Ivy Leaguers make me feel like a big fat nothing

Every happiness hinges on where you went to school. So now they tell me!

Published February 21, 2011 1:01AM (EST)

Dear Señor Tennis,

Hello, I'm writing to you because I have a problem -- albeit a silly problem, but one that I have been grappling with for some time. I feel like you might be able to help me, since you're used to dealing with these types of problems. So here it goes:

I didn't go to an Ivy League school.

When I was in high school, my parents and guidance counselors told me that where you went to school "didn't really matter." I felt like my best decision was to go to a state school, which seemed to be what everyone else was doing. I didn't even apply to any of "those" schools, or their equivalents. It didn't seem like it would matter, and it didn't matter to me at 17. Now I am 27 and I am haunted by my lack of an elite education.

It is crystal clear to me that where you went to school is one of the most important parts of your life. I'm sure that you're thinking that I'm an idiot. It's not like I was one of those kids who went through the pressure cooker of elite admissions and got rejected. I didn't even try.

The conclusion that I have come to from my observations is that Ivy Leaguers are the only happy people. They are smart (duh). They have interesting jobs that they love. They have friends all over the world, they travel all over the world to visit with these similarly fabulous friends, and then put these fabulous pictures on Facebook, adorned with witty little captions. They have money. They are imbued with this confidence, this ineffable glow that doesn't seem to come from anywhere else.

I think that the crux of my problem comes from the fact that I was a smart kid. I always feel like if I had pushed myself I could have been something great. Like if I had gone to one of those schools my life would be the polar opposite of the black hole of dead-end jobs that I am ostensibly stuck in. Now it's too late. Of course, the logical person would say "Well, if you're so smart and motivated now, why don't you just go to an Ivy for grad school?" But that isn't the same. The secret handshake seems to come from having attended one of those institutions as an undergraduate, and that is an experience that I can never replicate.

Besides, I feel too beaten down by life to really motivate myself to do such a thing. I feel like my life is over.

I guess what I'm asking is: How do I get over this? How do I get over something that I have no chance of changing? I so badly want to attend the alumni events that these institutions provide (and yes I have looked up what these events entail -- how crazy is that?), with the world-renowned speakers, the intellectual conversations, the small-venue violin concerts, etc. I have no idea how to meet intellectuals outside of this arena, and my social life is suffering. I want to be one of them so badly, because they seem to have the secret of life figured out.

Honestly, I don't know what to do. Every time I see someone in a Yale sweatshirt, I want to throw myself off a bridge because I feel so inferior to them. As I live in Washington, D.C., this is a very real danger to my health (I'm kidding, sort of). I want to be friends with them in the worst way, because I want to grow intellectually, and I want other people to think that I'm smart.

But they want nothing to do with an idiot like me. When I meet someone from an Ivy League, I'm afraid to tell them where I went to school for fear of immediate dismissal. So I'm stuck. And I'm tired of it. I'm tired of contemplating the noose when a Cornell T-shirt walks by. I'm tired of putting earplugs in when Princeton alumni groups are on the metro, talking about their amazing jobs. I'm tired of feeling sorry for myself.

So what do I do, seriously? As much as I try to make jokes about the situation, I am really depressed about it, and have even thought of ending it all because life as one of the non-elites seems not worth anything. All that I see ahead of me are mundane jobs and children who will be as average as me, if I don't die alone.



Dear Vineless,

Social class in America is important, but I'm getting nowhere thinking about it and I think the reason why is that what you have is not a political problem but a human problem. Though your personal problem presents itself as about social class, it is not so different from the personal problem of someone who cannot stop thinking about cats.

It is a problem of not being able to stop thinking about something. It is a problem of having incessant, distorted and disproportionate thoughts. What matters is the pattern. The pattern is that you are engaging in behavior that's hurting you and you can't stop.

So let's ignore for now the important issues about social justice. Let's ignore the cats. Let's ignore everything but the personal.

I know the personal is political. But not right now. Right now the personal is the personal.

You are seeing people you don't know and hating them. It's very painful. That's what's going on. And you have asked me if I can come up with any way you might escape this.

So how can we change this? How can you start seeing these people and not have this reaction? How can you stop entertaining these painful and distorted thoughts?

This is going to sound corny but it is what comes to mind: Have some love for yourself as you are. Give yourself a break. Please? Will you please do that?

All I want is to know that you will stop doing this to yourself. It's like you have this horrible itch and you keep scratching it and now you're bleeding. Put something on it. Put something on it to soothe it. What would that be? Would that balm be perhaps some friends who are on your side and know how you feel and will love you until you can love yourself? That's what you need. You are raw with expectation and a feeling of not getting what you are entitled to. And now I am going to reach into this statement about not getting what you are entitled to and question the basis of it, the basis on which you believe in the first place that you are entitled to something, and I am going to say something that sounds kind of mean, which is that while you feel these other people are so lucky and entitled, you, too, are coming from a place of entitlement. You believe that what they have should be yours. You believe this to such an extent that it pains you to see them. This is fundamentally wrong. What they have is what they have. However they got it is not up to you. You feel that what they have should be yours. You feel it so strongly that it is hurting you. So there is something fundamentally wrong here.

The fact that we can identify something fundamentally wrong is very good. It's great. It means there's something we can correct.

Although class discrimination exists and exerts itself in a million subtle ways, I do not believe that your problem is class discrimination.

I believe you have been genuinely hurt, but not by this crowd of Ivy Leaguers on the subway in D.C. whom you have never met. You were hurt in some other way. I do believe you lost something. But the Ivy Leaguers didn't take it. There are still villas in Tuscany. They haven't rented them all. But you were hurt by something.

Here is my guess.

What happened was that you were hurt and undermined in high school. You had some beautiful dreams in high school but you did not know how to put them into action, and the people around you did not know what these dreams were and could not help you put them into action. And so these dreams remained dormant.

Why did that happen? There could be many reasons. It's possible you did not tell the people around you exactly what these dreams were. It's possible you told them and they did not hear you right. It's possible these dreams were hard to describe accurately; dreams are like that.

Think back to how you felt when your parents told you you didn't have to go to one of these Ivy League schools, that a state school was fine. Did you really agree with them in your heart? Did you know enough to agree or disagree? Did you form a clear plan of action based on that understanding? Did you have any idea that you were having a crucial conversation that formed a turning point in your life? Did you just go along with them because they were your parents and you did not want to contradict them or risk telling them that really, inside, you had this much bigger dream, a bigger dream than any of them could imagine, a dream that was fragile and perhaps mockable but very real to you, a dream they might ridicule if you told them? Perhaps it was a dream that you couldn't even describe, but it involved beauty and ease and social order and high level of intellectual engagement and aesthetics.

You had this authentic vision of something. Yet no one acted on it; no one helped you make it concrete and break down the steps to achieve it. So it was put aside. You went to a state school and did the best you could and pretended that would be OK.

But it wasn't OK. And it never will be OK.

So listen. Whatever this dream was, it's still there. It's just waiting. So stop blaming all these Ivy Leaguers and give yourself a break and have the courage to admit what this dream really is. There is no guarantee that this dream will be achieved. We have no more power over these things than we have power over the sun. Yet it is your dream and it matters to you. Admit this much. Admit that the only real guarantee is that if you do not fully admit what this dream is, it assuredly has no chance of coming to fruition. The only certainty is that inaction will lead to nothing.

Your only choice, therefore, the only choice that has any chance of making you happy, is to do whatever it takes to unearth this dream and allow yourself to pursue it. Note I don't just say "pursue it" but "allow yourself to pursue it." Because one thing those Ivy Leaguers have is somehow for some confounded reason they seem to have permission. Somebody gave them permission. Permission to pursue their dreams was never an issue. Nobody ever told them that going to a state school is good enough. Nobody ever told them not to pursue their dreams. They got permission.

But aside from money and connections and a first-rate education, the only real advantage they have is that they have permission.

So give yourself permission.

It takes a lot of courage to admit what it is that you really want. It takes courage to try to get it. Because once you actually try, there's a chance that you can fail. There's a chance that you will be measured against others. And people can make fun of you. And you can be exposed to those who see you more clearly than you see yourself.

But what choice do you have? You're 27. Life can go by pretty fast. You can flail about hating the Ivy Leaguers or you can come face to face with your own dreams and let them in.

So that is what I say to you. Allow your own dreams to come to fruition. Allow them to become clear.

There is something in you trying to be born. Let it happen.

January 2011 Creative Getaway

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By Cary Tennis

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