During their junior year of college, many people reach a milestone: they turn twenty-one. And in college, being twenty-one is different from being twenty—because you can drink legally.
This is my junior year at Ithaca College, and most of my friends have already turned twenty-one. But my birthday isn’t until April. And while not being able to buy alcohol is a (no pun intended) minor problem in the greater scheme of things, there’s no denying that drinking is a big part of college social life—and I’m beginning to feel left out. The friends with whom I’ve done almost everything since freshman year are suddenly having fun that I can’t be part of. They can walk into Kilpatrick’s on karaoke night and sip a local white under the wine tents at the annual Downtown Ithaca Chili Cook-off. When we chow down on enchiladas at Viva Taqueria, they order margaritas… and I get a Diet Coke.
Thankfully, being underage it hasn’t really changed my relationships with my closest friends; we still talk, text, and borrow each other’s shoes like we always have. Still, it will be great when I can finally join in the fun. Until then, I guess I have to practice my least favorite virtue: patience.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize that turning twenty-one isn’t just about reaching the legal drinking age. I’ve always seen twenty-one as the gateway to adulthood. Although Americans are legal adults at eighteen, I don’t think we really qualify for that title until twenty-one. And for many things, the government agrees. In the U.S., twenty-one is the age at which you can get a bartending job, gamble at a casino, adopt a child, apply for a license to drive a large passenger vehicle, and several other things that I probably won’t do anytime soon… but the point is, I could if I wanted to. In my home state of Vermont, twenty-one is also the age at which your driver’s license flips from vertical to horizontal—and stays horizontal for the rest of your life. Symbolically, that’s a big deal.
I know that come April 3, I won’t automatically be more mature or wiser than the day before; you don’t just wake up one morning and say, “Now I’m an adult.” But I know that with every birthday, I’m closer to becoming an independent individual. And that’s daunting—but also exciting. Just a few more months…