mothers and fathers whenever some devilish impulse compels them to describe their children in Faberge detail, which happens all but too infrequently for my patience. Children are taught from an early age that they can do anything, be anything and — most criminally — have everything.

They all get older, but they don’t grow up. They all think they’re special.

Well, let me tell you who’s special: Oprah Winfrey, Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai to name a few. And how many times do you think any of these international role models were ever told they were special growing up? Was it the one raised in the backwoods of Mississippi in abject poverty? Was it the one molested by relatives? Or was it the one who, at just 14 years old, prematurely bore a son who died in infancy?

Pardon me, those all referred to Oprah. But I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t think Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison or Malala Yousafzai’s gun wound to the face ever made either of them feel special.

No, I am convinced the word “special” and the sentiment behind it should be reserved for individuals who do something extraordinary with their lives. I would not award anyone’s life the accolade of being considered extraordinary unless I changed my personal definition of the word to include anyone who accomplishes a feat that’s concomitantly achieved by approximately 14,000 separate individuals, which just so happens to be the total number of undergraduates matriculating at Ivy League institutions each and every year.

There’s a difference between being special and being privileged, lucky and intelligent. But it’s a difference that becomes muddled in the Ivy League, where apparently students are not only taught that they’re special but also inculcated with this idea from day negative one of their freshman year.

With class sizes of well over 1,000, we cannot possibly all be special. We cannot all become president of the United States. We cannot all win a Nobel Prize. We cannot all ascend to CEO of a Fortune 500 company, cure cancer, eradicate poverty, summer with royalty, get away with using the word “summer” as a verb, be the face of a new political movement (how many can possibly be left?), make $1 billion  or — preferably — inherit $1 billion. Nor can we all be the underdog from Louisville, Kentucky, who becomes an instant star-spangled American hero after intercepting a homebound nuclear missile with a makeshift slingshot.

We all have dreams. And we all bring them with us to college. Some of them will come to fruition, but many will be crushed. Or more palatably put, “reevaluated.”

One can argue college affords you time to figure out who you are as a person and what you want to do with the rest of your life. But one can argue more logically that college offers you four full years to figure out who you aren’t and what you will likely never become. That’s what makes college so brutally efficient.

I’m choosing to take a realistic approach to the disquieting, nagging truth that we’ve all become so expert at avoiding: reality.

I know you’re not supposed to say this, but there’s nothing wrong with putting your dreams on the permanent back burner. There’s nothing wrong with ending the pursuit of something that’s been the source of so much strife, frustration and unfulfillment. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with challenging yourself just a little bit less and accepting the truth that perhaps you just aren’t the kind of special you were led to believe.

I recognize that saying this is also unpatriotic — it agitates the very notion of the American dream: Work hard and prosper. Well, I’d like to ask our nation’s leaders to define “prosper” and then define for whom. Lest we want to send every discontented, disillusioned Ivy League student into a stunted state of academic paralysis and depression — whoops!

Too late.

Chad Simon ’16 can be reached at chad_simon@brown.edu.