I have been blessed with some really great educational opportunities. For high school, instead of getting on a bus and going to the public school a few blocks across town, I got on a plane and went to a boarding school halfway across the country. My imminent graduation from college has me thinking a lot about that, my first school-away-from-home experience. There, I learned a lot of the things most people learn their first years in college: how to deal with a roommate, do my own laundry, handle some of my problems by myself. Sure, there was a certain amount of crying on the phone to my mom or to the House Adult (grown-up RA,) but a lot of things I worked through by myself, or with other scared 13-year-olds.
Something that has really traveled with me, though, (which is kind of ironic given the metaphor) was what the Headmistress said during our first All School Meeting. It was an extended talk about our ‘backpacks,’ although she had an adorable set of school-branded tote bags that she used as a visual guide. You see, she explained, everyone comes to school with their backpack. And there’s already some stuff in it: experiences we’ve had so far, friends from home, emotional ties to family or other places, education, maybe some prejudices or stereotypes or ‘I can’t’s. She warned us to unpack the latter as soon as possible and leave them somewhere, preferably outside the school’s white picket fences. She detailed how over the next four years, we would have more experiences, friends, education, maybe beliefs or opinions, and we would decide if those were going to go into our backpack and with us for the rest of our lives. I heard this talk the beginning of every year, as each new wave of scared freshmen (looking smaller and shorter every year, not to mention more terrified) arrived.
So, that brings me to college. I had my high school backpack, full of great things like living with diverse roommates, throwing events that combined the Gay-Straight Alliance and the Christian student group, working on Capitol Hill, and even, my senior year, becoming Head of House for a set of those scared freshmen.
I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision, but looking back, I think I kept my backpack zipped for the first couple years of college. I was so happy with what I had learned in high school, a magical, diverse community, that I refused to see what college, a largely white and Christian institution could offer me. It all changed when I met a group of people who were interested in fighting the administration to build a Gay-Straight Alliance. I started sort of edging the zipper open so others could peek in my backpack, sharing the experiences and growth I’d faced my first four years of away-from-home education.
Then, when Bridge Builders, a “Student Organization Affiliated With University Ministries to Create a Space for Dialogue Regarding Faith and Sexuality,” was officially approved, I proudly stuck its constitution in my backpack. This was something we had done. This was a mark we had left on campus. From then, my backpack, and my mind, were a little more often. I changed from ‘this college is a hostile space and I need to spend as much time off-campus as possible’ to ‘this college is a group of people who are here to learn, just like me.’ I joined Student Government and was certainly the only one there with facial piercings. I was voted President of Bridge Builders, but had to take a step back due to being overcommitted. I talked to my teachers, instead of thinking that they were just pawns of The Administration. I took more classes that I was interested in, not just ones I was required to take. I went on a school trip to Japan and ended up calling one of my teachers ‘mom.’
In two days, I will walk across the stage and be handed my diploma (most likely, it will be given to me by the President, whose office I broke down sobbing in when there was still an anti-GSA stance, or the Dean of Students, who I had several heart-to-hearts with, trying to convince him that the queer students on campus needed a student group.)
What will be in my backpack when I walk off campus and into the ‘real world’?
(Note, I won’t literally pack a backpack with these things. It’s a metaphor. Roll with it.)
-Bridge Builders’ Constitution. I’m still very proud of this. I have my fingers crossed that the group will continue long after the founders are just memories.
-Student Government participation certificate.
-Inside/Out participation/graduation certificate. This was a class set in a minimum-security prison, with half of the students college kids and half convicted felons. I hope to write a blog post about it some day but haven’t found a good way to frame it.
-Friends. Obviously. Particularly that one guy who I met my very first day of orientation, beckoning him to my table with “Hey, Metallica t-shirt guy, you’re sitting over here.” We’ve been friends ever since and roommates for a year.
-A Daruma doll from Japan. It’s a toy, symbol of perseverance and good luck, you color in one eye when you make a wish/goal and the other when it comes true.
-A Czech/English dictionary. Although I never mastered much beyond “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Czech” and “Could we have the bill, please,” my semester abroad will stick with me and has inspired me to get….
-A Polish/English dictionary. The weekend in Poland will really stick with me and I’d like to live or work in Krakow someday.
-A Bachelor’s of Business Administration degree.
What’s in your backpack?