The night before my college graduation, I found myself on the corner of 95th Street and Broadway—talking to my mother on the phone—crying while gesticulating wildly with my unoccupied hand. The crying possessed a certain confrontational quality to it. My refrain was “You just don’t understand!” The hand gesture accompanying that specific line most readily resembled that of an angry conductor coaxing a sharp note out of a violinist.
The sad truth—and what my mother was too kind and, really, too wise to admit—was that it was actually quite simple to understand: I was graduating the next day, did not have a job, did not have a place to live, was not sure what kind of job I wanted, was not sure what kind of place I wanted to live in, and most pressing of all: I had nothing to wear to graduation.
The last was painlessly remedied after venturing to my sister’s apartment and digging through her wardrobe. But the rest remained unresolved even after I walked out of her west-side building, black wrap dress in tow.
The graduation was going to happen whether or not I had a job. It was going to happen whether or not I knew what I wanted to be when I grow up. And, really, has anyone ever known what they want to be when they grow up—aside from firemen and policemen? And the occasional veterinarian? As a kid, I think I was too busy angling to become the pink Power Ranger to notice I should’ve developed practical aspirations.
The following day came just as I knew it would. Yes, graduation day was beautiful. I would flick the person who wrote the previous line, but unfortunately, she’s right and she’s me. So it really wouldn’t be fair or comfortable.
The day was beautiful because I huddled on a bus caught in a torrential downpour with people I admire, all in caps and gowns. I watched friends I love earn degrees. I heard inspiring calls to “step out of the shadows” and “to make the world more beautiful.” And I never once felt anxious about not having a job lined up for next year. I thought about the opportunity and the excitement of what is to come. I thought about my responsibility to do something that I enjoy and find valuable.
During the phone conversation with my mother—once she’d talked some of the crying and gesturing away—I half-jokingly informed her that I was a failure at life. It was more of the same: job anxiety in the face of years of high achievement, performing well in school just to flub in the job market. She said to me, “You are so capable. You will find something.” And I said, in a moment of rare self-confidence, “I know. I can feel my capability; I know it’s strong. But it’s not being tapped.” She sighed and responded, “Miri, everyone is capable. It’s just a matter of being able to share that capability.” What she said not only put the high achiever in me in my place, but it gave me hope. It reminded me that everyone has something they’re good at: it’s just a matter of honing and making the skill relevant.
Now, job sites still produce a certain amount of panic for me. But when I scour listing after listing, the gaping possibility open before me no longer feels oppressive, as it did before my graduaion. I feel a challenge and, of course, mild anxiety. I feel a responsibility to do something I like and that will stretch my capability to its limits: to productivity and creativity.
In TV and movies, people are always throwing up their caps at the end of graduations. Just doesn’t happen. So far, I’ve graduated four times: from eighth grade, 12th grade, Barnard College, and Columbia University (two separate shindigs). Not a single one featured a hoisted cap. I thought I would be able to fling my cap and assume a sense of wild abandon: I don’t have a job, so? I can throw a cap! Well, not so. But I realized the danger of pointy cardboard pieces covered in cloth, with eyes turned to the sky, might not have been worth it just to achieve wild abandon. I have that, no metaphorical activity needed: I have a life sprawling open and undetermined before me.