“I saw myself inside his begging body. I realized at this moment that we human beings are fundamentally forbidden to shield ourselves from events outside our comfort zones. This unknown, unnamed boy, born into the lowest caste and purposefully made to warrant sympathy, rests inside all of us… I accepted my identity as a mystery larger than I could ever imagine but enriched through the experience of love and acceptance” (Shah, par. 13).
During her time abroad with her parents, Ria Shah found herself walking the streets of Mumbai, when she witnessed this young boy her own age begging on the street. She understood that personal identification is more than just oneself---it lies within the people whom one shares a connection with, no matter how small. As I transition from high school into my young adult life, I am beginning to understand this now, too. From reading the words of Shah to famous writers like Walt Whitman and Alan Watts activists like Martin Luther King Jr., my personal narrative is becoming clearer. By learning to shrink the distance between the people in my life and myself, I realize that the connection I share with people is my greatest source for self-identification.
The high school career I experienced was unlike most. In the context of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), where I majored in dance, was my escape into the light from the deep cave of the public education system in my town. At Daniel Hand High School, where I took my core classes each morning, my teachers kept me chained and forced me to look at assignments through the specific lens of the rubrics they provided. They lit a fire and cast the shadows for my peers and I to absorb. I witnessed how teachers “filed [us] away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system” (Freire 244). Paulo Freire, education philosopher, warned his readers in “The Banking Concept of Education” that students are not containers to fill but are unique minds to inspire. Each day when I left Daniel Hand to attend ECA, I felt released into a more freeing atmosphere. Nevertheless, my dance teachers in my freshman year told me that I was playing it too safely, but the freedom I had been given with movement assignments took time for me to grow into. Reflecting on my years at ECA, I see how it enabled my transition from cave dwelling to discovering a world where I found comfort in creativity and dared to make my own choices. By introducing me to my closest friends and providing a haven for me to explore my art form and find a voice through movement, ECA shaped me into the artist, student and person I am today. Like Plato’s escapee enlarging his perception of all that he believed to be true and returning to his fellow prisoners to share his experiences, dance has been my outlet to escape those cave conformities. It offered me emotional support and helped me cope with the passing of my grandparents. Most importantly, dance is not a judge, and therefore this discipline has encouraged innovation and risk taking. If I can offer even a handful of people the joy I experienced while learning at ECA, then opening my own dance studio will have been worthwhile.
Although Plato helped me to better understand my high school struggles, Walt Whitman brought to the surface of my consciousness emotions I felt when first experiencing racism. My host brother, Ryan Daniels, was born and raised in Harlem. When he was thirteen years old, he applied to A Better Chance, a high school program to attend Daniel Hand High School in Madison, Connecticut. In his freshman year at Hand, he met my older brother, Nick, in his geometry class. Their friendship quickly grew and my family decided to host Ryan for the remaining three and a half years he would attend my town’s high school. More than just a friend, Ryan became a part of my family. By living at my house, he opened my eyes to how privileged of an upbringing I had. He made me appreciate the things I took for granted, like how my family was lucky to know there would be food on the table each night. Ryan also taught me how injustice is everywhere, even in my picturesque suburban town. Witnessing his experiences, I have seen how deep racism is within a community and how detrimental are its effects.
Ryan became acclimated to life in Madison and meshed into the friend group that Nick had been a part of since middle school. When Nick and Ryan became extremely close, many of the boys took notice and began making ultimatums with my brother, saying he could only join if Ryan did not come along. This culminated in a Saturday night party during their junior year when the group forced them to leave. They were led out of the house through the garage and there, spray painted on the wall for them to see, read “nigger.” I was twelve years old at the time and I had never seen my older brother cry, but that night sent Nick into a whirlwind of emotions, as he discovered racism present in the group of friends he thought he knew so well. Ryan tried his best to seem unaffected by it, but we could tell how hurt and betrayed he felt. My whole family felt the pain; I was upset to see how sad it made my brother, and I was enraged at his alleged friends for being so dismissive and discriminatory towards Ryan. The mass of emotions I felt during this time became clearer when I read Section One of “Song of Myself”: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Whitman, para. 1). This appreciation of our interdependence is also representative of the post-conventional stages of Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral development model. What was felt by my family was the understanding of “abstract ideas of equality, dignity and respect” (Kohlberg). Ryan had become a part of my family, so when his dignity was disrespected, so was my family’s.
Just as Whitman revealed these strong emotions connected with Ryan and social injustice, Alan Watts helped me resolve issues in my religious life. Growing up in a Roman Catholic family, spoon-fed stories of Jesus and God through attending mass and catechism classes for years, I learned that He is the divine being from which all things come, there to provide love and guidance for me, so I must fully accept and believe in His presence and power. My grandmother had been the most prominent source of religious faith in my family. Her faith was more than an aspect of her life; it shone in her lifestyle. Even in casual conversation, if I were to mention to her that I misplaced something, she would remind me to pray to Saint Anthony for guidance. However, I never truly prayed to God on my own, only when in the presence of my family at Mass, nor had I much confidence in the idea of God as an actual entity. This past spring, however, when I lost both of my grandparents within the span of five weeks, I began to pray on my own. This act made much more sense to me after reading, “Inside Information,” the first chapter of The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Watts states, “Of course, you must remember that God isn't shaped like a person. People have skins and there is always something outside our skins” (Watts 9). Now I'm finding greater meaning in the idea of God not as the judge of a competition for His approval, but rather as the ground of my being most fully expressed in the act of love. After years of listening to sermons and hymns about the Lord, I feel most connected to the divine via the loving relationship I shared with my grandparents. This feeling mirrors Watts’s closing thought, “that the less I preach, the more likely I am to be heard” (Watts 14). I am finding a deeper sense of faith now and am beginning to see the true simplicity in religion. Personally, its value is not found in long hours of prayer and reading of the scriptures but felt in my daily relationships through loving, serving, remembering, and cherishing.
In the wake of this year’s presidential election, loving relationships that cherish our differences in mutual support seems more valuable than ever. This year was my first opportunity to vote, and I was confident for a particular outcome. Unfortunately, the candidate I supported did not win, and I struggle to accept the bigotry and ignorance of our president-elect. As an eighteen-year-old college student, I must be aware of how the current politics will shape my future, from the type of workforce I will be entering after graduation to my ability to obtain health care as a young adult. Not only do I disagree with much of what creates Mr. Trump’s political platform, I have issues with his lack of awareness and feelings for people that do not look or act like him. As I grow up, I feel a larger purpose for civic duty, that if my government is not protecting and supporting the rights of all people, it is my responsibility to stand up and do my part. I am already witnessing the fear of my homosexual and Mexican friends, as they are unsure of how their communities will be treated during a Trump presidency. A close friend of mine from ECA, who prefers to be unnamed, came out to his friends and family during his sophomore year. As he watched the election results on November 8th, he reposted on his Facebook page:
“Hey Trump supporters: There’s something I’d like you to understand about people of color, women, LGBTQ people, Muslims, and every other marginalized group. We’re afraid. We’re not just upset our candidate isn’t winning…. When over half the country votes for a candidate who wants to strip you of your rights, who incites violence against you, who believes your existence is a threat, it’s fucking scary. Don’t pretend our fear isn’t on you. It is” (Anonymous).
Millions of Americans, including myself, feel the way my friend does in response to the outcome of this election. However, perhaps this is an opportunity for our country to become more unified, to band together, to stand for the right of justice. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” (King, para. 4). This statement challenges those who disagree with my friend’s values of acceptance and equality. It inspires me to not live idling by, as injustice occurs to our fellow citizens, who all deserve to live in a country that takes pride in its freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition.
By reading the works of such noteworthy writers, I have been able to grasp a clearer sense of my identity. Reflecting on the past, I have a begun to connect the dots of my experiences to gain a further scope of my personal narrative: what I value and cherish, and what I aspire to be in the future. Just as Ria Shah accepted her identity as something larger than herself, I am realizing this for myself through reading such noteworthy philosophers, poets, and activists.
Anonymous. Facebook post. 8 Nov. 2015. Web. 6 Dec. 2016.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. "The Banking Concept of Education "(1970): 242-55. Print.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Letter from Birmingham Jail." N.p.: n.p., 1963. 2011. Web. 4 Dec. 2016.
"Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development - Boundless Open Textbook." Boundless. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.
Plato’s "Allegory of the Cave" - Alex Gendler. TED-ed, 17 Mar. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2016.
Shah, Ria. "Has the University Stolen the Fire in Our Bellies? A Proposal to Activate & Celebrate Student Responsiveness." Taking Giant Steps. N.p., 27 Oct. 2015. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
Watts, Alan. The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. (1969): 11-28. Menantol. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.
Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself (1892 Version)." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.