Growing from the Roots of Intellectualism

By Eric Wall

I took up Japanese when I was 14 years old. I had no knowledge for the country, no love for its culture, no understanding of its history or customs and no real desire to go there. I wanted to learn the language because it was good for business. It was the early ’90s, and the Japanese bubble economy had not yet burst. They were eating up New York real estate and arousing patriotic indignation. If I had to take a language, why shouldn’t I take the one that would make me money?

That’s how hungry I was at 14. It was part of a work ethic shared by a good hundred of us at Bronx Science. We came from middle to lower middle-class families, and the only way any of us were going to the college we wanted was with healthy doses of scholarship money. To come out on top, you had to fight those other hundred students for every grade.

I’ve gone back there since then. I’ve walked across the glass-strewn black top that serves as a campus, seen the large mosaic of scientists looming above the front entrance, smelled the chalk dust that permeates the rooms. The halls are made of dull, yellow brick reminiscent of New York City public schools and the windows on the ground floor are barred. The typical feelings washed over me: the place seemed smaller, the students younger, and everything a little shabbier. But you can tell in the hurried way the teachers talked, the way they asked you what you’re doing (not how) and the way they ran off to their next class, totally engrossed in sending off the next wave of students to their colleges, that things were still the same.

The plan was simple: Do well in high school, make a good college, do well in college, make a good law school, become a rich lawyer, you win. Money wasn’t everything, (after all, the name on your diploma did add a certain prestige to your accomplishment), but it was a pretty good barometer of success.

Yet even as I was graduating from high school, I was seeing another side of things. I despised the people around me. The shallow intellectualism, the reliance on grades as the sole mark of personal worth; the athletic and social inability of the students had gotten to me. And instead of going to a small, highly rated school in the wilds of Massachusetts, I decided to go to Georgetown.

Four years later, I am ready to leave this institution that I entered with so much hope for personal renewal. I wonder how much I have changed from that determined freshman, how much I have been able to shake the stigma of those formative high school years.

There was something very new to me in the red-bricked streets of Georgetown and the flickering street lamps. The mere beauty of the place, the massive Flemish-Gothic feel of Healy, the vast expanse of green that makes up the main campus, has always captivated me. I’ll see the clocktower as I walk home on 35th Street, or as I run along the Potomac past the Kennedy Center or on the cab ride back from the airport. Each time, I am amazed that I have taken classes in that building.

I cannot adequately explain the vast difference that college life has made for me. I remember going straight home from high school every day, procrastinating but, in the end, finishing off my homework sometime near midnight and then calling it a night. I didn’t know how to drive, and there really was no need to. I didn’t have the time to drive to the other side of the city and see my friends. There was work to do _ the race was still on.

If I was more than a little exuberant in my college days, forgive me. The magic of dying summer nights, the smell of spilt beer on fresh grass, the laughably boisterousness of party life; all these were magical to me. Every night seemed a new adventure, a social foray. There is always something nostalgic for me about a springtime party on a patio that a bar can’t capture.

Slowly, I have changed. This new context, these new people – the rugby players, the closet artists, the theater people – brought out a new side of me. They allowed me to relax and, though perhaps they saw me as different, they tolerated my streak of intellectualism, spent time with me and listened to me.

Those who knew me freshman year will remember the inexplicably dark and bitter young man who often struggled to control his feelings. And while some would still note my tendency toward pessimism and Russian literature, I think it is safe to say that I am a healthier person, that those long runs to the Jefferson emorial, those half-drunken (or totally, completely blitzed) conversations, the poetry readings, the Baudelaire readings and even those moments of limited, one-night intimacy have added experience to that questioning creature who first came here. He now bears a measure of confidence, a new-found fondness for humanity, and his constitution bears a much more even keel. If there are times at which I dislike man, at least I have also seen his angelic side.

And yet, though we seek personal renewal, total change is, finally, impossible. It was only in my senior year that I realized that I was still an intellectual, that I would always be seen as such. Though I like to meet new people, I am unwilling to give up that which I am, the precise if unusual words, the questioning nature, my love for the music that moves me. What is more, a part of me will always crave that sort of stimulation, though I will always cringe from people who see it as the be all and end all. I have come to accept this as part and parcel of who I am.

But what has really surprised me is that the hunger is still there. While my focus in college has been the social aspect of my life, I have never let the academic side slide. A combination of skill and luck has given me the right teachers and the right classes and _ unintentionally _ I have thrived as never before. Despite everything, I am still following the plan. I applied to law school this year and have been fortunate enough to have a range of choices.

In the end, I was forced to choose between a school I saw much in the same light as Georgetown – serious students in a supportive setting in a beautiful building in downtown New York – and a prestigious, highly academic-oriented school in assachusetts with a far more cutthroat environment. And after comparing all things, I felt in my heart that I wanted to go the second.

The mentality scares me. I always use the word “hungry” to describe it because it reminds me of wild animals in a particularly harsh winter. They will do anything to survive, nothing short of eating their own young or cannibalizing their own kind. For many of us who fought to get here, that mentality remains, though the meaning of survival becomes absurd. It represents a level of material welfare we believe we cannot pass below. And it necessarily represents entrenchment in the material, at all costs, to the detriment of the spirit and, in the end, happiness. It is the double-edged sword by which we vanquish our enemies and disembowel ourselves.

My hope is that I have learned enough in my four years here. The broader, more stable person I see myself as cannot be an illusion. I need to steel myself; I need to remember the lessons I have learned from all of you, over beers, on patios, over the last screeches of the cicadas.

For better or for worse, this relationship has come to an end. No more will I return to see the dark, Gothic clocktower rise over the Potomac and feel the simple solace that comes from knowing that I will soon walk down the red-bricked streets, up through the gates and onto the luxuriant lawn. My friends will no longer be there to greet me and, without them, there is no Georgetown.

Eric Wall is a former features editor, columnist and member of the Board of Directors for The Hoya.

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