The Black-Topped Path Through the Wilderness

I enjoy walking around campus on my lunch break. Much of the university is a redwood forest; the paths between buildings wind and intersect among titanic trees. Buildings don’t appear until you’re practically on top of them, like hidden cliffs. Ravens glide overhead, croaking; come round a curve and, perhaps, find the path blocked by deer. It’s all very primeval.

Or it seems to be. In truth, streetlights and call boxes lurk unobtrusively, here and there. Some of them are even stapled to the trees; silver conduit pipes run down the trunks and vanish into the duff.

The paths are blacktopped; steps and railings appear in the greenery for your convenience. And although you may not be able to see it, there’s no doubt a clean rest room within 50 yards.

Call it a free-range Disneyland, with classrooms standing in for thrill rides. When the kids crowd the paths around noontime, laughing and talking, I see a gentle parade of sorts: with Davy Crockett and Winnie the Pooh as grand marshals, sharing a near-beer from their thrones on the Bank of America float.

As obtuse and impulsive as young adults can be, they all seem so — innocent to me now. I’m three times their age; the proposition that age brings wisdom is good PR for old people, but too often untrue. Yet with clear eyes and a good memory you can look back down the path you walked through life and figure out how you got where you are now. And why.

I look down that path and see them striding over ground I covered 40 years ago. Ahead of them lie pitfalls that didn’t exist when I walked where they walk now. And yet if I look back to those days I find that I regret more what I didn’t do than what I did.

It’s nothing to dwell on, and I don’t; but if I’d been a little more adventurous, less timid, I might have explored the other paths that branched off the main route. Who knows where they might have led?

So it bothers me that, among all the talk on campus about helping young people fulfill their potential, there’s a certain amount of fear-mongering. Signs in the bookstore warn young people not to shoplift because “it will stay on your record FOREVER.”

The young are informed that any blemish in their behavior, even a rude Facebook page, will offend the mighty corporate employers and leave them, in the end, with an unused degree and a pile of debt.

When the grad students went on strike because of underpay and overwork — they were not left enough time to complete their own studies — they were threatened with arrest and academic ruination and other retaliations that, they were warned, might stunt their lives forever. They won; but the pressure to take the safe path, to rock no boats, is high.

Youth has one advantage: it does not know what it cannot do. And sometimes it accomplishes great things. But it will never do that if it simply toes a line drawn for it by its elders.

It’s my fervent desire that at least some of the kids deviate from the blacktopped path and strike out into the trees in search of something more profound than a clean restroom. Though a roll of toilet paper in the backpack is always a sound precaution.

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