There’s a memorable moment in every native New Yorker’s life when they come to understand the difference between living on Park Avenue, and living between Park and Lex. Around that time, we all start competing in a not-so-subtle game of I’m More New York Than You Are.
It seems as if we, the people of New York, are engaged in an ongoing contest to validate ourselves as the savviest citizen in our treasured metropolis. We all want to prove we know the quickest subway route between Points A and B, and the locations of the tastiest food truck, the chicest consignment store, and the most avant-garde gallery. We define ourselves, to a certain extent, through this ceaseless competition.
In college, I quickly learned that the terms upon which a student establishes their individuality are a bit different. No one gives a f*ck how New York, Seattle, D.C., or Austin you are. Instead, everyone is itching to place you in one of three categories: 1) Athletic, 2) Brainy, or 3) Artsy. Why? Because when you go to college—at least to one with fewer than 2,100 individuals who have managed to snag some of higher education’s most coveted spots—everyone is desperate to substantiate ingress. What’s an admission ticket worth if you can’t prove how you got it?
I was mildly unprepared for this new kind of competition when I got to college. Full disclosure: While I was somewhat aware of the collegiate categorization phenomenon, I may have assumed that being competitively New York would protect me from the reality that I fall within the lamentable fourth group: 4) None of the Above.
Ironically, it was a parent, not a student, who enlightened me about the stigma attached to being a None of the Above.
The scene of the censure was the Field House, where Freshmen and their families were gathered for the banquet portion of the Fall Family Days program. Erin Murphy was there with her mom. As a former National AP Scholar and swim recruit who scored north of 2,300 on her SATs, Erin has provided her parents with ample bragging rights throughout her nineteen years. In an eerily practiced tone, Erin’s mom regaled us with tales of her daughter’s achievements—her superlative pre-season team leadership and intrepid community activism. When she had finished giving Erin her due praise, a rapturous Mrs. Murphy paused.
“And what do your kids do?”
As I digested each parent’s saga of their painfully impressive offspring, I sank into my seat, alternating between making small talk with my fellow students and texting friends from back home.
Finally, it was my mom’s turn. “Oh, Tati?” she chortled. “She’s a bum. She’s just kind of doing school right now.”
I semi-violently coughed up some orange juice. My mom was brilliant in her refusal to justify my lack of concentrated extracurricular zeal.
Mrs. Murphy wasn’t amused, though. “I’m sure she’ll find her niche soon enough,” she insisted, obviously less than delighted that her Perfect Child was attending college with the likes of idle me.
What Mrs. Murphy didn’t grasp was that I wasn’t looking to squeeze myself into any niche. I was more than happy to be a None of the Above in a sea of wannabe All of the Aboves. As a nonner (a non-olympic, non-hyper-cerebral, non-creative), I’d still managed to get into a great school. So, I can honestly say that I’m content as an undecided “liberal artist” with a totally unmapped future.
For all my fellow nonners, an unsolicited piece of advice: Don’t let the Mrs. Murphys of the world pique you to the point of self-doubt. As a college Freshman, you’re not supposed to have a clearcut identity. You have nothing to prove. You’ve gotten into college. Relax, and go have some fun.