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The Dartmouth
May 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Reflection: Is This the Real Life, or Is This Just Fantasy?

One writer reflects on the way that media has shaped her life as she embarks on her off term.

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Thankfully, I won’t be on campus this term. I say ‘thankfully’ because while I will miss my friends and Dartmouth, I can conveniently dodge the dreaded question: What did you do over winterim? Unlike many of my peers, I did not go on a luxurious vacation — or frankly do much at all — over break. Instead, I was a substitute teacher at a preschool, read a few books and watched way too many movies. Boring, I know.

Although my interim was tame, it did have moments of introspection. By throwing myself into different lives through literature and film, I saw versions of people I could become. I began considering founding a company after reading about two ambitious college students who create a wildly successful video game company in the book “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.” I gained confidence and grew inspired to go to law school after watching Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” who got an almost perfect score on her LSAT when no one believed in her. I vowed to better keep in touch with my friends after reading “Just Kids,” which Patti Smith wrote as a dedication to her friend Robert Mapplethorpe. 

While subbing as a preschool teacher, I even grew motivated by the children’s books I read, and I began to recognize the same lessons in adult media. Just as “The Giving Tree” teaches children to be accepting and loving instead of selfish, “A Man Called Otto” — a movie about a man contemplating suicide until his new neighbors befriend and save him — reminded me that kindness can go a long way. Although I think of myself as a nice enough person, this reminder made me question whether my compassion extends to caring for strangers. And, in the same spirit of almost any Dr. Seuss book, the comedic television show “Curb Your Enthusiasm” showed me that life doesn’t need to be taken too seriously. As a perpetual overthinker, this revelation was abundantly necessary. 

Throughout my life, I have always sought inspiration from my environment and those around me. As the youngest of three girls, I am used to being called a copycat or reminded how lucky I am to learn from my sisters’ mistakes. After my oldest sister started running track, of course I did too. When my other sister fell off her bike, I kept my training wheels on for twice as long. Even at college, away from home and my sisters’ guidance, I didn’t change. Within a few weeks, I tried to establish an intricate nighttime routine that was modeled after the one my roommate had. As soon as one of my friends cried over a class, I decided to steer clear from that professor. 

So, it comes as no surprise to me that after depleting my stack of books and crossing off all the movies on my “to watch” list, I found myself taking note of the fictional characters’ positive and negative attributes. But, these observations also made me question how far mimicry can take me.  Am I growing if the values I have only echo those around me and don’t come from within? Has modeling those around me actually benefited me as a person? 

Although I am not a two-dimensional book character molded for readers to understand — and no one (I hope) is analyzing me in a discussion group — I wondered whether I could even answer a discussion question about myself. I don’t have one favorite color or food, and my style usually consists of what is most comfortable. Had I spent so much time trying to embody someone else, that I had forgotten what I wanted from life? Did I even know it in the first place? From the lack of a go-to nail color, favorite type of flower or idea of what I want to do with my life, I am like a book that is only beginning to be written — and that I had never even bothered to read. Finally, I realized most of my life and my values felt like a patchwork of someone else’s experiences instead of my own.

Of course there are benefits to absorbing other people’s rights and wrongs, as I wouldn’t be who I am without the inspiration from my sisters and friends, but there are some things that I can only learn from doing it myself. As such, even though one of my new year’s resolutions is to read more books to better form ideas about who I want to be, I also don’t want to make decisions solely based on what has worked for others in the past. I long to understand my values and form my own opinions regardless of what I watch on Netflix or who I got dinner with last week. 

I will soon travel to Washington, D.C. for my off term, where I hope to make some uncharted mistakes and experiences of my own. Although I will forever be marked by the words in “Just Kids,” which depicts living in New York City, I will take Smith’s experiences and learn from them while also being unafraid to forge a new path for myself. Whether it’s as simple as picking light pink over turquoise at the nail salon or as impactful as studying for the LSAT (Elle Woods did both, by the way), I hope I have the space to learn what I like and dream for — which may be the same as or extremely different than those I admire. Although I am already sad seeing my friends back on campus while I’m away, this break from Dartmouth gives me the space to make my own choices. It’s a chance to  get to know myself better away from the scrutiny of my peers and the busyness of campus. And, of course, I will have the time to read a few books and watch way too many movies — and finally decide which ones are my favorites.