A couple years ago, my parents and I loaded up the rental and embarked on the fabled highway 95 New England college road trip. I made a last minute decision to beg for a detour to Ithaca to visit Cornell, and eventually we found ourselves on the Arts Quad, listening to a smile-prone sophomore give her tour-guide spiel about the University.
Halfway through the tour, we passed the Johnson Museum, and our guide began to describe the programs and displays it hosted on a regular basis. At some point during this talk, she mixed up her words and referred to the museum as “my Johnson.” She immediately corrected herself and moved on, but there was no going back. She’d said it. I laughed out loud.
I mean, come on. My Johnson. As in her you-know-what.
This was too much for my immature seventeen-year-old mind, and I lost my cool. During my attempts to conceal my fit of incessant chuckles, I made eye contact with another pre-frosh who shared my apparent love for potty-humor. It was now our joke. Throughout the rest of the tour, we looked at each other twice more, laughing each time in remembrance of the comedic gold we’d witnessed.
Thinking back, it wasn’t funny at all. But that moment, and the friendship I’d forged from it had a profound impact on my college decision. At my other college visits, the students around me — pensive high school seniors straightening themselves out in attempts to play it cool, glancing around their tour groups to guess who had what it took to actually get accepted — were almost depressing. They walked from hall to hall, talking to no one because when it all comes down to it, we’re all just admissions competitors.
But here, at Cornell, this lanky goofball was lighthearted enough to share a laugh with me about johnsons.
So, from that moment on, I considered Cornell to be the one university on my list where students liked to have fun. Sure, it was absolutely irrational. Sure, the Penn tour kid who wouldn’t say a word to me might have laughed too if he had the chance to hear the same slip-up I did at my Cornell tour. But none of that mattered. It was Cornell where I laughed sporadically with a stranger for 30 minutes, and no force of logic could get me to disassociate that moment from my perception of the school. So, largely because of this “Johnson” business, I applied early decision to Cornell and never looked back.
This week, as I saw the next wave of Cornellians waddle around in packs on campus, I thought about my tour buddy. I don’t remember what he looks like, I don’t remember his name and I haven’t the slightest idea where he goes to college. But without him, my life would look a lot different from how it looks now.
It got me thinking: what if I’ve unknowingly impacted someone in a significant way? What if there’s somebody sitting in the grass on the other side of the country, thinking back about some moment that, to me, was forgettable and unexciting, but to them was deeply meaningful?
A while ago, I got into a conversation with a friend of mine about the best compliment he’d ever gotten. It was intriguing, so I began to extend the question to others I knew, in various conversations about various topics. The answers were oddly predictable: people found their best compliments in moments that didn’t contain an explicit compliment at all. More often than not, the response was a reference to some occasion long ago when an unexpected somebody, sometimes a stranger, told a one of my friends that they had impacted them in some way.
Ask anybody at Cornell about why they picked the career they did, and you’re likely to hear the word “impact” five or six times. It’s the buzzword of our generation. But sometimes I fear that we often only think of it as some lofty goal to be attained someday in our 40s. We “make an impact” every day. And we could definitely do it more right now.
My buddy from the Johnson might never hear me tell him that he helped me make the right college decision. But there are other people around me who “have an impact” on me everyday — and a meaningful one, at that. I know they’d love to hear what they’ve done for me, and I know that if I told them, it could even end up being their favorite compliment of all time. But I still don’t usually do it. Sometimes “thanks” is a bit too vulnerable for my tastes.
But maybe it’s time to be a little bit more vulnerable.
Paul Russell is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Russelling Feathers appears every other Wednesday this semester.