Summer; or, The Time a Young Woman’s Fancy Turns to Unstructured Intellectual Pursuits; or, Half of College Gone and All I Got Were Many, Many T-Shirts

Well, here we go. This is it. I’m timing this post to go up right as I turn in the last assignment of my sophomore year of college, a final exam in children’s literature. When you read this, I really will be halfway done, and I really will be able to turn my attentions to the days ahead: to summer, to plans for next fall and spring, to my independent work, which is increasingly becoming my driving preoccupation. I have begun to take very seriously this sense that my time as an aimless liberal-arts student is beginning to draw to a close; I feel myself to be taking the first steps towards the specialization that will only increase in the second half of college and then in graduate school. And, of course, I am as anxious as ever about whether I am ready. I am as anxious as ever about the dwindling amount of time I have to spend with my friends before I go to England and they graduate.

And yet I write this, now, in my window seat here over my archway, enjoying my last week of rosy sunset light on the faux-Gothic stone and copper trim of the building behind me, all my windows thrown open to catch the springtime air. I am drinking tea and listening to Bach and rejoicing in the nearly-summerness of it, the time when the air is clear and everything is bright and the damp heat of New Jersey hasn’t actually happened yet. It’s hard not to get excited about this summer, and not to pre-empt it (even though, as I write, I haven’t finished studying children’s literature), because this summer I’m having everything I want out of a summer. I’m visiting some friends, I’m doing some traveling, I’m spending some time with my family, I’m doing some community service, and most of all I’m reading. I have no job nor internship, no sublet in a strange city, no deadlines nor assignments (aside from my usual commitments to Campus Progress). This summer I intend to take slowly and deliberately, and I intend to read some books I haven’t read, to gain the cultural education of traveling to new places, to get the ball rolling on my independent work, to—in short—play at being scholar. And I am grateful, oh so grateful, that I am not seeking to gain entrance to a line of work that requires some method of professional preparation other than monastic intellectual contemplation. I am so grateful that I’ve found a calling which will, some years hence, reward a reading summer.

I do believe it is selfish and elitist to spend four months seeking to serve only oneself, and that’s why I will continue some of my part-time volunteer and paid journalistic endeavors this summer. It’s also why I will be volunteering at the San Diego LGBT Community Center, a wonderful resource which has a concrete and local impact on residents of my hometown. I remain dubious about the degree to which your average public-sector college-student internship usually makes the world a better place; by contrast, I feel as if the Center, which uses mostly volunteer labor, is having a profound impact on the lives of people very far from a locus of state or federal government. And so, as I sit in my beloved window seat for one of the last times, I think of the fact that I will probably be working with LGBT teenagers at the Center, and the fact that we all owe some kind of duty to the next generation, and that we all have the capacity to educate, no matter where our disciplinary interests lie.

Of course, we will not be effective teachers if we are not first effective learners; we must learn to develop not just our stores of knowledge but our capacities for sympathy and empathy—and those of us whose talents lie in the verbal must practice our writing through reading and our speaking through listening. Reading Richard Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde—which is what I did today, outside in the glorious sun—is thus, in some sense, a prerequisite to supervising a queer youth group. Not because of who Wilde was, and who my charges will be, necessarily; but rather because intellectual engagement of any kind is worth something, and perhaps because Wilde is himself a sympathetic character (Ellman, at least, would have us believe so), and if you haven’t got sympathy, well, what have you got? And as I read the Ellman biography, I think that when I am in Paris this summer I will have to visit the Père Lachaise cemetery, because you don’t need to be a gay man to make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Oscar Wilde.

I have been torn for many years between anachronisms on both ends of the time scale, between pretending that Princeton is a romanticized 19th-century Arcadia and immersing myself 24/7 in the digital realm. I don’t know whether it’s the promise of Oxford next year or my own intellectual maturation or something else entirely, but I think that, more and more, the former is winning out. Yes, I know, I am still writing on this blog—but I am believing again something I haven’t believed since elementary school (and certainly couldn’t have articulated then): it is books, and not the Internet, which have the power to make me into a better person. It is books which actually have the power to make me happy, and which can quiet my demons of self-loathing. And, thankfully, I am not the only person who believes this in the ivory tower.

I am not going to post my address publicly on the Internet, but I hope that you will send me yours, or ask me for mine: I would like to write discursive longhand letters and post them across the globe (though I must warn you that I don’t have a good track record for getting mail to China), just as historical figures and fictional characters alike will be doing in the many, many books I’ll read.

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