I sling my JanSport bag over my shoulders and make my way to a classroom. I take out my books and turn on John Mayer. Studying gets underway. It’s 11pm and I aim to get things done by 3 am. It’s a sickening cycle. I’ve been at it for 3 days in a row and a big part of me feels like I can go on, whilst at some juncture of the night a feeling of utter helplessness wells up in my chest begging me to stop.
A friend messages me to ask about my whereabouts. He’s at Starbucks and he wants to study together. It’s no more than a 5-minute walk from the classroom. We would study together occasionally, and he would sometimes bring me to the Medicine Faculty library where we would just sit for hours chugging down books like an alcoholic to his bottle. It was all in the name of friendship it seemed. These friendships keep our time here sane, they say.
With all my books sprawled out, however, I was reluctant to move. I didn’t want the five minute walk to distract me, to pull me out of this rare momentum I had generated. I asked him if he would want to come over here instead. It’s pretty conducive, I added.
In the end none of us bothered moving. We were both settled down, studying, in our own separate bubbles of concentration. And in that moment it hit both of us that that was all that mattered.
The week passed with me trying to organise study sessions with friends but the more I tried to see the togetherness of this endeavour the more it escaped me. There was nothing really holding us united as students. Time and again our schedules would conflict, time and again we’d find some reason to tide it out on our own. There was no reason to be in the same room as a bunch of people hunched over, looking at their notes or laptops intermittently switching between Facebook and their essays, with different songs playing from different earpieces.
It almost seemed like we weren’t actually motivated by friendships but by how much we could accomplish in this set amount of time. If coming together to study was more convenient we’d do that, if studying apart was better off we’d as soon hop on. We made friendship seem like the whole point when it probably wasn’t.
The fact was this: that even when we were in the same physical space we were fighting our own separate battles, with our own unique strategies. You could say that peer teaching helps, that discussions are fruitful, that being there for emotional support is crucial. All that is fantastic, but at no point in our education has anyone stepped in to tell us that forming these bonds was ever necessary for our success. Our education has always been centred around the benefit of the individual. From bell curves to cut off points, from application essays to interviews the emphasis becomes that of me rather than us. Because a successful “we” makes for a mediocre “I”. If everyone was special then no one would be. And so subconsciously a part of us will always strive to stand out, will always try to establish ourselves above the rest, or at least make our mark on the wall as high as possible, to the best of our abilities.
All that isn’t tragic. To want to succeed is okay, I feel like many of us do at some point in our lives want to succeed. What is tragic however, is the possibility that we may never find fulfilment in the process. We want to succeed, and we want to be prosperous, but the fact is we have been squeezed through a system that heralds success as an individualistic endeavour, one that takes this innate desire for excellence and turns it into selfishness. We follow this blindly although we all know it’s an endless chase. We follow this path knowing that it wouldn’t, for one minute, make us better people but follow it we must, because that’s all we’ve ever known. That, to me, is tragic.
But not all is lost. Against this system we still try. We still gather at times to read together, to ask questions, discuss concepts. Sometimes we tutor each other and for little pockets of time lapse into conversations about the past. And for a few fleeting moments it all makes sense. But I can’t help but feel that this is all borrowed time.
Because our time together doesn’t seem to be the point at all when it probably should have been. The entire point seems to be our individual assignments and our individual transcripts, our individual study spaces and our individual drives to succeed. And then at 3 am in the morning with a laptop screen blazing and eyes tired you’ll feel it: the helplessness all over again. That you’re trapped. That even though you look brilliant on paper, there’s no one to really talk to, no one who will care to understand that feeling of human vulnerability.
The room may be full of people, but make no mistake: you are very much on your own.