Newsletter 130: The Beautiful Obliviousness of College Students

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from October 2018, about looking at college students in a coffee shop and thinking they might be dumbest, loveliest creatures on the planet.

This has been one of those weeks where I have found it mentally healthy to bury myself in my work. It’s World Series week, which usually means I’m traveling all over the country, but I didn’t make the trip this year, so I’ve basically split my days. In the morning, I do my MLB.com and New York and jobby-job type writing, and in the afternoon, I’ve headed to a coffee shop to work on the book. I’ve only recently reached a point with the book where I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and thus feel comfortable at least admitting its existence to the world, and I’m trying to steer into the skid with it by working on it as much as possible. I don’t know if any of you will ever see it, but I now actually do now think it’s gonna get finished at some point, maybe even soon.

But since it’s such a different sort of writing than the day-to-day here are the pieces I made for you this week, writing I’m obsessive about but can comfortable pivot into and out of, I’ve found it beneficial to get out of the house, and into a coffee shop, to really focus in on the headspace I need to be in. There’s a Jittery Joe’s coffeehouse just down the road from my home here in Five Points, Athens, and even though I don’t drink coffee — I’m the guy who comes into a coffee shop and buys four individual cans of Diet Coke — it’s an ideal place to sit down and dig in.

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I’ve written about this coffee shop before. But being here every day this week has reminded me of something I always forget here in Athens: I’m surrounded by college students.

I don’t remember any adults from my years at the University of Illinois. I remember professors, sure, along with a few advisors at the Daily Illini and the old guy who used to tend bar at the Tumble Inn, the off-campus tavern I always went to because it was the only place in town that showed Cardinals games. But as for real grownups, townies, people the way that I am now, regular adults who just happen to live in the town where the madness of being a college student is happening, I don’t recollect ever coming across any of them. (Maybe they were at some of the old weed parties in Urbana and I just missed them.) Being a college student is to be in a bubble that only contains you and other college students, for four whole years (or longer, if you’re lucky). Now, know that the person telling you this was a notoriously terrible student who skipped class so often he once met his professor for the first time at the final — and got a C-, thank you very much! — but to my view, the actual experience of college, all you learn about yourself, all you’re exposed to, the last vestige of pure identity and self-understanding before the real world comes and takes big huge chunks out of you … that vastly outpaces whatever book knowledge college can provide. I can count the number of classes I even remember from college on one hand. But I have never been more of a different person at the end of one four-year stretch than I was at the beginning of it than the four years of college.

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The main thing you realize when you live in a town where half the population consists of college students is just how staggeringly young they really are. They are children. More than that: They are children who have been left alone for the first time in their lives, to wake up in the morning and decide their identity entirely by themselves, and it is a really wild thing to watch. It’s like seeing a whole town in its awkward phase. They all wear the same oversized T-shirt, as if they made it halfway out the door before they realized they weren’t wearing anything so they just grabbed whatever was closest. They all look half-asleep all the time, but not in the exhausted, slumped-shoulders, I-can’t-take-one-more-day-of-this-shit way the rest of us look; they look like they might just doze off right there in front of you, like a cat does. They don’t need to sleep, but might as well, ya know? It’s also fun to watch them eat, when they turn from a cat into a shark: They dig into their food with what can only be called lust, like they just now remembered, oh yeah, I’m super hungry. They are an irresistible combination of indulgently coddled and overwhelming stressed. There is no other stage in life like it.

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But what I love most about college students is that they don’t know. They don’t know what waits for them. They don’t know that, soon, not only will their lives force them to make compromises they never could have anticipated, but, in fact, that their life will be nothing but compromises. That all the things they value — love, art, poetry, sex, sleep, philosophy, parties, knowledge, politics, the meaning of life — these things are not going to go away when they leave college … they will just suddenly become much more minor parts of their lives than they’re probably supposed to be. They will become secondary to work stresses, and schedules, and bill-paying, and dating apps, and Your Career Path, and your spouse, and your family, and your spouse’s family, and your family’s spouses, and your long-term financial security, and the children, oh, do not forget about the children. College students are able to be focused on macro issues, The Meaning Of It All, because their micro issues are so minor, and mostly accounted for; this is half the point of college, after all, to try to answer the big questions and ignore the little ones. But once you’re out, there’s no time for the big questions. So much is coming at you, too quickly. You’re too busy rowing as fast as you can so the ship doesn’t completely come apart to give much time and thought to philosophy, or your hopes, and your best self, and What You Wanted To Be When You Grew Up. Maybe life works out for you after college, and maybe it doesn’t. But in college, you still think it’s gonna. The world is infinite. There is always something to dream on.

It makes them beautiful. Sometimes in here I can’t stop staring at them, the gorgeous slack-jawed fools. They don’t know what they’re missing, or what they’re going to miss. They don’t have any idea. They don’t know how little regard the world really has for them. They don’t know how much of their lives will be ruled by regret and fear. They don’t know that someday they’ll be questioning every move they make right now, moves they don’t even give a second’s thought to, and they’ll be doing it for the rest of their lives. They don’t know they’re going to someday work in an entirely different field than they imagine, a field that might not even exist now. They don’t know how much they’re gonna love their goddamn kids someday. They don’t know the stakes. They don’t know that the first job they take after college could alter the whole trajectory of their lives. They don’t know that one decision they make on a random day at a random bar in Brooklyn is going to change their entire life in ways they won’t realize until decades later. They don’t know how important every move they make is, now, later, forever.

They have no idea. They just sit and study and eat and sleep and fuck and laugh and cry and drink and smoke and bite into everything life has to offer them like they’re the first person who has ever done it and the last who ever will. They just sip their coffee here and open their books and text their friends and then look up and wonder why the weirdo with the laptop and the Cardinals hat is staring at them with misty eyes. And then they move on with their day, just another in an endless string of them that laze out forever in front of them until they someday stop. I do not envy them. But goddamned are they beautiful, these exquisite idiots, these clueless dreamers, these infinite children.

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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