Our obligations at Vanderbilt eclipse our appreciation of the people back home

How a bomb that never came can remind us of what really matters

“Todd, there’s an incoming ballistic missile heading towards Hawaii. No matter what happens, know that I love you.”

It was 12:14 PM on Saturday when I heard those words from my father, a workaholic who had said the word “love” fewer than five times in his entire life. During that 57 second phone call, nothing felt real. Just moments before, I had been curled up over my computer, filling out applications and getting ready to join the waves of students looking for summer internships. As the reality of the outside world broke through, I called my mother and turned to Twitter for news. In seconds, my parents would be gone, vaporized in an attack that would plunge the world into chaos.

Thankfully, like a diver breaking through the surface, I could finally breathe again once I found out that the missile alert was a false alarm. I called my dad and mom again to check on them, relieved to hear their shaky voices. Someone had flipped the wrong switch. Crisis averted. No World War III.

After that morning, the world itself seemed like a dream come true. The laughter of my friends was music to my ears. The thought of my parents still smiling under the Hawaiian sun warmed me amid the snow, as if I was right next to them. For the first time in awhile, I could feel how lucky I was to have them all in my life.

When the adrenaline high fell to a low buzz later that evening, I was able to introspect. Looking at my current situation, I realized how life at Vanderbilt isolates its students from the outside world. It filters out more than messy parts of reality, like responsibility and privilege. It insulates us from our roots. It makes us forget how we got here.

We rush from class to class, scurry from one club meeting to the next and pile our plates high with activities meant to secure our futures. We have an opportunity at this university to make something of ourselves, so we give our all. When we put in the work, we honor those who have helped us become who we are today. Nonetheless, it’s still important to keep perspective.

It took the threat of nuclear war to show me just how quickly everything can disappear.

Loved ones can vanish in an instant. A sorority sister can drop out of college. A mentor can fade into the background. A parent can die before they get a chance to see the light of their life on that stage with a diploma in hand. It can happen to any of us.

This story, however, is not about the uncertain future. It’s about the precious present. No club meeting should be worth a friend’s birthday. No homework should stop anyone from celebrating Valentine’s Day with their loved one. No internship application should stop you from picking up a call from a parent hard at work to pay tuition this semester.

We can’t wait for holidays and birthdays to start caring for those we love. Whether they’re across the state, across the country or across the world, make time for them. Cancel that Writing Studio appointment. Skip that optional extra-credit lecture. Take one of those free unscheduled absences from class. Let’s thank our ‘ohana, our family of cheerleaders and supporters, with our time and attention. It’s the least we can do.

Todd Polk is a sophomore in Peabody college. He can be reached at todd.o.polk@vanderbilt.edu.


  1. Beautiful message for every human working hard and forgetting to interact with people who matter most.
    It holds true not for students out there but many from other spheres as well.

  2. Words like this can never be said enough…we all need these reminders…thank you Todd. I’m so proud to be a part of your life and listen to your words of wisdom and encouragement….you rock dude!