Noah just mentioned L.L. Nunn, a figure of particular significance to me. Apart from Deep Springs, alma mater of two of my best friends, Nunn also founded the Telluride Association, sponsors of the Telluride Association Summer Program. I just noticed that tomorrow is the final deadline for applications to TASP. If any of you are high school juniors, and I suppose that’s pretty unlikely, I hope you’ll consider applying. You don’t have much time, I realize, and I’m kicking myself for not having posted this before.
Noah notes that he doesn’t feel any particularly strong connection to Yale. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve attended a couple of really terrific schools. But TASP, which very few people have ever heard of, was far and away the best and most important thing I’ve ever done. I am convinced that pretty much everything good that’s happened in my life since is attributable to some combination of having participated in TASP and having cool parents. Of my closest friends, I’d say about half a dozen come from TASP ’96. I first encountered another one of my best friends when I read her TASPlication in 1998, strangely enough. Even now I meet TASPers and notice common patterns across generations. Kids who attend elite schools are a mixed bag, and the vast majority are crashing bores. The admissions process tends to select for crashing bores. TASPers, in contrast, are almost all incredibly strange, and I mean that in the best way. It’s hard to predict what they will think or say from how they look or how they talk. They are invariably square pegs from round holes. I’d say the majority are high achievers, but of course there are also spectacular flame-outs. The program doesn’t select for the best students. Had they done so, I never would have had a chance. Most of the kids are high achievers, granted, but there are plenty of misfits in the mix. In my experience, TASP takes diversity — real diversity — seriously. And so there was conflict and argument, and there was also mutual respect. I often think I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to recapture the “magic” of that summer. Sad as that might sound, it’s been a mostly rewarding effort.
More bluntly, I’ll just say that I was a major high school screw-up, or at least I felt that way. I attended an enormous warehouse of a school (almost 3,000 students) that was full of smart and ambitious kids, and I made many friends. But I didn’t do much learning, at least not in the classroom. I was overmatched by my fellow students in study skills, but, with the exception of a small handful of friends (and particularly my friends Jesse and James), I wasn’t wowed. “Is that all there is?” At TASP, the kids were amazing, flamboyant, brilliant, brooding, charismatic: they were nuts. We didn’t have any grades, but we did read massive tomes and we wrote enormous papers. (I can’t explain how intimidating a 40 page research paper sounded to me at that age. The other seminar at my TASP assigned an even more ungodly amount of work.) Yet somehow we stayed up until 2 or in the morning every night. The most unlikely friendships took hold, including my friendship with a devout Clinton-hating Catholic, a post-Trotskyist pan-Africanist Jewish humanist, a near-mute Vollmann enthusiast, and about a dozen others. I was overwhelmed, I was literally yelling and laughing almost constantly, and that’s exactly how I liked it. Being there among these authentic brainiacs gave me the kick in the pants I needed: I wanted to shape up so I could spend my life rubbing shoulders with the people asking the hard questions and more broadly doing their own thing. Granted, there were a few Ivy League sheep who snuck in, but fewer than you’d think. I was hooked. So I scraped and fought my way into a couple of good schools, all in the hopes of, again, recreating that summer.
You might be thinking, “Er, Reihan, I don’t exactly think of you as a role model …” Which is fair enough. TASP has many illustrious alumni who could reassure you: I am far, far more muddle-headed than the median TASPer. Indeed, years after my TASP I read my interview report and noticed that I made it just under the wire. The report stated, if I recall correctly, that I was a weak student, a mixed bag personality-wise, and that my enthusiastic defense of liberal nationalism was basically incoherent, but I had spunk and would make a decent addition if there was enough room for another New York debater-type. That sounds about right to me. I’m eternally grateful that some smarter kid didn’t take my slot, but, frankly, I think I needed it more.
Now for a confession: I applied to TASP because my crush, an articulate raven-haired left-winger with amazing brown eyes, had been to a TASP the summer before. I figured applying would give us something to talk about. It didn’t. Last I heard she is now happily married to someone else (he made it to the interview stage) and making pulse-pounding PBS documentaries. You win some, you lose some.