Emory Students Can’t Read: On Coming-of-Age Identity

First of all, you have to understand that I don’t use any social media. That isn’t some political or aesthetic statement; it’s just a wise idea for me not to have access to the internet like that. But, what it means is that I get news several weeks late. The most extreme case of this happened my freshman year, when I learned there had been a shutdown of Congress from Stephen Colbert’s end-of-the-year clips, as I struggled to stay moving on the WoodPEC elliptical. That particular moment of dry-heaving and bewilderment mixing together was also my reaction to responses on my first op-ed for The Emory Wheel, brought to my attention by my roommate before I complained about the lack of onions in the fridge.

What surprised me about reactions to my article was not that the humor fell flat, or that I could have more visibly criticized the price inflation on campus, but general concern by the Emory body that a student was this upset about food. What I had utilized as – what I thought of as – standard metaphors were apparently the objects around which many students orbited. From the three comments that I read on my roommate’s phone before my fat fingers tabbed out of his Facebook app, I found that students were more concerned with my usage of the word “fascism” and how I didn’t understand how appetizing pimento cheese is than my article’s implication of college depression and toxic obsession.  Before I go any further, I want to say something important: pimento cheese is one of my personal top-15 cheeses — it just isn’t the cheese I prefer at 1 a.m. while possibly inebriated. Learn to mix your drinks and food properly.

While my last piece was in the style of a Woody Allen character, my dietary monologues are not that extreme. But I thought people would “get” it, you know? If the particular food metaphor in my previous piece did not work, were these students similarly confused regarding the ending of Pixar movie Ratatouille?  I spent the weekend thinking about this, taking the time to enjoy the fresh fall breeze next to hissing, copulating, defecating geese in Lullwater Park, because this was the closest way to simulate online comments. Who was I to believe that there were students at a top-ranking university who lacked basic reading skills, and were possibly going into debt without understanding metaphors used in such books as The Giving Tree and A Very Hungry Caterpillar? That obviously can’t be it.

So what does this mean? Why is it that every time someone says something at Emory, someone is going to pop up and disagree? I know Philosophy 110 (Introduction to Logic) is crowded, but there can’t be that many students playing devil’s advocate to study. What prompts the immediate backlash? As I stared into the eyes of this particularly petulant goose, whose hissing gave way to frightful squawking at my advance, I understood.

I’d like to say that I understand this thing, this movement covering our age group. This isn’t just millennials — this is a thing that coats everyone during their time in college. I want to call that thing the Powers that Be, but I already used that to define Emory, so I’ll just talk about what the thing is doing to us. It’s taking hold of us, each and every student at Emory, at every school, in every walk of life. It’s telling you that to make it out of here alive, you’re going to need to build a mask that you wear at all times. You build this mask out of parts that fit together: collegiate sports, writing clubs, Greek life, cultural organizations, art scene, thespians or even doing none of those. You’re never taught this, but you know it’s going to be easier if you just wear the best-formed mask you can build, keep it glued to your face and define yourself with it. Despite Emory being the place to “find yourself,” you’ve got to wear this mask if you’re going to be recognized.

I may not know much, but I pay attention on campus. In my four years here, I’ve seen everyone forming their masks with different rates of success and speed. I don’t at all judge people for doing it, because I understand what’s at stake. When you’re a student amassing debt, throttling you into a direction you’re not even sure is the right one for your life, feeling like you’ve only got one chance to make something of yourself, you learn to wear that mask tightly, because you know it works, and because you know it protects you. The more you commit to wearing this mask, doing your clubs, talking to your people, hanging out at your spots, you feel less and less like this world is going to take everything from you — you feel like you’ve found a home.

So I get why people don’t read, because the mask has to stay on tightly, and because you’ve got to say the right things in the right order to make sense to everyone else. Maybe what I said in my last piece didn’t make sense to everyone, so I’m going to say it without the food puns. Are you ready? Here it is:

In my four years at Emory, the closest friends I have made have come from the most different of backgrounds and ideas. They’ve tried me. Oh god, have those different opinions bothered me, but they belong to friends whom I trust with my entire life. I remember the moment we met each other on campus, between classes and over coffee, wearing masks to get through the day. When I took off my mask, they did, too, and we smiled at each other. I’m telling you that it’s okay to take off the mask, that you need to breathe. There will be all the time in the world to wear that mask to your office every day, so spend this precious time here at Emory stretching out of the comfort and into the variety of it all. You are not your mask, you are more, you must reach beyond yourself and challenge and develop the identity you’re still growing into.

Zachary Issenberg is a College senior from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.