This essay was also republished by The Imaginative Conservative in the fall.
Dear New Sophomore,
I would call you by your first name, but I haven’t met you yet. But I will, in about a week, and then I really need to know your name, because it is important to call people by their names. In fact, I am so excited to know who you are, I want you to go ahead and learn the names of everyone in our class. This way you know that we are a team, and we are all trying, together, to fill in the gaps of knowledge that we all have.
You might meet your new best friend in this class, so go ahead and learn names in case that is the case. You might also meet your intellectual nemesis, the person who drives you so crazy with their condescension and pretensions that you throw yourself into your work, graduate summa cum laude, and get your law degree from Harvard, just to show that person a thing or two. People want to be addressed by their names, because almost everything in this world is personal to someone, and you are kidding yourself if you think otherwise. Plus, it is harder to say something unkind if you have started that sentence with someone’s first name. Trust me, if you can learn the periodic table, you can learn to remember names.
I want to reassure you that I completely agree that it is unfair that you are labeled “sophomores,” which inevitably makes anyone with a pulse think of the word “sophomoric,” and I am here to tell you that I have met people with doctorates who better fit that description than many of my students. What can I say? Labels are unjust, but they can also be great incentives for proving everyone else wrong. The traditional meaning of “sophomore” comes from the Greek roots for “wisdom” (think of the the word “philosopher,” which means a lover of wisdom) and then the root for “fool” (the same root for words like “moronic”). I know this seems oxymoronic: How can you be wise and foolish at the same time? Some roughly translate “sophomore” (besides being a second year student in high school or college) as someone who has gained knowledge, but not enough wisdom to know how to apply it. Some think of sophomores as those who think they know more than they actually do.
I know: it is vaguely insulting before you even park your car on campus. But people overcome worse things every day, and you, too, will overcome this. But you have to take a full load for two semesters, otherwise, you do not pass go, you do not collect two hundred dollars, you do not become a junior. No one wants to be a sophomore for three years.
It is an awkward time: you don’t get the concern and non-stop press of freshmen, you don’t get the junior year abroad, you don’t get the satisfaction of being top-dog like a senior. But, I am here to tell you: this might be one of your best years ever.
First of all, you know more. Way more. Maybe you had some victories as a freshman, maybe you had some failures. But you know better now. You have the smooth, clean slate of the first day of school, one of my favorite days of the year, because I don’t care that you skipped a class to meet your boyfriend and it happened to be on a test day. I don’t care that you had an English teacher who made you hate reading. I don’t even care that you don’t know that “orthography” means “spelling,” because if you don’t, I am sure we can look it up. All that is over, and you begin again. Who knows? This might be the year that you find your favorite poem, figure out the authors you have to read no matter what, commit to a major that fits whatever you need to be accomplishing on this earth. You might be thinking that it won’t be in ENGLISH, but no matter what your major, it is all connected to your ability to communicate with language at some point. I am here to help you with that part of it.
Once I had two athletes (and I love teaching athletes, they understand the value of a schedule), but, for a brief time, they did not bring their books to class. They seemed to do everything in tandem, which is a terrible idea. This was unfortunate, because it was a Great Texts class, so you know, we aren’t doing math. It is pretty much books all the time. At first, I just thought that this was a way to see if I might have a complete nervous breakdown in front of the whole class. If that happened, I have blocked it out. But in any case, they were sophomores, and through the miracle of threats, they never did that again. I am happy to report they are both now successful juniors. Being a doctor, I prescribed what I always prescribe: do your homework. Works like a charm, every time.
By saying “Do your homework” I am really saying that your sophomore year is the year to establish your academic reputation, show the world that you are the real deal. You want to show that you have earned the right to be a junior with no questions asked. So go ahead and do that, because it will save you a world of grief, and bring you a lot of satisfaction that you did what you set out to do. It is hard to overcome a reputation for mediocre work when you are a junior, almost impossible when you are a senior. Just thinking out loud here. Hopefully, really loud.
Plus, there are many unadvertised benefits of being a sophomore. First of all, you don’t have that totally normal but uncomfortable anxiety of being a freshman who doesn’t know the ropes yet. You may not know all the ropes, but you are learning. You know more than you did before, and you can actually start giving back by showing a freshman or two some of the ropes you do know. You know the value of hanging on tight; otherwise, you would still be a freshman. You haven’t started the upper-division demands of being a junior, but you are on your way. You can take surveys and survey your own potential intellectual kingdom. It is good being an expert instead of a tourist: but you have to be a tourist first. You also do not have the sword of Damocles of a job or graduate school hanging over your senior level head. At least not yet. Enjoy the ride, because it doesn’t last very long.
I can’t tell you what to major in (English), what to do with your life (help others know what you know), what your friends should be like (not like the person who wants you to go out and do something forgettable when you are studying for a big exam). I can’t tell you what will happen with the economy (work hard anyway), or how to avoid too much melodrama in the dorm (how about the library). But I will probably try and do it anyway. And that is what I want you to do: try anyway. You never know: it might turn out to be so much better than you had even anticipated. You might be capable of so much more than you ever thought.
And one last thing: the cliche has always been “you will be a freshman over and over again,” or something like that. And of course there are times when you start something that is completely new. But that is never as hard as finishing what you started. The truth is most of life is being a sophomore: being in medias res of the epic that is going to be your life. Most of life is not taking the first step, but being in the middle of the staircase, wondering how on earth you are going to make it to the top. Most of our lives we do not have the excuse of being a novice: we bring something to the table, but we still have more wisdom to gain, more to learn. Even if you make it to what looks like the end, that part–the part where you still have more to learn–continues. I wish I could think of a better word for what you are going through, being called a sophomore and all. I just thought of one: how about “human.”
This year, I will try to convince you that Emily Dickinson is right: ”There is no frigate like a book.” I want you to get in the heads of great writers so that you can see how powerful language can be, and so that you are never at a loss for words when you really need them. We can never predict when that will be, but it will happen, and I know you will be ready, even if you don’t feel that way right this minute. That minute will pass, and then another, and before you know it, you will be a junior. I just know you are really going places.
So Tuesday after next, I will call your names, pass out a syllabus: hey, you know the drill. And it will be thrilling, because it is a brand new term, but not everything is totally terrifyingly new, and that is a great place to be, no matter what it is called.