Sunday, June 23, 2013

What I Learned but Wasn't Taught

At the end of 8th grade, we had to write an essay about the most important thing that we had learned at our K-8 school, JCD.  I wrote that I learned to be true to myself. Now, our school was a very strict, conservative, homogeneous, not-accepting-of-differences type of environment where there was a set way that everyone was supposed to act. It was hardly the kind of school that would teach you to be yourself.  My essay described JCD as a kind of obstacle course, like "This isn't what you taught me here, but this is what I've learned." When I entered high school, which was a much better environment for me, I immersed myself in the school right away. I acted as if being a high school student was my whole identity, that I had never been to school anywhere else. Junior year, I was reading over some of the fictional stories in my journals, when I noticed a common theme: almost every story I had written during high school was an attack against JCD, in some way or another. And when I thought about it, almost every issue I talked about, everything I believed in strongly fell under the category of "What I Learned But Wasn't Taught at JCD."

At first I felt contaminated; I thought I had cleansed myself of JCD entirely. JCD was not who I was - it was the total opposite of me. And yet it kept popping up as the central issue of everything I generated. Sophomore year of college, I reconnected with my two best friends from JCD over the summer, and realized just how differently we felt about the school. One of my friends was just like me - she never liked the school, wanted to forget what we had been taught there, and actually threw away a lot of mementos that I had held onto. But my other friend had a lot of nostalgia about JCD - even though she didn't have the best time there, she wasn't against the school environment as a whole. That's when it hit me that having my school at the core of my writing didn't mean that my writing was contaminated. Because tons of other students have graduated from JCD, and I doubt that all of them were attacking the foundation of the school in everything they said or did. A lot of them are probably okay with it.

It was always hard for me to understand just how JCD had affected me - since I started at age 4, I couldn't exactly say what my beliefs and values were before. I always wondered if my beliefs wouldn't be so off-the-charts if I had gone to a school that was better for me. But I realized that just because something went against what I was taught at JCD, didn't mean that the story was nothing more than an attack on my school. If you grew up with someone whose beliefs were the opposite of yours, does that mean that everything you say is an attack against them? I know I was young when I started, but with the number of students who didn't have a problem with JCD or with schools like it, I have to think that my beliefs have always been my own - they just happen to clash with the school I went to for ten years. And even if JCD was behind a lot of my stories, even if I was making a conscious attack on the school, it doesn't have to be that way for the reader. The reader might relate the story back to their own experience, or see it as a widespread issue. JCD is a part of my life experience, it's where I've observed things and gotten ideas and formed some of my view of the world. And that's okay.

I think I'm at that point now with Colby College. Not that what happened there will ever be okay, but I no longer feel a pressing urge to cleanse myself of the school or pretend it never happened. It did happen, it's part of my life experience, and it's been my main source of writing inspiration for a long time now. And that's okay. I may be making a personal attack on Colby with a lot of the stories and blog posts I've written, but these issues are not just Colby-specific. They exist in the real world, and I am making people aware of a lot of things and connecting with people who have had similar issues. I have gained a lot of insight from what I learned but wasn't taught at Colby. I will never say that my Colby experience was okay or that it was worth sticking it out, but the fact that I have been through Colby is a part of me now, and I can accept that. I don't feel contaminated anymore.

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