The first time I saw it, I was 17 years old. I was skipping my junior prom to attend a two day music festival at a university with a friend. Yes, I know, I was quite the rebel. I had not really thought much about college prior to this, but the clock was beginning to tick and I would need to start sending out applications in the fall. I was in the passenger seat of a Nissan Xterra as we were heading west on desolate Missouri highway 32, and then I saw it: the billboard. I don’t know if I had been blind to them previously, if I was subconsciously dreading where to apply in the near future, or if there was something larger at play in that moment, because it was not a particularly unique or exciting highway sign. It was like any other advertisement for a university. There was a young man slightly off center, standing confidently in the middle of the quad, staring into the camera with a grin. He was handsome and well-dressed with his backpack slung coolly over one shoulder (as was still cool then, I can’t speak to current backpack wearing trends). There was a young woman to his right (my left) who was also attractive and well-dressed holding a single book to her chest. I couldn’t say which subject she was studying, but clearly she had a light course load to only need to carry this lone book around without a backpack (no matter how trendily) and minus even a pencil or notebook. She did not gaze into the camera, but rather, her attention was directed at the young man with whom she seemed fascinated by. She was smiling adoringly at him, as if he had just told the funniest joke or said the most witty thing and she couldn’t hardly stand it. There was a third person in the background of the picture, on the far right (his left) sitting beneath an ancient oak tree, reading a book and enjoying the sunshine.
Teenagers are quite silly, I was especially, but seeing that image even for an instant as we zoomed by, it spoke to me. I wanted to be that young man. I wanted to go to a school filled with bright, young, attractive, well-dressed individuals. I wanted to go somewhere where the academics were important, but not overbearing; where my backpack could only be worn on one should without causing me back pains because it wasn’t loaded down with books, or where some days I could get by just carrying a solitary textbook in my hand. I wanted to experience budding romance amongst the old trees and green grass of a university quad. I wanted to lay under those trees and think deep thoughts. On my way home from that weekend, I had made up my mind that this particular school was the one for me.
A year later, for the second time, I saw the fated billboard. On this trip, I was riding with my parents in our family station wagon and we were on our way to enroll me in classes there. I remember seeing it and leaning into the front glass to give the ever-smiling couple a thumbs up, or something stupid like that. I was coming to join them. I was going to become them. They smiled back their pleasure at my decision… except for the girl in the background who continued to stare off in deep thought. It didn’t matter, I wouldn’t want to interrupt her anyway. She knew what was up.
Fast forward another year. I had finished my first two semesters at university. It had gone well enough: I had made some good friends, was dating a pretty girl, and had passed all of my courses. My classmates, on the whole, were not as attractive as advertised. The school work was a bit more challenging than I might have hoped. I learned quickly that I needed both straps on my backpack because it was heavy enough to create some alignment issues. At one point the bottom ripped out of aforementioned backpack and I carried all of my books in grocery bags for a portion of the year. There were several “all-nighters” and entire 24-hour days spent in the library throughout the year, but that was all part of the experience? The cafeteria food gave me terrible diarrhea, so I mostly subsided on noodles that came in block form. I knew that was something college kids did, I did not realize it was out of digestive necessity. I had seen and been part of some drama, and not the fascinating television kind. I had forgotten to pack a winter coat when I left home my first semester, which meant I walked to all of my classes in the snow wrapped in my comforter. I had slept in my car a few nights so that I could get some sleep apart from my roommates shenanigans. Basically, I had learned to live more and more like a homeless person. I had driven past the billboard many times that year, but never given it any thought. My reality was not the billboard’s.
More years passed and finally, I was graduating. I don’t want to give off the impression that I was laser-focused on this billboard, I had only really noticed it twice in all the years I had made the trip from home back to campus, but now I noticed it a third time and I remembered my previous thoughts and feelings towards it. I laughed at myself, I swore a bit, and then I became quite angry. In another post I’ve laid out several of the things I’ve seen go wrong in my life, but many of them happened during my time at college. In the span of those short years, I’d gone from an optimistic idealist to someone very calloused and cynical. The things I had been sheltered and shielded from my whole life had come knocking at my door while at university. I had been lured to this place by an Edenic image of perfection. That my life would become imminently better once I entered these hallowed halls. The opposite was true. I had a degree and some amazing lasting friendships, but I was also a very bitter person and I was lucky because many of my classmates had left without even that. Some lives were destroyed in this place. Some lives had ended in this place.
My faith was stretched and tested during those years, even more so in the years to come. I hung on to it, or I should say, it hung on to me, but just barely. Here’s why I got so angry that day: the billboard represented Law in my life. It was a standard, an expectation, a goal. I went into it thinking I could do it, achieve it, perfectly obey it. The reality of the impossible expectation and my own inability had been whitewashed out in the haze of glory. The whitewash had faded, peeled, cracked and the ugly truth was now staring me in the face. It paralleled my experience with Christianity.
But something interesting happened a few years after that experience. I was working part-time at a bakery/coffee shop, making minimum wage and living off tips. I was a nobody, a failure, trying desperately to find my purpose. One day, the smartly dressed lady who owned the upscale building our shop was located in came and told me she would need me to drop by her office after work. I was unsure of what that meant, but it seemed important, so after work I took off my apron and entered the nice main lobby of our building, stinking of sweat and frosting, and pushed the elevator button for the top floor. When I got there, I recognized a few other faces of similar minimum wage struggling-to-make-it clerks from the various shops in the building. We were informed that we would be part of an advertising campaign for the area. They were going to dress us in fancy clothes from a shop downstairs and put us in magazines, brochures, and … a billboard. The next day, the group of us showed up, went through an awkward time where the lady picked out clothes for each of us that none of us would ever have worn, and makeup was applied liberally. A professional photographer posed us and took several shots. The whole thing lasted a couple hours and at the end we were each given a $25 gift certificate to a restaurant the smartly dressed lady also owned for our trouble.
So there it was. My face, alongside the faces of peers who similarly hated their jobs and lives, plastered all over the city. I wondered if anyone would look at it and say, “I wish I could have that life…” It was ridiculous. The billboard that had caused me this existential crisis was probably filled out with poor students who had had the same experiences I had, were dressed and posed by someone else, and given a $25 gift card which they gladly took so that they could finally skip a diarrhea inducing meal in the cafeteria. Perfection, at least in this life, is a lie. Don Draper is a genius. A rich genius who knows how our brains work. Give us a Law, and we’ll kill ourselves trying to achieve it.