It's a sunny autumn afternoon, as I walk on the bustling campus on the day of the university's opening carnival. I've been oblivious to the existence of the swarming newcomers, trying to dodge around them, clutching an envelope of papers that are supposed to get me my BA – some six months after I garnered up all the necessary studies. It seems I'm the only one in a hurry, all the freshmen are lounging around, blocking the entrance to the Main Building seemingly without a care in the world. The situation gets worse once I get in and climb to the second floor in search of the faculty mailbox. It's noisy and the air is a little stuffy in the aftermath of the rector's speech and customary serving of wine. I feel a little out of place, the first day of classes not having had that much of significance in the last couple of years, for I am a working man, whose summers are full of early mornings and pesky schedules anyway. Navigating in the midst of students with cups of punch and smirks on their faces, I finally manage to find the elusive mailbox that I'm looking for and slide in the forms with my excursions in academia of five years carefully documented on them.
When I finally get back out on the street, a shower of light rain washes down on the people crowding the campus, with yellow sunlight still painting the scene with a slightly surreal tinge. It seems for a moment that the university must be at the starting end of a rainbow.
My out-of-placedness turns into quaint nostalgia and I try to conjure up the feelings I went through on the first day of my studies. I remember the enthusiasm, the blissful and exciting ignorance and all the new faces.
A couple of years went by with me in a comfy routine. Study, make a modest living, take care to sleep enough, watch Desperate Housewives before going to bed, hassle with student allowances – a stellar performance of run of the mill nine to five life.
If I was a freshman today, I wouldn't hold myself as an example.
My case of middle-age progressed so far that I found myself in the habit of awkwardly declining invitations, telling myself that I live too far from town and have to wake up early in the morning and thus missed a bunch of sitsit, National Meetings of English Students and the like. I even thought that going abroad for a semester sounded like a chore and that I'd have time for it later, some time after I graduated.
I probably don't need to add that the mysterious ‟later” wouldn't ever have arrived if I'd stuck to my dear routines.
Luckily then, I started shaking off my middle-aged habits on my third year at the university. I tried to worry less, spend more than save and stay up rather than go to bed. Now I'm a venerable sixth year geezer with something of a tour of duty under my belt, including a fabulous rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody in Jyväskylä, a hungover pedagogy exam after an hour or two of sleep, dancing in the moonlight in fickle Miami Beach, the legendary Naked Bike Ride at the University of Vermont and countless moments of great food, plentiful drink, thoughtful conversation and playing obscure B-sides.
If I was a freshman today, getting lost on campus and drunk at the after party, I'd like to hear the following advice:
Say 'yes', when someone has an idea or a proposition. Take your time with your studies, you'll have all your life to teach, translate or research, but you only have these short years to stay up late, dance, sing and revel – and you really don't need to know what you'll be when you grow up on the day you start your studies.
None of these activities make you a worse student or inhibit your development in any way. On the contrary, without immersing yourself in the world, in the blood and guts of it, how could you say you've ever learned anything, ever had a genuine experience that becomes a story you can tell, a story that has taught you something – a story that proves you're alive?
In the last warm rain of autumn, I find myself standing on the campus I know and love, looking at the myriad of smiling, enthusiastic faces around me and whisper to myself, to all of them, to go forth, prosper and drop all doubt. At the starting end of the rainbow that's all you need to strive for.