MCHENRY: In defense of “midterms”

In college, one word can excuse any action. You can use it to justify missing deadlines, forgetting to talk to friends or even excusing those mornings when you wander into lecture in sweatpants, not skinny jeans. Most recently, I used this word as the one-word note on a series of Snapchats that explained why, at 3 a.m., I was dipping pretzel sticks into a week-old can of frosting. No, Mom, the magic word isn’t “sorry” or “please” — it’s “midterms.”

Blaming midterms may seem like a slick excuse for a problem that could easily be solved by getting sleep and canceling your Netflix subscription. But — of all the complaints we make in college — nothing beats the pithiness of “midterms.” That one lonely word that captures all our feelings of dissatisfaction, even the ones we can’t exactly name.

Besides the first and last three weeks of class, it is always “midterm season,” so you can always complain about midterms. During midterm season, even if you do not have any tests or deadlines, it still is reasonable for you to, at any point: claim that you have too much work, distract people by talking about all the work that you are not doing, and then ignore these same people when they actually want to talk to you because, as you said before, you have too much work.

A cry of “midterms” also excuses some pretty hilarious habits in the name of the near-occult influence of deadlines. One of my friends listens to “All I Do Is Win” before all her tests. I once “accidentally” left my coat on a chair in the Silliman library for a week just so I could guarantee a chair close enough to the heater. I’ve even heard people blame the binge drinking associated with the now-deceased Safety Dance on pre-midterm anxiety.

I used to think that this obsession with stress was ridiculous. When I first came to Yale from California, I was perplexed by what I saw as the pessimistic, East Coast attitude of actually complaining to other people. In Los Angeles, stress is mostly just an excuse for some “medical” treatment. When someone asks you how you’re doing, you respond with a smile. “Good, and you?”

I kept up this pattern throughout my freshman year, not realizing that my feigned optimism came across as oddly arrogant in my new serious home. At one point, a friend called me out when I told him that I was doing “pretty well!” — despite the fact that I had a paper due in three hours. “Really, on a Tuesday?” he accused me.

I feel awfully stupid looking back at that exchange. I mean, in going to Yale, I had signed up to be surrounded by exciting, driven people. But it took me some time to realize how exhausting that experience can be, even when things seem to be going well.

The typical Yale student, in my opinion, complains because he or she, despite whatever comes with being “a typical Yale student,” is not always happy. Do they have supportive friends? Hopefully. Are their professors interesting? They should be. But college doesn’t always add up. There are also moments that seem undefined and leave you unprepared, when “I dunno, life’s just a lot right now.”

It may seem that we have very little to complain about; we are privileged, well-fed and well-supported. And sometimes our complaints are ridiculous — no one actually wants to hear about your “bad” test grade. But that doesn’t mean that dissatisfaction doesn’t exist. You shouldn’t have to be happy even if you can’t name exactly what’s wrong.

“Midterms,” you say. And whether you are talking to your good friends or just a couple of acquaintances in section, they know the feeling, too. Maybe it’s just a bad week or a paper that doesn’t want to be written. Maybe it’s something more.

“Ugh, midterms” — after all, we are only human.

Jackson McHenry is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at jackson.mchenry@yale.edu .

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