A mighty visionary once said:
I couldn’t even get an answer.
Tried to call,
But my pride wouldn’t let me dial.
And I’m sitting here,
With this blank expression.
And the way I feel,
I wanna curl up like a child.”
Now, not that I believe you ever need to justify reminiscing over P. Diddy’s artistic genius, but I bring up this musical excerpt for a reason. The great Puff Daddy may have been referencing a man’s relationship with his sexual mate, but his words are just as applicable to our relationship with ourselves (God, I’m so deep).
Allow me to elaborate. Here we are, college students on the verge of entering the “real world” sometime between 1 and 6 years in the future. The threat of real responsibility, of adulthood, looms before us. And we might wonder, are we really ready? Are we mature enough to take that step into adulthood? P. Diddy speaks the truth of our situation. For me at least, my pride (tinged with massive amounts of fear) often prevents me from really addressing those tough questions. And when I do get up the courage to consider the unknown future, I too just want to “curl up like a child” (especially if curl up like a child implies intense nausea).
But my questionable extended metaphors aside, this brings me to my real quandary: when are we really adults? What is qualifier that changes us from child to grown-up?
I began pondering this question last Friday night. On my way to visit some friends, I came upon a mass exodus of freshman from Wilbur, slowly making their way to the Row. Eager to bypass the frat-bound herd, I weaved my way in and out of the crowd until I came to a barricade of six freshman males walking abreast, completely obstructing my path.
“Excuse me, boys.” I said, squeezing my way between them.
“Hey!” The voice resonated with indignation behind me. I turned to confront the speaker.
The evident leader of this little band puffed up his chest. “We are not boys,” he said proudly. “We are MEN. We are in college now.”
While my immediate response was to choke on my own laughter while the mental image of real men (think Hugh Jackman) passed through my brain, his words got me thinking. Does college make us men and women instead of boys and girls? Is it the quintessential rite of passage?
We learn that historically things like puberty often marked the crossover from childhood to adulthood. Menstruation was celebrated as the entry into womanhood (and with it your entry onto the wife market). In some ancient cultures, a boy wasn’t considered a man until he led his first hunt or survived a night camping in the wilderness alone.
Yet times have changed. Not every boy has access to a spear and a wild boar to prove his manliness, and that first awkward trip to CVS to buy tampons made me feel anything but womanly (mortified and, again, nauseous, would be more accurate). So what IS the gold standard of adulthood in our modern American culture? Was the young freshman right? Does college make us into men and women (although my maturity levels argues to the contrary)? Maybe the distinction is something different. Financial independence? Holding a full-time job? Turning 21? 25? 30? Getting married? Having a child? What is the qualifier?
Or are we wrong to look for some sort of obvious milestone to turn us into adults? Maybe it is not a biological development or the ability to rent a car that makes us into grown-ups. Maybe being men and women is only determined by something as intangible as a state of mind.
Or better yet (wait for it…) perhaps adulthood is nothing more than a construct designed by societies to force us into responsible behavior. I ask myself, other than physicality, what distinguishes woman Andrea from child Andrea? Responsibility? Stress? The feeling that I should be ashamed if (read: when) I eat ketchup by itself or cry in public? Certainly I am more educated and more experienced than my child-self, but are we to agree with our cynical compatriots that those qualities must inevitably beget the negative components of adulthood? Maybe we do not become adults because of a change in who we are, but the belief that we are adults compels us to modify our behavior.
I’m not arguing that adulthood – whether real or fabricated – is unnecessary; more than that, I’m wondering if, and how, it’s achievable. Coming to Stanford certainly hasn’t made me convinced of my womanhood. The jury is still out on whether or not graduation will (although living in a box under a bridge due to post-graduate unemployment seems like a strong contender for that distinction). But regardless, I sincerely doubt there is some switch, some momentous event, that makes us pass instantly from child to adult*. I’m kinda hoping that one day it’ll just sneak up on me.
So, I give a shout out to you, dear freshman boy/man/man-boy, wherever you are. I congratulate you on your certainty of your own adulthood (I give you props if it sticks). You have achieved something I cannot claim. You have found your answer to my big question. But as for me, I’ll have to continue to ponder when and what will turn me into an adult, for, to quote another musical genius of our generation, “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.”
*An intense regime of Boyz II Men has proved an unsuccessful catalyst in this process