I was in the middle of the library and thought I was hallucinating from all the caffeine. After two years of receiving between $26,000 and $36,000 worth of financial aid, my determined aid for the 2013-14 school year was $1,143. The school said that because my sister had graduated from state school in Massachusetts, my family could now afford to pay almost in full for the most expensive college in the country. My don heard from a well-intentioned financial aid officer, who seemed to have their hands tied, that my case was “one of those ‘hold your nose’ kind of things I hate to see happen”.
I didn’t realize I was stinking up the school so much.
I worked on my financial aid appeal and cried my way through the rest of conference papers. I was alternately obsessive and lethargic that last week, switching between total nonchalance (“why bother?”) and a manic drive to make the last papers I ever wrote for this school also the best ones. I knew from the start it was a lost cause – any cut that dramatic is also confident – but everyone around me talked about alternatives. Phrases like “pushing through it” and “making it work” littered my conversations with my parents, my don, and my friends. I thought about friends who had graduated and were struggling to find work and pay off their debts at the same time. Looking at the numbers, it struck me that I’d been spending $100/month on the Metro North to get away from campus and do the organizing work that actually made me feel alive.
One of my most vivid memories of school growing up is of a boy named Calvin in my second grade class. He had a shiny black bowl cut that contrasted sharply with his pale face, and he often disrupted the class, sometimes simply lying on the ground for hours on end in a total rejection of his environment. One day, he wrapped a rubber band around his neck and refused to take it off. I remember his face slowly going bluish purple as the school nurse rushed in to help our panicked teacher. They both struggled to restrain him and take off the band as he kicked and screamed, yelling that he wanted to die. My classmates and I were hurriedly escorted out to the playground for the rest of the day.
It’s not possible for me to discern Calvin’s motivations, what was going on in his eight-year old mind, or what was happening in his life outside of school. I do not wish to armchair psychoanalyze a person I knew only briefly, or to conflate his story with mine. But when I think about my convoluted journey both through the public and private school system, those images always rise to the surface of my mind. Calvin’s quivering body on the purplish classroom carpet, day after day, regardless of any teacher’s attempts to get him to sit up, to listen, and to comply. His body writhing in the arms of the teacher and school nurse on that dramatic day. These were my first, earliest brushes with real anguish and resistance. And experiencing that in the classroom left a mark on my relationship to school and what it means to either hide or exercise our anguish in that environment.
Years later, when I was fourteen, I was psychically crumbling under the stress of school. As a white middle class student I had the resources and the privilege to get seats in the best classes and schools in the public system, and spent much of my educational career watching former classmates fall away from me as my environment became whiter and whiter. By seventh grade I was admitted to Boston Latin School, a public exam school with historical ties to Harvard and a reputation for old-fashioned discipline and rigor. Being in BLS was a simultaneous process of the granting of enormous privileges and a real process of subjugation. Students were made acutely aware of the power that teachers had over their lives. A sink-or-swim culture was useful to the administration tasked as they were with propagating the school’s prestige. Authority at Boston Latin School was entrenched and challenging it carried an army of risks. As a young woman I hardly ever found myself able to defend myself in unsafe, degrading or harmful situations. I tended to accept both the power others had over me and also the undeserved power I sometimes had over others. I believe that the absolute deference to authority encouraged at BLS did little to help this situation and perhaps even magnified it.
I fell into an abusive, co-dependent friendship with a boy with whom I was hopelessly infatuated and also hopelessly controlled by. I passed eighth grade math by two points. I felt so guilty and consumed by shame for my failure, for my obvious lack of intelligence,that I tried to volunteer myself for summer school. I often reminded myself how the only thing I deserved, for all my ugliness and vapidness, was punishment. I began to torture my body; I adopted bizarre and unhealthy sleep patterns, I starved myself, I cut up my wrists and thighs. Every day I would wrap rows of brightly colored hair elastics around my wrists, not only to hide my freshest scars, but also to put pressure on them and maintain a dull level of pain throughout the day. It was my “reminder” that I had to do better, be smarter, eat less, to not forget the mountains of work I still had to do to be worth anything to anyone.
One day, my mother discovered my secret, and demanded I take my sweatshirt off and show her all of my scars. She had a “right”, she told me, to see them and to know where they were so she could monitor them. I couldn’t bear the thought. They’re mine, I screamed at her, they’re my scars, and nobody has a right to them except me. These marks were tightly wound into myself; they kept me safe, in a way, safe from letting my toxic stress bleed out into the world, safe from panic attacks in the hallways or debilitating anxiety on the day of an exam.
I shook with my own screams and spent that night with echoes of Calvin hovering in the red haze that framed my vision. We weren’t quite what school envisioned when it began its work on us, we were much more pathological and much less docile, and maybe in a sick way we both treasured that. My ruthless coping mechanisms had come to a head, and despite their melodrama and bitterness, they had taught me something: that I would do anything to own myself, even if the only thing I had left to own was pain and bile and blood.
After that day I began to militantly guard my self-worth and dream of a day I could have control over my life. By senior year I had managed to salvage a real sense of self, a genuine appreciation for my own capabilities separate from what my GPA or SAT scores might say about me. Initially I did not know much about Sarah Lawrence, except for the fact that they had offered me a busload of money. But the more I looked into its unique academic structure the more I believed this school would be redeeming for me. No grades, total control over your program and conference work, professors looking to nurture rather than discipline students – these things signified a chance to reclaim my relationship to education.
And it was. Having control over my course of study and hearing feedback from my professors that went deeper than “you got x percent on this test” was transformative for me. But as enthusiastically as I threw myself into my studies, I could not shake off the feeling of a disconnect between what I was grappling with in my conference papers on Black Power or postcolonial art projects and the structure of my life in Bronxville. It was bizarre hearing students complain of a “police state” at the college the same night I stumbled on a Slonim party where kids were doing cocaine in the bathroom with zero fear of an encounter with actual police. It was angering to see the ways the student community undermined spaces like Common Ground as though it is presumptuous to build projects of mutual support and empowerment for students who are alienated by the white privilege so embedded at Sarah Lawrence. And it was simply exhausting trying to survive financially, grappling with whether I should sacrifice study time or my organizing with Worker’s Justice to get an extra job and make supporting myself a little easier. Student poverty gets glamorized but the reality of attempting to write your conference papers as your fingers shake over the keyboard is not so pretty.
But however much this dissonance made life at Sarah Lawrence difficult and alienating it also gave meaning and urgency to my participation in SLC Worker’s Justice. The more I threw myself into organizing the more fuel was added to my fire. Like the email AVI employees received in September 2011 that told them the faculty dining room was no longer open to campus workers. (To my knowledge, no one was ever able to really enforce this). Or the meetings where we pushed for worker representation on the Food Services Subcommittee in which we were told, in veiled language, how workers would sabotage the committee because they are lazy and don’t want to work. There was the confused and contradictory rules about how, and when, students and workers could and could not be friends or speak to one another.
I can’t say for sure how effective I was during these moments, or how honest a peer I really was to those who work at the college, or how well I worked with other students. I could list a million mistakes I probably made, a thousand steps where I lost my way, a hundred conversations where I could have been more humble and honest and open. Trying to transform our relationships at SLC left me constantly questioning myself, and now that I’m gone, I’m still grappling with what my role was and what I left behind. But what I can say is that through all these moments and conversations I became increasingly unmoored from Sarah Lawrence, and higher education more generally. Losing my financial aid was in some ways just a reification of the reality I was already living.
The day I got my aid package, I was also working on a conference paper on French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories about the educational system. One of his terms, “educational mortality”, captured my imagination so much I titled the paper thus. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Educational mortality – the measure of when we run out of steam, out of means, out of the psychological resistance to being told you’re trash until proven otherwise. “You’re a shame to your family”, said one high school teacher to a good friend who was getting subpar grades; “You don’t belong at Boston Latin School”. We belong until we don’t belong anymore. Or we survive long enough to let survival corrupt us and embitter us until we are nothing but our own pride and neuroses.
A degree gives you a voice, but it’s a strangled one. You can never go back to where you started, because you’re in the academy now and that’s all that matters to the outside world. You’re a worse person for it. You are neurotic and forgetful. You are exponentially better at bullshitting your way through things than you were when you had read far fewer books and understood far fewer things. You have learned how to condescend. You smoke cigarettes and you emphasize to others how busy you are, to show how much you are willing to sacrifice your mental and physical health for a tiny slice of social and economic authority. (I earned this! There’s a reason I’m here and not someone else!) No matter how many papers on Marxist thought you write, you still feel anxious and inferior in the midst of the wealth and security and wordliness enveloping your tree-lined, picturesque campus. You are, in a word, a hostage. A hostage of the institution that has so generously given you a seat and of all things you had to do to yourself and others to get here.
The moment when I lost my financial aid was also the moment when I had to confront this, all of this, and evaluate whether it was worth it. I had to consider whether I would continue on this road of emotional and financial peonage, or step away and look at my options free of habit or obligation. I chose the latter, and submitted my official withdrawal from Sarah Lawrence only a couple of weeks after the close of the semester.
The funny thing is that I don’t feel cheated. Instead, I feel grateful, grateful for the ways I grew in gaining and losing access to this institution. I’ve let go of my identity as a student, and I no longer feel like a survivor nor like a hostage. Withdrawing was a step towards rejecting education’s totalizing power over my life. I feel a larger capacity now to relate to others not through a cynical academic affect but through other parts of myself that I didn’t have the environment or time to explore before. Whether it is school or work, I know I will always have to struggle against institutions that wish to discipline and indebt us to their will. But now I feel like I finally have the tools to honor the fourteen-year old girl inside me who fought like hell to own herself, and I’m never going back.
Photo by Niyonta Chowdhury, ‘15