It’s now been about a month since graduation; over the course of that month, I’ve gone through some disappointments in my shaky post-college plans, experienced some soaring successes in my summer goal of being more social and spontaneous, and turned twenty-two. I’ve discovered that it takes about this long after commencement for people to stop sympathizing with your flighty don’t-have-a-clue-in-life attitude toward the “real world,” and start asking questions; only, now they expect answers.
A part of me enjoys telling people I’ve recently graduated; they light up and treat me for a fleeting moment like it’s my birthday. The other part of me—the part that tends to dominate—dreads sharing the news; inevitably, people ask what I’m doing next year, and because I can’t bring myself to lie too often, I have to admit that I don’t know, that I’m trying to do certain things, that I’ll offer updates in a few months if they happen—and if they don’t happen, I’ll probably be in hiding, wallowing in my own shame and disappointment. Well, I don’t actually say that last part, but I think people still see straight through my forced optimism and excitement at what the future may hold. (I do feel optimistic and excited sometimes, though it’s generally only after a few drinks.)
Applying for summer jobs, for example, brings perhaps the harshest reminder that I am not yet grad school-bound, not zipping up a hot new pantsuit for a sweet new office job, and not yet booking tickets for any long-term, enviable travel. All I want, right now, just to keep me floating for a couple of months, is a casual summer job. But when I handed over my application at a small-town, family-owned restaurant today, the owner looked up at me and asked, “Why aren’t you looking for a real job?” I stammered, trying to explain the temporary in-between phase as she gave me a pitiful smile and a half-hearted promise to call.
Fortunately, people at least react differently now than they did upon hearing of my uncertain college plans. After high school, once I finally knew my higher education destination and finally felt prepared to face the inquiring urges of so many unwanted advice-filled adults, it occurred to me that they would also want to know what I would be studying, not simply where. I didn’t see the need to make such an important decision when the option “Undeclared” mercifully appeared on the drop-down menus of every application I filled out. What’s the rush? It seemed acceptable to me. No one is actually sure about everything or anything, so I thought it was fine for me, a clueless 17-year-old, to be unsure about this.
But when adults, and many students my own age, heard that I was undeclared they would all of a sudden start shifting on their feet, wringing their hands, and their faces would melt into the look you might give someone after they told you they’d just come in last in a big, very important, everything-depends-on-it race. “Oh, well,” they’d start to say, shaking their head, “you know, that’s OK.” Pursed lips managing a forced, uncomfortable smile below a creased brow. I should have worn a giant red “U” on my chest for the first two years of school. (Yes, I did ultimately major in English and now reference books like The Scarlet Letter.)
So you finally choose a major, end up doing pretty well in it, end up feeling like hey, you can do this. Then it’s over. Right when you figure it out and really get good at the whole college thing, it ends. You get your empty leather portfolio on a big stage in 100-degree heat, and then go…celebrate?
Many people seem to understand this inner struggle that I’m sure exists in most recent college grads, the bittersweet taste that hangs in our mouths after a toast of champagne and a big slice of sugary “ConGRADulations!” cake. For this reason, when I tell most people of my lofty hopes and rather unlikely plans for the following year, they clap me on the back and say, hey, good for you. Whatever it is, good for you. You have time.
I guess they only behave this way when you’re not asking them for a job. I now long for the days when I could answer questions with a simple “undeclared.” I don’t know why that’s not an acceptable term to use for future life plans. Sure, I have my goals, but what I am actually doing will, until further notice, remain undeclared.