I've been holding on to my student ID from the University of Virginia for some reason. I received it in late August of 1995, and now, 15 years and 6 weeks later, it still resides in my sock drawer for no apparent reason. I really don't know for sure why I've never gotten rid of it. Vanity perhaps? I mean, it is a good picture. I managed to be very photogenic for that picture for some reason. I was in shape, tan and blond from being a lifeguard and swimming that summer. Have I been holding on to this laminated scrap of cardboard for 15 years because I looked good?
I remember the day I received it. It was a fantastic, hot August day in Charlottesville, Virginia. I met my roommate as I was moving in. I unpacked what I could, went to get my ID while my parents finished setting up my room (it was one of those mom things, I couldn't have stopped her if I had wanted to). The main impression I have of that first day at college is of constructive chaos. There was a schedule to keep, but keeping the schedule was completely chaotic. The whole situation threw just about everyone out of their comfort zone, which created a situation in which everyone was just about as friendly as they'd ever been in their lives. Whether you decided to or not, you ended up introducing yourself to everyone on the off chance that this next person might become your next best friend, your drinking buddy, or your soul mate.
Then there were the familiar faces; at least one anyway. My wife came by to say hi. We weren't even dating at the time and certainly did not expect what would happen ten years later. We had dated in high school and had remained friends after it ended. I remember we went out to this strange party the university set up out in the common area just to help us mingle and get to know one another. She and I went out to enjoy it with a few guys from my suite. She impressed my suite-mates terribly, but we soon lost track of each other in the mix.
I barely recognize myself in that picture when I look at it today. No only am I no longer as tan, blond or in shape, but so much has happened that there is barely any resemblance between the kid I was 15 years ago, and the young adult I am still becoming (I define young adult up to age 35 btw). Clearly, my life is good - real good. But that day - that time - was more pivotal that I realized.
That was the last time my life was not marred by failure. I had never failed at anything important before, and believed I never would. I practically believed I never could. In a few short months, those delusions would be soundly shattered. Two weeks into the semester I would hobble painfully away from competitive swimming forever. A month into the semester I would get a "D" on my first calculus text (a four-credit course; my grade would never improve despite way too much effort). I would finish the semester with a 1.9 GPA and would see real disappointment in my parent's eyes for the first time in my life.
I would return to school for the spring semester with permanently lowered expectations. Dean's list? No thank you! I would settle for anything near a 3.0. Biology? 'Fraid not! Hard science was too... mathy. I would focus on Foreign Affairs; it was more BS-friendly. Summer internships? Bah! I would lifeguard over the summer. Why would anyone work hard in college when "employers don't really care about grades, they just want to see a degree"? (That little bit of "common knowledge" floating around grounds proved to be complete BS, by the way.)
In one academic year I had shattered the over-achiever self-image that I had easily maintained in high school. I replaced it with something mediocre and unimpressive. Since then I have managed to over-achieve in some really important ways. I married a woman waaaaaay out of my league. Together we have a little girl who is the best person the world. But you cannot erase the effects of your past failures once they've been written on your brain. They remain with me to this day; I have trouble thinking of myself, or behaving as though I am capable of anything great.
But look at that picture on that student ID. That kid was capable, responsible, quick-witted, sharp, funny, in shape, excited and ready to conquer anything. How do I dig him back up out of the layer of grime that semester 15 years ago deposited? He shines through it every so often: when I'm with my wife, my daughter - they look at me and I can tell they think I'm great. They wouldn't trade me for that kid if he came with a million dollars in his pockets. If I see myself through their eyes and ignore my own mediocre self-image, I might regain some of the exuberance and hope I see in the eyes smiling up at me from this old ID.