For many students, returning to school means returning to a financial grind. It means relinquishing the book you want to read so that you can afford the one youâÄôre required to. It means pretending that your âÄúcoffee, blackâÄù is as satisfying as a double dry cappuccino. It means foregoing everyday indulgences to subside instead on a hope that everything will one day work out, that at some unforetold moment in our lives, the forfeitures weâÄôre making now will prove their merit and pay off. What we sometimes fail to see is how they already are. Two days ago, as I sat cocooned in the number 50 bus heading home from night class, I caught a glimpse of the value in being broke.
The bus was sparsely populated and, save for the faint buzzing of someoneâÄôs far off headphones, it was silent. We were students, all, and having determined ourselves accomplished enough for one day, we rode home like a lantern bobbing through the night, each of us buried in the unfamiliar bindings of our new used books. I didnâÄôt realize the serenity of the moment until it was interrupted. A bright pink light reflected off the page of my own Brit Lit text and I looked around to find the culprit. It was easy to spot. In fact, it was just outside the window.
It was the neon letters of an advertisement for purses, and I felt as though it was leering down at me from its placard in the sky. The billboard that had tinged my page was not alone. Ads for restaurants, real estate, clothing, the next electronic device to change my life, even what beer to drink, seemed to smirk like snide accomplices aiming to disrupt the calm of the bus.
For a moment, they were successful. I thought about the holidays and wondered how by that time IâÄôd possibly be able to afford to get anything for anyone. I thought about how much I could reasonably ask for from my own parents and which wants could best go unmet. A new winter coat certainly seems like a reasonable need, I deliberated, though it would leave little money for anything else. I considered the snow that will soon cover this city, and I felt a hint of its coldness when I looked at those unreachable images in the sky. How would I ever get to the point where not every little purchase had to be a struggle laden with such thorough consideration? At a loss, I gazed around again at the other students and just as quickly as anxiety had set in, it subdued under the realization that right now is an extraordinary moment in our lives because our being broke forcibly immunizes us to the commercialism that permeates American culture at large.
As students, most of us arenâÄôt yet worrying about maintaining our incomes long enough to pay off 30 year mortgages. We arenâÄôt hyperventilating over our nearing retirements or dwindling retirement accounts. We arenâÄôt stressing over how weâÄôll one day put our own children through school.
Instead, with our sullied backpacks and well-worn shoes, we are reading books on political science, biochemistry, architecture and religion, not to mention classics and modern bestsellers on a myriad of subjects. IâÄôm sure the minds of everyone on that bus were wondering beyond the limitations of the page to regions who knows how daring or remote. How many of our parents go to work every day surrounded by people so dedicated to learning? Quite possibly we will never again find ourselves amongst a population as committed to ideas as those who surround us now. Being a student allows us to live apart from the materialism of the age.
All of society seems arranged to keep us constantly wanting of that next elusive thing, the ever-fleeting answer to what we are currently missing. The bright lights of billboards illuminate the vacancies in our own lives, and eventually, as we find jobs, buy homes and populate those homes with dogs, children and fancy light fixtures, complications will replace the simplicities we take for granted now.
Travel will no longer be as easy as splitting gas and hotel rooms amongst friends. The most impactful conversations of our day probably wonâÄôt be dynamic discussions on concepts that feel deep or important. Not being able to afford to eat out may seldom result in hodgepodge dinners amongst close friends and roommates. The bohemia in which we are now living, admired in the days of Hemingway, will be challenged again and again by the sheer number of advertisements we will face and the brand-conscious culture theyâÄôve created. But when else in life will learning and thinking be our greatest responsibilities?
I realized as I sat on that bus that I was, for what will surely be a blip in my own life, part of a culture completely opposite of modern societyâÄôs âÄî ours is a culture wholly committed to thought. I donâÄôt mean that all of college life is Dead Poet Society romance, nor do I mean to indict the future that awaits us.
I simply mean to suggest that life, in one sense, is a series of contradictions, and that for all that weâÄôll seemingly gain, innumerable intangible luxuries will be lost. The more we will acquire, the more committed we will become to the obligations that accompany such acquisitions, and the less time and energy we will likely have for the concepts and thoughts that now color our days. I donâÄôt pretend that student life is anything short of stressful, and perhaps in no way more so than financially, but in lieu of money, we get human connection in its most incredible forms. Dinners in. Heated discussions. Ideas passed as text from one century to another. Heart-to-hearts amongst roommates, friends and lovers. And as I sat on that bus, I knew there was no place IâÄôd rather be than in the company IâÄôm in, whizzing past the taunting signs of commercialism as far into a meaningful future as this route will take me.
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