Have you ever looked at someone in your class and from one moment to the next, transfixed by their words, realized just how much you appreciate their way of thinking? The story that I am about to tell you is of how this happened to me around the eighth week of this semester. From the very beginning, I knew that I was not romantically attracted to this person, but I was pulled in by his fearless way of relating his thoughts to the class on anything from the indigenismo movement in Mexico to the rights of the impoverished in Latin America.
It was not that I was turned on by the way he pronounced a certain letter, moved his eyes towards the ceiling or even licked his lips before speaking. For the first time in my classroom experience at Amherst, I truly felt a kind of intellectual solidarity with someone of a completely different background than mine. It was a nice feeling to have and it made me hopeful.
Contrary to the prevailing notion of college relationships as being casual hookups and nothing more, this was a friendly kind of affinity. My interest in this person was far from lustful because it was so fundamentally based on my recognition of how he always seemed to subjectively position himself within our classroom discussions of popular revolutions and abuses endured by indigenous peasants we read about the night before.
Every time he contributed to, challenged and became personally invested in the discussion, it immediately took a different turn. He demanded attention and it was not because of the intonation of his voice or a haughty persona he suddenly adopted to look smart in front of the professor. It was just that the kid really seemed to want to push our understanding of history beyond the superficial details outlined in our assigned readings. Coming to some conclusion was never really the goal.
Now, to make the distinction perfectly clear, I am not arguing for nor celebrating the idea of establishing connections with others solely based on their “intelligence,” level of education and ability to speak articulately. Rather, I am celebrating and arguing for connections with others based on how they think about the world without feeling the need to be right all the time.
Given how suddenly my connection to this person occurred in class, I began to think about how being in a classroom setting may have only made it easier. Isn’t this the way it usually occurs anyway? One day you’re sitting in a college classroom, you like what someone says about a topic you deeply care about, and that is all it takes for you to want to be their friend and take them off your “people to avoid” list. Right?
Well, not necessarily. I argue that intellectual curiosity does not always germinate within the confines of a college or graduate school classroom. For example, my father dropped out of high school, but sit down with him for two or three minutes on a Sunday evening before the start of a stressful week of work at Ruth Chris Steakhouse, and bright-eyed, he will engage you in conversations about video game development, computer hardware and the psychology behind homicides (no, my father has never killed anyone, if you could not help but gasp at that last topic).
My mother went on to college, after completing high school in the Dominican Republic, and did not finish for financial reasons. But sit down with her for one night while she’s lying down in bed, watching TV, and she’ll adopt a soothing voice to enjoy a conversation or two with you about Pablo Neruda’s best love poems and why the Spanish language matters.
Living a “life of consequence” transcends educational attainment, and it was not until I drew similarities between the way in which this person expressed his beliefs and how my parents did so, that I reevaluated the purpose of an Amherst education. It is easy to interpret living “a life of consequence” as one that is simply reserved for students of the College, excluding other lives as insignificant and reinforcing the college classroom as a space reserved for the educated only. On the other hand, it is also easy to abandon the significance of this phrase because it requires too much deconstruction, too much of a condescending terminology to define it.
But my definition is simple. I believe that my father and my mother have lived lives of consequence because they never attended or finished college and cultivated their own language in order to be in conversation with the social, economic, and political systems that affect them. I believe my intellectual crush and my parents would be able to sit down and have a wonderful conversation, even if both parties have had different classroom experiences.
When I try to explain the purpose of my Amherst liberal arts education to my parents, they do not understand as much as I want them to, but I embrace that point of miscommunication wholeheartedly. I think that as students, we like to think that we can light the world and be understood by everyone because we are these amazing super human beings. That’s cool. But we also have to be aware that there is a greater world out there that will not always care so much about whether or not we have bachelor’s degree in this or that, and as a result, are readily equipped to save the human race in the name of Terras Irradient.
And that’s the thing. That day, the person in my classroom for whom I felt appreciation demonstrated to me that any idea I want to contribute to any college discussion will always be worthy of communicating as long as it comes from a very personal and genuine place, regardless of how qualified I think I am to say it. I was not judging him on whether or not he was politically correct or was majoring in some lofty discipline and had his heart set on teaching in a marginalized community with Teach for America credentials (which is a whole other story in itself). He had my compassion because of how he personally committed himself to what came out of his mouth, and quite frankly, he always kept it real.
Am I advocating for a new way of appreciating people that goes beyond how educated we perceive them to be? Absolutely. I have had far too many conversations with other humanities majors who believe that biochemistry and mathematics majors are geniuses without ever having a single conversation with them. Therefore, I am arguing for relationships where both parties are not attracted to one another solely based on how intelligent their degree (or lack of it) may make them out to be, but on how they value one another’s way of working through an issue in a way they never considered before.
In an interview with Vivian Mac, which was recently published in the Student, Vivian asked me whether or not I feel a sense of responsibility to help those who are suffering because of my privileged position as an Amherst student. And to this I replied, among other things, that I am simply more than my education and classroom discussions.
This “crush” I decided that I have on this person transcends the intellectual adjective describing it because it is more of a loving declaration of appreciation without me feeling intimidated by his high school or college background. So, I encourage you to make that declaration too, with as many people as you can during your four years at Amherst and for the rest of your life.