May 29, 2012

None of the Above

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We have this habit of fitting things into neat little boxes when we don’t know how to make sense of them. Our academic experiences tell us there should be a right and wrong box to fill in for every question. We even fit the “Cornell experience” to a package of checkboxes: a list of 161 things every Cornellian should do before graduating.

We get rubrics for how our stories should be written, whether or not we choose to adhere to them. Four years ago, those lists sparked excitement for all the things we could and would do. But looking back from our last days at Cornell, it’s hard to dodge a pang of nostalgia for what we’ve checked off and what we’ll miss out on. There’s still time to make the “lasts” count, because that’s what we saved our bests for — right?

You know, I don’t think it really matters if your last days at Cornell are your best or worst. When years or months from now you scramble for a foothold that brings you back to them, you probably won’t remember the bad parts. You’ll remember how the sky felt on the Arts Quad that Friday, after you completely bombed your final exam in — what class was it?

It doesn’t really matter what we accomplish, or what we don’t. It doesn’t really matter what we’re told we should do. And it doesn’t really matter if we check everything off our lists. What sticks with us is the experience of trying, and failing. Or succeeding.

What matters is how we collapse our little boxes and take control of our own stories. What matters is how we choose to remember.

I’ve remembered, re-read and re-written a lot of stories. Since March they’ve been my own stories for a change, as I’ve tried my best to live away from the Ivy-covered bricks, scribbled dry-erase boards and comforting smell of newsprint at 139 W. State Street. Now, after four years of skewed priorities in the name of The Sun, friends and family are quick to ask, “So why did you do it?”

Sometimes I laugh and shrug. Sometimes I groan. Often I half-sarcastically quote Kurt Vonnegut, that “I was happiest when I was all alone — and it was very late at night, and I was walking up the Hill after having helped put The Sun to bed.”

But really, I think Vonnegut remembered it wrong. If I was happiest then, it was the illogical, giddy kind of happiness that comes with caffeinated sleep deprivation and anticipation of the week’s all-nighters. Rarely was I alone — and usually it was very early in the morning, and I was driving all the way to North with a car full of night editors. Head full of Quark commands and oxford commas, stomach full of Shortstop, ears still ringing from Schroeder’s screwball playlist of choice.

Or maybe he remembered it right. There was also the fiery, energized kind of happiness that comes with a hard-won scoop and anticipation of tomorrow’s front-page story. Sometimes I was alone — and it was almost always very early in the morning, and maybe I was driving to the plantations to watch the sunrise after having helped put The Sun to bed. Head full of half-thoughts and excitement, stomach still full of Shortstop, ears enjoying the silence until the paper is delivered or sleep is within reach — whichever happens first.

And here it comes: Nostalgia.

Nostalgia, for a time and place, for memories and stories, creeps its way into our identities. It unites us, because we know the rest of the Class of 2012 is writing a version of the same story. But it divides us, because what we identify with is and always will be based on our own stories, written in original thoughts and experiences.

We need those stories. They help us know that as we leave the Hill and start new chapters, the choices we made here will somehow matter — trite as it sounds, we will all be a part of Cornell, because our Cornell stories will be a part of us.

In the end, our choices — our words and actions — are what matter. They write our stories. They are all we leave, all we have, all we’ve been and all we will be. And, most of the time, they’re completely within our control.

In the past four years, we’ve accumulated achievements and failures, memberships and leaderships, friends and acquaintances, and academic and nonacademic honors. Which one of these would you choose to define your Cornell experience?

My answer is none of the above. Or maybe a little of all of the above.

I do know this: My Cornell experience isn’t the same as anyone else’s, but a few shared pages stand out. I hope you know who you are, but to everyone who contributed anecdotes, inspired plot lines, edited my rough drafts and helped cure my writer’s block: My story would be dull without you.

The moniker for this column, Collapse the Box, comes from the British street artist Banksy — opposer of dullness, champion of originality, hater of boxes: “Don’t just think outside the box. Collapse the box, and take a fucking sharp knife to it.”

I’ve strived to “think outside the box” since sixth grade, when I signed up for Odyssey of the Mind (my first extracurricular activity, and the beginning of my path to overachiever-dom) and someone told me that’s what my goal should be. The “creative problem-solving” program also told me that if the rules don’t say you can’t do something, it means you can — and probably should. More creativity meant more points.

That was all fine, until I realized that by trying to think outside of one box at a time, I was falling into a Matryoshka Doll of even bigger boxes.

In the decade since I started thinking outside boxes, I’ve learned that unless I’m moving, or sending a package, I have little use for boxes altogether. I discovered that even if the rules to a problem say you can’t do something, there’s usually a creative way around them. And somewhere under The Sun between High Rise 5 and Collegetown, I learned how to deconstruct things like rules and boxes. It’s pushed me to write a much more original story.

So forget the Big Red boxes, and just make your Cornell story a good one.

Dani Neuharth-Keusch is graduating from the College of Arts and Sciences and served as The Sun’s 129th Associate Editor. She may be reached at dneuharth-keusch@cornellsun.com.

Original Author: Dani Neuharth-Keusch