Dimming It Down: Democracy, College, and Life Lessons

My first post.

This is going to be awkward, uncomfortable, and most likely slightly painful to write.

It’s the introduction — the question, the quote, the anecdote, the statistic, the attention grabber that doesn’t really grab anyone’s attention the way your middle school teacher suggests it might.

It’s the sweaty first handshake with your girlfriend’s father, where you’re too scared and too prepubescent to dare squeeze.

The first time wearing your new white converse out in public. You’re sure everybody is being blinded by their whiteness but hey, you gotta dim them down somehow, right?

Right.

So here goes nothing. My first post.

It’s Monday morning. I’m sitting in my grandfather’s recliner. I’m drinking chamomile tea from Trader Joe’s. I graduated from high school eight days ago and my face is still recovering from a light sunburn, despite the 50 degree weather we’ve been experiencing, despite the fact that it is June, despite all those anxious politicos who deny climate change. I remember when June was synonymous with summer and summer was synonymous with high temperatures, clear skies, and sunshine. Excuse me, but climate change does, indeed, exist and I am not a fan of it.

Anyway. I graduated from high school eight days ago and I’m heading to college in the fall. I’m so relieved to have finally made a decision as to where I’ll be heading, but there’s not really an end to the string of College Questions even if you have finally figured out an answer to the first one.

Question #1: Where are you going to school?

Question #2: Do you know what you want to study?

Question #3: What do you want to do for a career?

Question #4-#n: Are you dorming? Are you doing that whole study abroad thing? Do you know anyone else going there? When do you start? When do you finish? Have you gone to Bed Bath and Beyond yet? Do you know what class you’re taking yet? Professors? Advisors? Are you nervous? Excited? Oh, it’s only natural to be both! When I was your age…. If I had all the opportunities you have now….  etc., etc.

Answer #1: I am going to Lawrence University — a small, liberal arts school in Appleton, WI; population: 1405.

Answer #2: No.

Answer #3: I don’t know.

Answer #4-#n: Yes. I’d like to. No. September something. June something. No. No. No. No. I don’t know. I don’t know.

There’s something very unsettling about this phase in my life right now. It might be the fact that I have a bunch of decisions to make, but it also might be the fact that people keep asking me about all of them. They walk around, snooty with their own college experiences, showcasing their entitlement to know all of my choices only to judge them without really using words. But that’s beside the point.

It used to be a lot easier to answer their questions — “their” being  an ominous pronoun.

They would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and I’d say, “A princess.” Simple.

It wasn’t until 4th grade that I fully understood the central difference between a monarchy and a democracy and that it meant there were no princesses here. I could never be a princess, so I had to switch my answer. And I’ve been switching it ever since — every year, every week, every day.

An idea does not sit with me too long before I change my mind and that’s why writing this blog is probably going to be a bit of a challenge. Not because the writing is difficult, because, in fact, writing is easy for me. Putting words on paper, typing them out, makes them real and if anything, that’s therapy for me. The only kind that seemed to work for me anyway. Writing has been a positive and that’s why for a while I thought that maybe I’d become a writer.

But that all changed when I found out the truth about everything. That we do not actually have a democracy in the United States. That it is called a republic. And that all I learned in elementary school was sheltered and wrong. They omitted the fact that Christopher Columbus was actually a prick and that Abraham Lincoln didn’t truly support freeing the slaves, but rather he supported a unified country and that in turn mandated freeing the slaves. Elementary school is a nursery, a place where they feed you mashed up history from baby food jars labeled The “TRUTH” (for ages 2-12). The word “euphemism” turns out to be a euphemism for the word “lie” and Kid of the Week was actually just a scheme designed to make everyone feel special, even if only for a week, because that doesn’t happen in the real world.

In the real world, some people go years without that kind of attention. And in the real world, people are homeless, hungry, sick, tired, bored, angry, and ignored. In the real world, the United States sometimes puts their ego before morality and crosses boundaries into countries to do more damage than justice.

And in the real world, the TV has other channels besides Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. There’s the news. The local news that show maybe you didn’t pick the right place to raise your kids. And the national news that tell the same old stories about planes that didn’t land; the domestic wars of race, prejudice, and economic inequality; teen suicides triggered by bullying; Bruce Jenner’s impending transformation; and Illinois governors going to jail (except Patt Quinn, of course!).

I like the news and I like history and I like politics. I like culture, I like people, I like learning. So, basically, I like living in the “real world.”

I’m thinking about majoring in History in school. My dad thought I was joking when I said it aloud for the first time earlier this year, but I think my dad has just learned to never take me seriously so that’s fine. He’s forgiven.

Lots of people think that history is boring, but it’s only as boring as you view your own life to be, isn’t it? We are living history right now. This is current history. Years and years from now, we will be in a textbook. We may not be among the Kurt Cobains and Elizabeth Warrens in the famous inspirational figures section, but the types of cars we drive, the music we listen to, the way we do our hair — that’s all going to be in the textbook. Cool, right? No?

Okay, well then what about this: History allows us to become educated through experiences that are not our own.

I don’t know what it feels like to win the World Series and I most likely never will — for multiple reasons. But let’s say that Joe Maddon takes the Cubs to the Series and they win. Maddon then does an interview where he explains how he bit off all his nails in anticipation during the last two innings and how the fireworks at the end made him feel better than the Tampa Bay Rays ever did. I now know what it feels like to win the World Series, in a way.

When I was going through the college selection process earlier this year, I had to write many essays. One of my essays put me in the running for a Diversity Scholarship. I know, I was shocked/confused too.

I’m a white Jewish girl from a heavily white Jewish suburb just outside Chicago. Had I ever considered myself diverse? No. But some school did and they were offering me a lot of money if I could convince them that I was in an interview. So I did the interview.

They asked me why I thought diversity was important. I was unprepared (I don’t know why because that seems like a pretty obvious question to ask during an interview about diversity??????), but I normally can stir up strong emotions and opinions on the fly so I did. Diversity was suddenly very important to me.

My high school was very diverse. There were over 100 languages spoken in the district and statistics showed a large mix of ethnicities and income levels. It helped to socialize me, culturally, and it gave me a more enriched education experience than my friends in, let’s say, Buffalo Grove or Highland Park, if that means anything to you. I have friends in both those areas who are as kind and wonderful as can be, except they do not have the experience I do of interacting with others from different backgrounds because their populations are mostly homogenous in terms of color, religion, equity, etc., limiting the benefits from such interactions.

So, why does this matter? Because I’ve learned that I like Ethiopian food. I’ve learned that Spanish telenovelas are way more interesting than Days of Our Lives, that there are more religions than just Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — shoutout to Tom Cruise — and that it is hard as hell to bounce back financially after buying a 3-Day Lollapalooza pass when you’re on a part-time teenager employee budget. I may not be on food stamps, but I know people who are and I know that it’s not because they’re lazy or bad. I know the difference between a hijab and a burka and I don’t get nervous when I see people who look different than me, whether it be at a park late at night, on a plane, at school, next door, as a coworker, or as a friend.

My experiences growing up in such a diverse place have forced me to abandon any sort of prejudice or stereotype I might have naturally jumped to, because I have met exceptions to these rules and realized that these “rules” are not actually rules at all. They are social constructs put into place to separate people. Breaking them allows for that good ol’ unification Abraham Lincoln was so keen on and for people to feel mutually supported and understood.

I talked about this in the interview. I talked about all the benefits of living where I lived and how it has helped me grow as an individual and as a piece of a larger community. They nodded their heads, smiled, exchanged looks every time I said “learned.” They gave me the money.

And this was all fantastic and swell because overall, in the real world, diversity is a form of education. It teaches you about other people, other cultures, and other ways of life. It shows you and exposes you to experiences that you would not have had otherwise. And that’s why I like history, too, because it gives you the knowledge and lessons of something other than yourself.

My entire life is, by default, focused on myself, just as everyone else’s life is focused on themselves. Every experience we have, every moment we live, is viewed from our own eyes with ourselves as the forefront and most important, most immediate beneficiary.

But I think that the moral of this post — however far-fetched it may be — is that you have the option to adjust your settings through mediums like history or diversity. You can get out of that default mode and refocus your vision so that you can see things from a different perspective and question your certainties. And in doing so, you practice the skill of empathy and become a much smarter and much more useful person to this world’s community.

So, I hope that wasn’t too awkward, uncomfortable, or painful to read. (It certainly was to write.) And hopefully I did not alienate any sort of audience I may have had with my Chicago biases or blunt rhetoric. If so, my apologies.

Until next time,

Madi

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