My wife went from elementary school through high school at a private school in Kansas City. That school sent her one of those alumna magazines the other day. This was a new experience for me, as neither of the small Arkansas public schools I attended feature little alumni magazines. They pretty much limit things to homecomings and reunions. I do note, sometimes, the difference in the way our respective colleges handle these matters.
My wife attended Scripps College, a liberal arts school which is one of the affiliated small "Claremont Colleges" in southern California, a graceful campus filled with sunlight, Mediterranean buildings, and thoughtful undergraduates. I attended the University of Arkansas, brick and concrete buildings rimmed by Ozark Mountains, which competes neck and neck with Texas A & M and Cal--Davis for best pig science school in the country. One can pick up my school's alumni magazine and compare it with my wife's school's alumna magazine and tell the difference. All the ads in the Arkansas magazine feature ways to import onto one's person, one's sport coat or one's automobile license the image of the Razorback, a rather eager-looking hog with a ridged back.
In my wife's alumna magazine, there is no similar sports focus--the ads tend to be about enriching seminars one can attend on campus, such as the alumna summer camp, where someone artistically gifted is the camp inspiration. In my college magazine, the section where grads tell what they are doing feature entries such as "Tommy-John Walker, BS. Ag. 1983, states that he is now Production Credit Manager for Better Chicken Farms, Ltd. in Malvern. He and his wife Kayla, BSE 1984, who teaches elementary school at Caddo Gap Primary, have three sons, Brooks, Butler and Tommy-John, Jr.". By contrast, the Scripps alumna magazine entries tend to read along the lines of "Sunburst Dreamstar, f/k/a Ellen Davis, BA with Honours 1985, reports that she has almost completed her novel, to be titled "Transcendent Memes Take Down the Man". She lives in a giant yurt tent outside mystic Bozeman, Montana, after retiring at age 35 from her job at the International Trading Desk at Wall Street Investment Bankers, LLC. She reports that life is hectic but fun between her medical school courses, her three adopted Myanmar-American children, Whisper, Shout and Mumble, but her SO Zack helps out while holding down the fort both at the ranch and on the City Council. She sends love to Denise, Rose, and Sophia, whom she hopes to visit next year in Prague".
But this week the focus was on my wife's pre-college school. They had a feature on a woman who got her BA at Wellesley, her MBA at Harvard, did years of investment banking, and now is a football coach in Colleyville, Texas. I'm continually amazed at how much people get done in this world. But it's hard to feel even jealous. Although it's easy to imagine that one was a big fish in a small pond in school, who could have accomplished so much more, I rather think that I was in a pond just about the right size for me. Indeed, my only curiosity is whether I'd have been less miserable the first year or two of college if I'd attended an even smaller school, like the local U. thirty miles down the street or a small, non-famous liberal arts school in my region, perhaps a Hendrix or a Centenary.
I think that ribbons are all very good, and I laud people who achieve the things they mean to do. But I'm glad I don't worry much that other folks have better credentials than I have, or have achieved far more than I have. It's like chasing a ghost at Halloween, really, trying to strive to be as cool as other folks prove to be.
I've found that folks' happiness is usually not a matter of education or job title. I think that an ability to live within one's means, treat people decently and accept oneself seem to matter more than if one has a medical degree or published a novel. But for folks in the middle class and upper middle class, this has become rather a ribbon society, hasn't it? There's the ribbon of great attractiveness. There's the ribbon of large amounts of money. There's the ribbon of fame. There's the ribbon of prestigious career. There's the ribbon of a big house. There's the ribbon of a luxury automobile. There's the ribbon of a certain kind of bohemian cool. There's the ribbon of sexual conquest. There's even the ribbon of a favored coffee. Some folks acquire enough ribbons to qualify as fully decorated.
Maybe all these ribbons are a red badge of courage, efforts to be distinctive in a tract home world. There's certainly nothing wrong about setting out to do cool stuff, and then doing cool stuff. But there's a counting and a measuring and a snipping of ribbons that goes on all around, and I'm not sure the thread is being spun by anything quite so noble as the Fates.