I finally took the swim test the other day, which may have been a mistake. My parents, of course, had been urging me to get it over with from the day I graduated high school. But I’d always imagined I’d take the test with everyone I knew, days or perhaps hours before donning those light blue robes and being formally pronounced a graduate. As it happened, there were a few friends on hand when I showed up to take the test, but nearly everyone had already finished when I jumped into the chlorinated water and swam.
And swam. The first of the three required laps was easy enough—apparently, I still remember my middle-school freestyle—but as I reached the far end of the pool, I was struggling for breath. Pushing into the second lap, I started to find it hard to keep going. I began to doggy paddle, slightly bending the rule against stopping, as I tried to regain my cool. I considered, for the first time, that I might fail.
There’s not a lot that’s supposed to come hard to us here, is there? To be sure, we’re a community of industrious, hard workers, and each of us confronts an array of private difficulties and disappointments. But from day one, we’re told what exceptional applicants we were to be admitted. As we progress, we learn about what amazing things we’re doing in the academy and in the world. At graduation, each school’s dean brags that his division has molded some extraordinary scholars and activists.
Yet as these final months of college roll on, I remain unsure of whether we are extraordinary people. When this semester began, it was charged with a new energy around student wellness. But rather than developing into our best selves, we’ve spent this semester exposing some of the darkest sides of our personalities. From the Columbia-Barnard relationship, to student council elections, to the newly-announced diversity hiring initiative, we consistently manage to sully the conversation with self-satisfied meanness and adolescent name-calling. Reading comments online especially, I often stop to wonder, “Who are these people?” But of course, there is no them on the other side of the screen. There is only us.
In some sense, I treasured not having taken the swim test—because it meant that, among all the things nearly finished, there was still something not yet begun. As a nest of complicated requirements turned into a neat list of courses passed, it was comforting to know that there was still something preventing me from graduating. Maybe, if all of us seniors could delay taking the test until the last possible moment, we’d have the time for all the things we meant to do in college.
But the fact is this: We seniors have but one month left as undergraduates at Columbia. Let’s use the time we have left to change the tone of discourse on campus. The Student Wellness Project has made these past few days into a Random Acts of Kindness Week with a series of events designed to inspire happiness on campus. That’s superb. What we really need, though, are Systemic Acts of Kindness.
And if you ask me, the first thing to change is the endless declaration of just how special we are. When you’re convinced of your own exceptionality, it’s easy to dismiss others’ points of view. When you’re the most meritorious, things that don’t go your way are not just disappointments, but injustices. But at an institution where nearly 100 people have won a Nobel Prize, nobody is entitled to get all the things they want, and nobody is so special that they no longer need to listen to others. We’ve all got to kick our legs and paddle our arms as hard as we possibly can.
I’d like to replace the swim test with a civility test, with a free-response section on humility and kindness. We can and should be skeptical of administrative pronouncements, critical of our academic and cultural choices, and smartly honest with one another. But we must do all of that with a little more self-doubt and a whole lot more reflection on what our words and actions will mean to our classmates. That work is yet to begin.
So, to the recently admitted Class of 2016:
Congratulations. You’ve done some great work to get here, I know. But the really hard work lies ahead. You’ve got to tackle the problem of how to rise through the ranks of a competitive and ambitious institution without losing your essential humanity. The right answer will be worth more than anything you learn in any of your classes. Don’t leave it until the last minute.
As I began the third lap, I turned over in the water and eased into a slow backstroke. The water around my ears deadened the pool noise; all I could see were the ceiling tiles far overhead. Nothing left to do but float on down the lane and, for better or for worse, make it all the way to home.
Samuel E. Roth is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and political science. He is a former Spectator editor in chief. We Are Not Alone runs alternate Thursdays.