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Graduates, Where Now?

I advise you to make a mess for a few years. You might just end up happier for screwing up.

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Instead, I advise you to make a mess for a few years. You might just end up happier for screwing up. Nota bene: If you screwed up all the way through college, so you don't have a clue what nota bene means, you should put this article down right now, pick up the classified ads and get a job! Also, drop this article, those of you who were 80-hour-per-week workaholic kids with two internships, five extracurricular activities and 18 hours of courses each semester. Come to think of it, you'd be too busy to read, as you rush off to work in your $40,000 SUV while clutching a cell phone, gulping coffee and checking e-mail on your BlackBerry. I will pray for you.

But if you are the sort of former student who really, really laments the passing of academic life and the intense friendships, loves and debauches of college, read on. I write this from a funny place — the same reading room at the University of Virginia where, in 1983, I was kicked out for sleeping on an overstuffed leather sofa. I had been trying to study, I explained, as a librarian gently but firmly showed me and my copy of William Blake's collected poems the door. I am sure I deserved it. I probably drifted into the Land of Nod thinking about how good some lady I'd seen looked in cutoffs.

College life was a luxury, four short years of focused bliss that I did not recognize then. So often we were thrown to the dogs afterward. Many 40- and 50-something faculty who taught you graduated into a turbulent, depressing economy. We left college reluctantly, missing its noise and its quiet, its surprises and certitude. For many of us, we had just begun to enjoy academics, to relish a life of the mind ignored by a wider culture that prefers stupidity and shallowness, when the university bursar sent us the bill for our caps and gowns. The least geeky professors I know tended to start out that way, then messed around for a few years, finally landing in grad school because they knew in their bones that it was the only life for them.

If you are one of those intellectually curious college grads, I recommend spending some time exploring the world before settling into a cubicle with a rotten job and a worse boss all to pay for a mortgage, two expensive cars you really don't need, and a growing family before you are ready for kids. Such a road, once chosen, can rarely be abandoned. On the other hand, taking a different exit may not land you in grad school, as it did me, but you may find wild joy in a career that comes up behind you one day and knocks you over the head.

So, recent graduates, do some of the things my classmates and I have done in the 22 years since I was kicked off the couch in Charlottesville. May you go forth into the world with logs in your eyes, or at least feeling that way from drinking until 5 a.m. with a bunch of Spaniards. May you leave the cocoons of family and university with mud on your heels, because you fell down an embankment while trying to climb to the top of a volcano in Indonesia. May all of you have to work one utterly hideous job so you'll appreciate that many other people lack your options. May you dance among ancient standing stones on a Welsh mountaintop. May you move beyond the glandular parade of collegiate "hookups" every weekend to have a sustained, wild, disastrous affair with a lover who leaves you heartbroken, yet wiser, after you do something utterly moronic. May you learn never to reassign blame for that, or for your own unobservant stupidity when a pack of wild dogs attacks you while you are reading James Joyce. May you go back to your campus, feel like a ghost because everyone you know is gone and then laugh at your premature demise. May you never erect a shrine to your old school using your study, office or license plate.

Blake wrote, in his "Proverbs of Hell," that "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." I had learned that much before I got kicked off the couch. So may you be wise and happy. And may you never, ever, be bored for long. S



Joe Essid (U.Va. '83) teaches English at the University of Richmond

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