I make it my business to not spend a lot of time at home. I worried, when graduating high school that I would be one of those kids who was home every weekend and constantLy on the phone with “friends from back home.” I almost was. By the time I left for college I was pretty good at long distance friendships and relationships because I had gone abroad for four months sophomore year. I almost decided, in the final hour before coming up to Amherst, to long-distance-date someone I had been seeing that summer. In the end, I dumped him during freshman orientation to seek more… local companionship.
Recently, though, I have found myself craving my old haunts. I miss the smell of Brooklyn in winter. I miss the marble lobby of my high school, the fabric glue, dusty dresses, and freshly cut wood in the theater department. I have been turning over and over the specifics of places, paths and patterns of behavior. Going home for spring break was a relief. It felt like the huge weight of obsessive nostalgia had been lifted momentary and replaced with the ease of re-entering a world where I knew my place. For a moment I wanted to fuck it all and transfer to NYU, where I could be safe in a sea of plaid, and dive back into the heady art of City Living.
My high school has a reputation for getting kids into very good colleges. In my year alone, 10% of the grade went to Yale. However, we also have a notably high drop-out rate. Kids don’t seem to be able to make it out of the Brooklyn womb, per se. Out of my close group of friends alone, half of us (5 out of the total 10) have taken a semester or more off. Four of those have done so because they were failing a class. It isn’t just my friends either, this a known issue for/stereotype of graduates from my high school. For what is supposedly one of the best private high schools in the US these statistics don’t look so good.
We weren’t exactly shown had to deal with the world outside our bubble. At all. Or even, really, how to deal with the bubble itself.
The love and individual care we got from our teachers and administrators was beyond what any reasonable institution could maintain. I remember laughing during college tours, when they told us our class sizes would be “small and intimate,” meaning between 12 and 20 students. In high school, our classes were between 4 and 15, with a few exceptions. This isn’t to mention the freedom we were given. We didn’t have grades, we had written reports instead. It was totally okay to skip classes if we could muster a response like “I was inspired by nature and had to stay outside to write poetry” or “instead of taking that calculus test, I decided it was really important to have a conversation with my friend about PETA and gender.”
Try to understand, though, that we DID work hard (when we wanted to, anyway.) I was in class from 830am to 6pm four days a week because I took seven academics and 5-7 electives every year. The liberty we were given allowed us to be ambitious as easily as it gave us the opportunity to slack off. A lot of the time it just meant that we didn’t get bogged down by slow-paced classes or busy work and could get right to the interesting subject matters and material that was up to our level.
You can see, though, why it would be hard for us to move from an environment like that to campus life. Not only was I now getting grades, but grades also meant that it was possible to fail classes. Those little prompts/ideas that professors give us to write essays? Yeah. I didn’t realize until last semester that we were required to write our essays based on those prompts. Because… if we didn’t… we would get a bad grade… which mattered. It didn’t matter what we wanted to learn based on texts we had read, all that counted was the rubric and what the teacher wanted us to write. There is certainly merit to a more standardized method of learning, but it was entirely new to me.
I had to distance myself as much as I could from everything I knew about how to learn and what home was like in order to be successful here. I had to stop myself from going home because, if I had stayed there for longer than a weekend, I wouldn’t be able to come back. The only difference between my college career and my smart, intellectually rigorous friends who have dropped out, sometimes feels like one bad day.
People often recount the story of moving from a little suburban town, to college, and then out into the world and possible the Big City. My narrative is different – the story of moving from the international, cosmopolitan life into this corner of New England to try and understand what exactly I had been missing in NYC. I wanted to know what everyone ELSE had been doing these past 18 years before we wound up in this random little town in the middle of Western Mass.
A few things I’ve learned in the past two years:
1) Milwaukee is not a state. NB: Instead of learning geography in 4th grade, we did African tribal chants, and I never really got the chance to catch up again.
2) I actually grew up pretty sheltered. Yes, I had access to Broadway and the Bowery Poetry Project, but I never interacted with anyone who had a job in high school or had to fight to come out of the closet. Before coming to Amherst I had never spoken to a woman for whom feminism was a discovery and not an inherited truth.
3) Grades are really hard, but sometimes helpful. Being self-motivated/ambitious is great, but sometimes without grades, even with the copious amounts of written feedback we received, it was hard to acknowledge that your best could get better (and/or wasn’t really your best, maybe that one essay was a little bit lazy.) Also, that one lazy essay actually has an effect on a bigger project, namely your final grade, which in turn affects your GPA. Sounds old hat to you, readers, but this was all new to me coming here.
4) Athletes. Are okay. With exceptions (like the Men’s Sailing Team and a few others) I have found that there was more to the world than art kids and art-science kids. There are other types of people with different/new skill sets that can actually add something. Plus, the body obsession athletes have that I find so repulsive is just as true for my art friends who spend hours modeling/representing models/examining the human form, so on closer inspection, everyone is on even ground there.
So there ya go, she-bomb readers, a small step further towards my assimilation to Amherst. This is semester four, though, so we’ll see if I ever really get there…