So there I was, reading Princeton University Dean Fred Hargadon’s famed “Letter to Prospective Applicants.” Hargadon’s letter offered advice and solace to students about to embark on the college application process, a line of which has resonated with me ever since I opened the informational packet: The person you will spend most of your life with is yourself, and therefore you owe it to yourself to become as interesting as possible.
Become as interesting as possible. Obvious, yet fairly daunting advice for a 17 year-old high school senior trying desperately to distinguish herself from the rest of the college applicants, many of whom would have read the same letter and would be trying to do the same. Was I expected to be interesting already? To have done interesting things? Was I to become interesting in college? What did interesting mean anyway?
I wasn’t sure what to make of the advice but it certainly spurred some reflection.
I’ve lived my entire life in San Jose, in three different homes within a 10 mile radius. Like virtually every other high school senior (with some exceptions, like Sarah Hughes, Olympic gold medalist admitted this fall to Harvard University—why oh why couldn’t I have been a figure skater?), my life outside school is planned around school. Among my list of accomplishments and activities are a series of fairly standard extracurriculars pursued by many Bay Area youth—speech, dance, piano lessons, school newspaper, even a year at age 8 on a recreational soccer team. I’ve accomplished much, but then again, so has every other over-achiever.
Not exactly “interesting” material.
It’s easy to discredit yourself when you’re filling out form after form, quantifying and qualifying everything you’ve ever done. I searched for an out: maybe “interesting” wasn’t contingent upon what I’d done, but what I’d seen and experienced. Maybe we shouldn’t be evaluated based on the basis of our accomplishments, but by how engaged we are in the outside world.
Engaged, interested: something I was and had always endeavored to be.
Contrary to what my New York City cousins believe and have tried, on many occasions, to convince me, San Jose is not just a suburban, tech-infested, culture-less Boresville. When I started to drive, I combed the newspaper for potential outings. I had only to read one Sunday’s Arts and Entertainment section to figure out the New Yorkers were wrong. We in the Bay Area are fortunate to have at our disposal (in addition to our glorious weather) various free lecture series, art and film festivals, and community sponsored forums. Never mind dance class, what about watching dance performances? After a speech tournament, why not attend a free lecture? I began to take advantage of all San Jose had to offer.
I began to miss school.
Each semester, my schoolmates and I are granted 10 sick days, ten permissible absences, granted we furnish the appropriate excuse notes from guardians. We’re only meant to be absent in emergencies so as not to hinder our academic growth. But without compromising my school performance, I have maximized the allotted absences. Consistently used up the granted 20 absences each year. I suppose I could have used those days to join other school clubs, so as to mention them on applications, or take extra notes for AP exams, but instead I seized opportunities to see and experience more than I could have in the classroom.
Yoko Ono’s short film “The Fly” at SFMOMA; the resulting nightmare of being eaten alive by a twitching Musca Domestica. Gloria Steinem’s talk at Castilleja inspired my own speech about the misinterpretation of feminism. A reading by Pulitzer Prize winning poet C.K. Williams has at least subliminally impacted my own compositions. Notes from Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s talk on globalization at SCU helped me structure an article for the school paper. I’ve appreciated kathakali dance performances, a Mark Rothko exhibition at the SJ Museum of Art. Heard and quoted everyone I’ve heard in person, from Madeline Albright to Vikram Seth to William J. Clinton.
And while I can’t judge how “interesting” I’ve become as a result, my absences have certainly heightened my interest in my surroundings. Interest in San Jose, in people, in literature and art and music. Interest in life. Interest in school, too.
For analyzing literature is doubly exciting after you’ve been to an open-mic poetry reading and heard an artist’s interpretation of his words. Composing an in-class reflection on the women’s liberation movement is easy when you’ve just been to a talk on the evolution of feminism. Biology lab assignments make sense when you’ve watched researchers apply the same elementary concepts you study to their work. Just as it’s pointless to discuss a book you haven’t read or review a CD you haven’t heard, attending school is fruitless if you aren’t engaged in learning outside the classroom.
And although there were far more questions about GPA and classroom conduct than my life experience on those college applications, I have at least an explanation for my school’s attendance secretary: The person I have to spend most of my life with is myself, and therefore I owe it to myself to miss a couple days here and there in order to learn and grow and get inspired.
Who knows? Maybe she’ll find me interesting.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a high school senior and an aspiring essayist.