I think a lot about privilege. White privilege. Male privilege. Hetero/straight/binary privilege. I’ve got privilege coming out of my ears.
One of the many privileges from which I’ve benefitted has been a family that drove and fed my curiosity from a young age – and one that had the money to pay for special curiosity boosters. Anyone can go to a public library (thank heavens for the robber baron Andrew Carnegie deciding that poor people should be able to access books or we might not have any public libraries at all), and that’s the solution for many people.
We went to the library sometimes when I was a kid – but it was a novelty to visit the old columned building gifted to the City of Pittsburgh back in the 19th century. It wasn’t out of necessity that we went there. I don’t know how to feel about that.
One of the opportunities I got because of my privileged status was the chance to take a college course when I was in the seventh grade. I attended a course at Dickinson College in U.S. Law and Politics (surprised, anyone?). Students lived in dorms and ate in the dining hall for three weeks. The dry way of putting it is like this: It was a formative and inspiring experience. More down-to-earth: This summer camp perhaps saved my life.
When I was in the sixth grade, just before that summer camp, I began drinking. Hard. Not all that often, but I drank like I was trying to drain the world of its alcohol supply. By the eighth grade, I was using other drugs as well to numb my self-doubt and fear. By ninth grade, I wanted nothing but oblivion. I had convinced myself that I was a literal moron, unable to understand complex thoughts or express anything but paranoid terrors and depressive laments. I failed my classes – pretty much all of them – that year. I went to rehab (privilege) instead of jail. I got chance after chance (privilege). With the help of others, I clawed my way back, switched schools to a smaller private option (privilege), and earned comparatively perfect grades from that point forward in high school. I am still afraid I’m a moron, but there’s no evidence to support the hypothesis anymore. I didn’t love my time in high school, though I am grateful for the opportunity I had to get it done and over with. It was curiosity that drove me, though, to keep pushing. I had to get to college. That was what I had my heart set on. Then I applied to one college – near home – and made it safely to that refuge.
When I got to Washington & Jefferson College, I was back where I belonged from the start.
I crave challenge, constant mental stimulation, and opportunities to show what I know and converse with others who learn by talking about what we’re learning. That’s what school was all about for me after I jumped the hoops that high school offered (Aside: How can we fix that high school is often a mere obstacle and make it more of an opportunity for inspiration and challenge?).
Here’s why I think that seventh-grade summer program might saved my behind. It showed me that I was capable. Even as I was failing every class in high school, I could remember a time when I was able to think. I remembered how much better it was to wander a college campus than to be worried over, looked after, and feared for at all times.
Back at that college program in 97 or whatever it was, we were kept in line pretty well, though compared to life at home it was perfect freedom, even if wandering campus in an organized and chaperone-led group. And I was with other kids who were like me: driven, curious, and desperate to learn in community with others.
When I cleaned up in early high school (thankfully I’ve remained that way since), I had that memory of attending college in the seventh grade. Without that memory, I’m not sure if I would have had the magic concoction required keeping a hint of hope in the back of my brain. At my depths, it’s possible I had put that summer and its reminder that I was capable out of my mind… but when things started to come back – as they do for those lucky enough not to wreck our minds completely – I knew I had to make it to college. I’d been there before and wanted to go back. That kept me going. Saved my keister.
One of the many privileges I’ve experienced in my lifetime, and I’m thankful for it, though I wish it were an opportunity made possible for all. Perhaps things have improved since then…
In any case, and whatever our circumstances, we need to offer opportunities to feed kids’ curiosity – at the library or at a summer college program – and hopefully amazing opportunities become available for every one of us and not just the privileged few.
And we need to feed our own curiosity. It could be our saving grace.