Last Wednesday, I attended the first week’s meeting of my history class discussion section. We started our 50 minutes with an innocent icebreaker, in which every student went up to the chalkboard, said their name and then wrote it down where their birthplace might be if the board were actually a map, albeit blank and borderless. We were supposed to reference where the students before us had placed their names and estimate where our own belonged.
The point is, I was born in Maryland. And I didn’t know where that would be relative to Connecticut. Yeah. Well, now I know. But also, 15 other students I don’t know now know that I didn’t know. Of course, now you, the one reading this column, know as well. Alright…we’re all on the same page.
I’m sure that most everyone found it pretty shameful. (Though a laugh may have gurgled its way out of me, to a quiet classroom and a TA murmuring southwest.) As I sat down, I knew immediately that this five-second event had the potential to put me in conversational history, particularly under that ever-entertaining subject entitled, “The stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” We all love that one. I used to tell a story about a boy in high school who tried confirming that London was in Paris. (Notice purposeful past tense, please!) My cheap reward was an astonished, briefly captivated audience and someone else’s follow-up story about yet another astonishingly dim person. “It’s crazy! These people do exist!” I’ve said hundreds of times. Me, on the other hand — I could argue the definition of “race” versus “ethnicity,” knew what “social justice” actually means and had experienced intellectual highs after two-hour class discussions. And the thing is, I’m sure you have, too. If you are a student here, I’m almost positive I could have had this conversation with you, too. Jokes about others’ stupidity seemed sufficiently distant in the academic context of this campus…though now it’s almost mortifying for me to say so.
Contrast last week to the first long break I returned back home from college, when I met some friends with whom I spent a lot of time in high school. There, unexpectedly, it was the “intellectual” label that seemed too closely plastered to everything I said. I felt a deep, distracting pressure to restrain myself from debate, analysis, complications, bigger questions — words that suddenly carried less positive connotations in casual conversations. I didn’t want to hail so obviously from a school that, from home, seemed lofty and pretentious. Is that what I was then?
In both cases, a spotlight threw a harsh light in my direction, pointing out a spectrum of qualities I hadn’t noticed in myself before. Less culturally aware? More snooty? Less smart? More insecure? All of them, simultaneously? I realized that these words have values that are contingent on context, and our context changes constantly. We don’t live in novels alongside character foils that expose what we are and are not. And we’re no longer children learning adjectives by their opposites. After all, being a fish out of water depends on the water; feeling out of place depends on the place. It’s complex. We are all every mar and mistake, to varying degrees, at different times, in different places. There’s no point in summarizing the flaws of others when the next right setting will probably reveal it in ourselves. (See: paragraph two.)
I guess I’m growing more and more suspect of my own binary statements. I’m not sure if any self-description of choice is a trustworthy anchor at all. They’re all constructions of human people, and human beings don’t ever make things that last forever. Perhaps we are victims of our own attempts to self-determine, often at the expense of others who we imply are totally opposite. But it doesn’t matter an ounce: sooner or later, we all find ourselves falling off our pedestals to the same humble grounds, anyway. The tricky part then just seems to be staying there. Or, at least for me it is.
The bottom line is, Nina still has extreme U.S. geography issues. Maybe you want to help her. Better yet, make her day and respond to this column. Until then, she’ll be waiting at ninamc “at” stanford “dot” edu.