Thursday, August 18, 2011
Helpful Psychological Tip: If you want to maintain your self-esteem, never reread any of your papers or letters from high school or college. Seriously.
Old photos are bad enough. They bring back memories of long-lost hair, and of unfortunate fashion choices. But old papers and letters remind you of how you thought.
“Callow” would be a good description. “Painfully naive.” “Completely clueless.” “Trying so, so, so very hard.”
In reading them, I’m reminded of watching a child put on his father’s suit. Except that the child knows it’s play. I didn’t.
These were the days before email, let alone Twitter. Back then, “long distance” phone calls were hideously expensive and postage was cheap, so penniless students wrote letters. And by “wrote,” I mean “handwrote.” I haven’t used cursive for anything longer than my signature since I don’t know when, but there it is, in all its glory.
One particularly painful exchange from my senior year of high school, with a young woman who had just gone off to college, featured an exchange of...I am not making this up...poems. Apparently I had written and sent some to her -- really? I did that? -- for feedback, and she politely declined to critique them, noting that it would be “like Virginia Woolf critiquing Richard Brautigan.” (We tried soooo hard...) I’m sure I didn’t get it at all. Reading her letter now, it reeks of “what-ever...,” but I didn’t get that at the time.
You forget what the world looked like at 17...
I even found a picture of me with my college girlfriend, who later came out as a lesbian. (My preferred interpretation: you’ve had the best, why try the rest?) My mullet was mighty and untamed.
The most painful part is knowing that even if fortysomething me could time-travel back and give twenty-year-old me a clue, it wouldn’t have helped. I wouldn’t have understood it. Some things just have to be learned firsthand.
Every so often now I’ll see young students doing things that remind me of the callow, clueless kid I was. Part of me wants to pull them aside and give them a clue, but I know it wouldn’t work. To them, I’m just some old guy. They have to figure it out for themselves, as painful as that is.
If nothing else, the excavation exercise is usefully humbling. Some of those kids wandering around with deer-in-the-headlight expressions will eventually be fine; they just need some time to grow into themselves. And those of us on the other side can’t try to rush them. The generation coming up may never have this experience, since they never used paper this way. At least my juvenalia isn’t floating around on the web somewhere.
Meanwhile, the shredder is getting a hell of a workout.