Back to School; Grudges, People, and Progress
I’ve never been very dedicated to school. As a non-traditional learner with typical ‘atypical’ learning (dis)abilities, I was never very adept at the “learning environment” as it was presented to me. I entered grad school with two primary motivations: hope and desperation. I was hoping to become better; to become more skilled and learn the things I hadn’t been able to teach myself. I was desperate for more; I wanted to do more to help my community. I wanted more authority over the systems that ruled over me. I wanted more power, and power comes from getting that paper.
I really don’t like my university; And not just because it is an exemplary representation of the corporate college industrial complex; its sick sports obsession; its gross financial incompetence; or its staunch conservatism. I don’t like it because I’ve got a grudge. It was there I first put faith in my ability to change a system, and was first truly let down. I was used to being rejected by the learning process, but this was the first place I actively decided I would do something – not wanted to it or hoped to; I decided I would change it, no matter what. Contrary to the stories I flung at administrators, I didn’t work for change out of school spirit. My activism was aimed more at thwarting the institution’s dynamic, rather than supporting it. The institution pushed back, and hard, until I ended up spending all my time doing activism, not studying. The school was a system I was trapped inside and making resources felt like the only way out. Activism was my education, the classes were auxiliary. When I look back, I’m still amazed I graduated; only took me 6 straight years… And when I was done, I prepared my activist projects for new leaders and I got the hell out. I don’t think I thought I would ever come back, but here I am.
This winter, I attended an open house for the campus’ brand new LGBTQ Center. It was surreal for me to walk into the (exact) space that six years ago, I ignited the (long smoldering) fight to get. I came to the event feeling happy about the space being built, but still angry about my own blood in the bricks. But when I walked in the door, all I felt was nervous relief; a mix of retreating anxiety and seething frustrations. The small program started and I listened to the administrators ramble about how great their work was for this space. I wondered if they were really as delusional as they seemed. Looking them in the face, they didn’t remember me as the frustrated student activist in front of their desk. I was just another student they “helped.” I felt even more disconnected from the institution, and just as jaded about the administration. I listened to the last speaker with low expectations. There was a lot of disappointment in our joint past. Years ago, she was both a hurdle and a step in my work to get a queer center. I felt like she could never see past her desk, though perhaps not from a lack of trying. She always loved to compliment the faculty and staff, forgetting to mention the reason they were all there: the students. In my years as an organizer, it was a huge point of contention between us. I respected her for listening to my complaints; I judged her for not acting on them. When she stood in front of the room, I was shocked to see, through the folds of her papers, the names of student organizations. After all these years, she thanked the students first – in fact it was the only thing she talked about. You could tell she was a little out of her element, but her intention was clear. She was the only speaker that day who mentioned students in any context that was not a direct compliment to themselves. She made a point to show the students had done the work, and I made a point to thank her for that. In the after-program crowd, a dean walked past me. I recognized him as one of the many talking heads I had met as an undergrad; another face behind a desk, saying he wanted to help, but mostly powerless to do anything about it. As he came by me, he smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. “Good to see you again.” he said, “I glad you were hear for this.” I have to admit it. I was shocked. I smiled and shook his hand, but I doubt he knew why I was so glad to do it. I was grateful that someone cared enough to remember me. Sometimes we have to be reminded that administrators are people too. I guess I should know that, considering I was one for a short time. And if working in a college environment (as an activist and again as a professional) taught me anything, it was that administrators are not all suits behind desks; there are ones who really care about the students. Being in front of the desk showed me the red tape; being behind the desk made me feel it. An administrator can be a wrench in the gears, yes, but the machine is the real problem. “Higher Education” “Student Life” is a machine; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That day, it worked, in more ways than one.
All of this didn’t sell me on the institution. Call me a judgey mcjudgerface if you like, but it takes more than a couple warm fuzzies to win me over – though it is a good start. And though I wasn’t feeling any strong sense of kinship with the admins, I did sense was a bond with the students. I watched them sitting on the floor, smiling, happy to have their own space; a place where they could feel safe and be themselves. They have a LGBTQ center. It isn’t perfect, and I know I’ll soon decide it still isn’t good enough, but it is there – it exists. When I was in undergrad, that was just about all I wanted… Standing there, seeing the reality that I had only dreamed about, it reminded me of how I used to feel: that passion I felt, and the desperation; how tirelessly I worked, how much it hurt every time I was kicked down, and how much stronger I felt every time I got back up. I was filled by a humbling sense that I played a small part in something bigger. It reminded me of how important campus activism can be, how many people it can reach, and how many lives it can change. It may seem like an organizing “small fish,” but when the pond is a puddle, a small fish is pretty damn big.