Blast From the Past: The Final Column

BY RYAN BYRNES 

Sailing the Banderas Bay in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in March of 2008.

The following column appeared in the March 27, 2008 issue of  The Collegian, the University of Richmond student newspaper. It was the last of 24 columns I wrote for the paper and one of my favorites.

As the great modern poet Shawn Carter once said, “They never really miss you til you dead or you gone, so on that note, I’m leaving after this song.” And since I never was much of a singer, I suppose this final column will have to do.

During the past 12 months, I’ve said a lot – at moments, probably too much. In these uncertain political and economic times, I’ve left the crucial commentary to the experts, opting to focus instead on the more immediate concerns of Richmond students. I’ve questioned the need for Greek life and the absence of Spider Spirit; reflected on Virginia Tech and 9/11; rallied to protect lodge parties and The Cellar; attempted to solve the mysteries of Bid Day and Ring Dance; and searched for life lessons in Soulja Boy, Third Eye Blind and the all-powerful chalk.

Jerry Garcia said it best – what a long, strange trip it’s been. Then again, maybe it hasn’t been that long. It seems like just last week that I was sitting at The Cellar as a junior, listening to some older fraternity brothers lament about having to leave college and thanking God I still had a whole year left to figure it all out. But a year goes by pretty fast these days, and here I am – 12 months and 24 columns later, a wandering soul still left with more questions than answers.

Maybe that is how it should be. Maybe college isn’t here to give you all the answers. Instead, maybe it prepares you to better handle the questions your future will throw at you. My future seems to be full of questions right now. I have no idea where I’ll be in six months or a year. In some ways, that scares me. In other ways, it’s the most liberating feeling I have ever known.

Sometimes a random encounter is all one needs to put life in perspective. I had one of those encounters two weeks ago when I met a man named Ben on the golden beaches of Jalisco. Listening to the 24-year-old Ben discuss his post-college experiences helped me feel a little more content with my own future. Though he said he loves his current job, he admitted it wasn’t one he envisioned for himself last year, or even last month, when he was still working on the set of “E.R.”

Ben is now a cameraman for “Girls Gone Wild,” scouring beaches by day and clubs by night in search of curvy broads and blondes willing to sacrifice their decency for a few seconds of fame on late-night infomercials and mail order masterpieces. Ben is a microcosm of Generation Y, just another youth raised in the Internet era doing what he needs to do to get by. And as he pointed out, his work is far from easy. “People like to think that this job is instant ass, man,” he told me. “But dude, this is hard work. We’re, like, on a guerrilla mission here.”

On a strange level, I developed a bit of a man-crush on Ben during my time in Mexico. Then again, during a week where I was more interested in laying in the sun with my 11 male comrades than I was chasing around Penn State sorority girls, perhaps it was only appropriate that I developed this temporary fascination with another dude. But my crush wasn’t on his wavy brown hair or on a persona that was distinctly Californian. It was on Ben’s ability to follow the path that fate seemed to pave for him. My friends and I told him that we would be graduating in May and that many of us did not have definitive plans for where our professional lives would take us, but Ben proposed that we all take different roads during our respective quests to achieve the American Dream and said that, at least momentarily, he might have already recognized his. “I’ve always loved film, and I’ve always loved women,” he said. “For now, this just seems like the perfect place for me.”

That’s it! Ben had found the perfect place! And, more importantly, he hadn’t even planned it! He didn’t plan to lose his job at “E.R.” because a bunch of writers he didn’t even know decided to go on strike. He didn’t plan to log onto Craigslist and find an opportunity to work for this infamous cinematic franchise. He certainly didn’t plan on the girls of Puerto Vallarta being so conservative on-screen. Just days earlier, he had hours of Cancun footage featuring a group of girls fooling around in a bathtub.

Filming drunk college girls may or may not be what you would call “the perfect place,” but that is far from the point. Ben’s story is one that each of us can learn from. There is a whole world out there, and for the most part, we have no control over what goes on in it. The best you can do is to be prepared to meet new people, to travel to new places, to take risks and challenge yourself. In life, you’re going to have a lot of weird jobs and strange experiences, but through it all, you should never forget to be yourself.

During my week in Mexico, I read a book called Praying For Sheetrock.” Written by Melissa Faye Green, the book is an inspiring true story about struggle and courage. It’s nearly 350 pages long, but its most important lesson is right in the preface. Green writes:

“Historians may look back upon a season when a thousand lives moved in unison; but in the beginning there are really only individuals, acting in isolation and uncertainty, out of necessity or idealism, unaware they are living through an epoch.”

At Richmond, social classification is as endemic as the algae on Westhampton Lake. In many ways, we’ve all been arbitrarily grouped since the day we arrived on campus. But as we complete our final semester, we all share one common characteristic: we will be forgotten.

The group of students graduating on May 11 will not be remembered as the class that asked “What moves us?” We won’t be remembered for being the last class to taste kegs on campus, or for paying a semi-reasonable $32,000 tuition. Instead, we – much like our flag hanging in The Pier – will be removed and forgotten. The underclassmen might cry at senior wills or stick around to cheer us on at graduation, but by the time August rolls around, they won’t really miss us – they’ll still have some college left to enjoy. The professors will have a new semester to focus on, and the administration will have a whole new set of issues to handle.

But when we walk out of this place six weeks from Sunday, we will have more than a liberal arts education with us. We’ll have four years worth of highs and lows, friends and foes, relationships and learning experiences, all of which have taught us something about who we are and who we want to be. No matter what group we happened to be associated with during our years here, we’ve all had a college experience that is unique to ourselves. We’ve acted out of our own isolation and uncertainty, out of our own necessity and idealism. We’ve made our own choices and mistakes. We were all given an amazing opportunity. Did we make the most of it? Answer that for yourself.

Just like Ben, there’s a path out there for each of us, though we probably don’t know exactly where it will lead. Hunter S. Thompson said, in life, to buy the ticket and take the ride. While for most of us it was our parents who graciously bought us what is now considered a discounted ticket to Richmond, I hope you have all had as much fun riding along as I have.

So here’s to wishing that the ride continues for a long, long time. And if your path happens to cross with mine at some indiscernible point in the future, let’s stop at the local dive bar and grab a beer. After all, I’ll just be being me – whoever that is.

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