Flying Away: How the Y1 Classroom and the Political Arena Helped Me Find Myself

Mollie Gordon, ’18

When I was approached about writing for The Bardvark, my initial impulse was to say “no.” I’d never written anything for the newspaper before, so I didn’t see any reason why I should now. Also, I didn’t think I had anything to say.

Evidently, I conquered this impulse, because I’m here and I’m writing. I realized that most people don’t know they have a voice until they use it. The fact that saying “no,”, seemed so natural to me is exactly what prompted this piece.

I think that this school year, for me and for many, became a year of involvement , and I believe it is involvement – active participation – that makes an individual. I think many of us became individuals this year.

I write specifically about the individuals in my grade, although I’m sure this process occurred for others. Year 1 is, I imagine, always a time of transition. Although we are not yet in the traditional college setting, we still find ourselves suddenly treated like adults (to a certain degree). For everyone, this transition requires a revised work ethic, a different relationship with teachers, and a profound loss of sleep.

My experience in Year 1, however, is inextricable from the events occurring in our world at this time. I have difficulty imagining what Year 1 would feel like in a stable political climate. To me, the change many of us experienced at BHSEC this year is a microcosm of what happened – and is still happening – in our country.

Both within and outside of school, I found myself thrown onto the frontlines of society. In situations I would normally remain passive and let someone else takes the reins, I realized that I had to take an active position. In my classes and in the real world, remaining silent was no longer an option.

I have always been an active participant in class discussions, especially at BHSEC. In past years, I’ve been able to speak openly, but not necessarily personally. I’ve been quick to share my interpretations of texts freely, but my hardly-exceptional ability to connect the dots of Jane Eyre’s self-image is quite removed from who I am and what I believe.

That all changed this year. In all of my classes, most of all First Year Seminar , I was no longer applauded for taking the low-hanging fruit. My class contributions were no longer removed from my identity and personal views – in fact, I often had to share more of myself than I wanted to.

This year, we had provocative discussions about ethics, religion, discrimination, and more. It was impossible to keep these conversations impersonal, and every time I participated I faced the risk of being judged and shot down. To actually make valuable contributions, I had examine my own beliefs – the beliefs the make me an individual.

What I quickly realized was that my “beliefs” were not so much mine as they were my parents’, my entire family’s, and my friends’. Opinions that have been drilled into me until they appeared factual suddenly seemed to stand on shaky ground. By recognizing which opinions came from others, I was finally able to develop beliefs that – as much as possible – came from myself.

I only understood what these beliefs were when I was forced to communicate them in a classroom setting. Through active discussion, I was able to construct my identity – an identity that is inextricably linked to my family’s, yet wholly my own.

Like  I said earlier, participation defines an individual. I “found myself” (as much as one can at sixteen) via participation that made me turn inward.

This experience went beyond BHSEC.. For me, developing my individuality through participation did not only occur in the classroom. The current political situation also compelled me to examine my views and take a stand.

In general, I believe this election was a wake-up call for many Americans. People who didn’t care enough to vote saw the outcome of their passivity. People who viewed our current president as a clown with no chance of winning saw the outcome of oblivious media. Most of all, people who thought that, deep down, most Americans care about equal rights, saw that they were wrong.

I’ve never thought too much about politics. When Obama was elected, I was happy because everyone I knew and loved was happy, but I was too young then to realize just how lucky we were. I was one of the people who thought that, deep down, most Americans care about equal rights.

In my family, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc., were never tolerated, and therefore rarely discussed. The fact that my dad’s coworkers who are POC, my mom’s gay theatre friends, or anyone else who has been discriminated against and marginalized are human beings with equal rights like everyone else, seemed like a given to me. Discrimination on a broad scale seemed like a thing of the past.

I also never felt the need to define my own political identity. I never felt the need to label myself a “feminist” because I didn’t think I needed to; a year ago I thought: “Equal rights for women? Doesn’t everyone agree we deserve that?” I never felt the need to consider how my Jewish heritage affected my politics.

But then the election happened, and I was one of the many who was shell-shocked. When I talked to some of my POC and LGBTQ friends, however, they were less surprised. They were well-aware of the deep discrimination running through America.

It was like half the country had been sleeping, and after November 7th they had no choice but to wake up. It was no longer safe to assume that we all agree on anything. It was no longer acceptable to sit on the sidelines and let other people put themselves out there and march for what they believe in.

After the election, I was thrown into the world of politics. I couldn’t stay silent and let others talk for me; I had to research, get informed, and figure out what my political views were. I had to go to marches and protests. I had to define my identity as a Jewish feminist, because I was no longer able to believe that prejudice was in our distant past.

Through taking an active position, I not only learned about myself, but also about the things I had taken for granted in the past. As it turns out, a good chunk of my family supported Trump in the election. A good chunk of my family is racist and bigoted. A good chunk of my family does not believe women should choose how they use their own bodies.

I couldn’t automatically group my political views with theirs any more than I could associate my ethical and spiritual views with those of my family and friends. I had to actively search for my own identity that is influenced, but not defined, by those of my peers.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, this was a year of involvement, for me and for many. This involvement occurred in and out of the classroom, and helped me form and evaluate my own distinct beliefs. Through active, often forced, participation, I started on the path of finding myself as an individual.

This process has indeed been “ forced,” and therefore sometimes uncomfortable. Bursting out of your comfort zone is not easy and rarely painless. I can’t help but think of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which we spoke of so often in Seminar; when the people were brought out of the darkness and into the light, it blinded them.

It is worth being blind for a little while, because the payoff is so much greater than the pain. The payoff here is the ultimate payoff – it is what drives many people their whole lives. This is the experience of finding oneself.

I’ve argued that this experience must be achieved through active participation, and therefore through taking risks. This is not a revolutionary idea. Ray Bradbury summed it up more poetically in his famous quote: “First you jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” If you don’t take that jump, you will never fly.

What was unique in our situation was the timing of our transition to the college program lining up with the unfortunate election. These two events combined to initiate a transformative process in myself and, I believe, in many of my classmates. This process does not occur in a year, but I do think I have jumped off the first (of many) metaphorical cliffs. I look forward to continuing to build my wings, piece by piece.

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Illustration credit: Annalivia Balaban, ‘18

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