In the fall, West Point, N.Y., is a boastful approximation of paradise. Foliage is aflame, breezes aren’t yet cold enough to warrant a pea coat, and proud stone monstrosities teeter on the edges of hills that might just tumble down into the Hudson itself.
I know all this because Marty Clarke ’14 and I spent last weekend there, representing the College at the McDonald Cadet Leadership Conference held by the United States Military Academy.
I could write about the speakers, the panels, but that wasn’t the point. It was the people – rather than the itinerary – that had left me tingling with excitement, teetering on the verge of resolve.
West Point is a place where purpose is palpable. The campus itself is alive with it; intensity animates its every student, and tradition practically rings out over chapel bells. The boy on your left will announce matter-of-factly that he will grow up to be a solider-statesman, serving as an elected representative of his home state. And the boy on your right will mention that he took a year away from the Academy to rethink his future in the Army, all while working as a shepherd in Israel. Around you, everywhere, are people quick to share their hopeful sketches of the future.
In this way, what unites the cadets you meet at West Point is something much greater than the uniforms in their closets or the five-year contracts waiting after their graduations; it is the trajectory of their ambitions, some fierce optimism about what the future has in store, a willingness to plan it out.
For me, this was electrifying. Unfortunately, it was also unprecedented. In my time here at the College, honest and earnest discussions about where we hope to be when we are 50 have been few and far between. What replace them, of course, are frantic brainstorms about where we think we’d like to go two months after graduation.
The difference is, I think, that in abdicating our responsibility to think critically, optimistically and frequently about how we hope to impact the world, we are doing not only our community, but also ourselves, a disservice. If we each had that vision, that long-term goal, the shorter-term challenges of performing well at the College would be more meaningful, easier to conquer.
Think of it this way: organic chemistry is a worthy opponent for someone who knows he wants to be a doctor; political theory is a necessary stop for someone who envisions herself running for office. For everyone else, however, those courses are little more than a hovering heap of reading packets and a menacing mountain of midterms.
As is, many of us are simply sprinting from Schow to Sawyer and back, reeling to make deadlines and desperate for sleep. Even when it comes to my own close friends, I cannot honestly report that they tell me – that I ask – what they really hope to accomplish, how they hope to use this education we’re all crazy to finish. Sure, I know what applications are pending in their Route 2 queue, what cities they’d consider moving to in June, whether it’s Case and Point or LSAT For Dummies sitting on their carrel in the library. I can tell you what they are going to get done, but not what they dream of doing.
Of course, it isn’t that easy. We aren’t at a military academy, and the plans we make now will change. But if we helped each other to make them, the shared project of being here together might be more meaningful, more magical.
Ironic, I know, coming from a girl whose last editorial, “Peter Panning” (Sept. 25), seemed to argue for the opposite. But I now understand that it is not just unwise, but perhaps even negligent to ignore questions of what life after the purple bubble will hold. Instead, we should always ask them of each other, answer them courageously and in conversation; let our answers serve as the foundation of our friendships and an engine for our work ethic. The right kind of ambition shows us all the thousands of places we’d like to go, in turn making us all even more electrifyingly here.
On our final night at West Point, two things happened that I will not forget. The first was that Robert McDonald – former CEO of Proctor and Gamble – shared a list of the things he believes in and why.
The second was that I saw a man cry. It was during the last, haunting verse of West Point’s alma mater, the lines they save to sing for fallen comrades in the Mess Hall. It was quiet and discrete, it was over dessert plates and shaky microphones and it was beautiful.
And so the point of that Conference – now the project of this op-ed – is in many ways, a dare: Write yourself a constitution. Think about the things you believe in, aim for, work toward, dare to think will happen. Write them all down. Today.
Frankly, if you do it right, it should scare the hell out of you. It should be a list so naïve it’s progressive, so hopeful it’s inspiring, so comprehensive that it becomes pages long.
Williams College, dare to be fiercely – forwardly – ambitious. And dare to say it out loud.
Write yourself a constitution, and don’t be afraid to amend it out of reverence for your own internal revolutions.
Write yourself a constitution, and salute it like a flag; sing it like an alma mater whose last verse makes you cry.
Emily Calkins ’14 is an English and political science double major from Baltimore, Md. She lives on Spring Street.