Three things I hope have changed (but probably haven’t)

I was invited to speak at the homecoming assembly of my high school, Newman. These are my remarks.

Photo of Newman by Jennifer Brattain

A lot has changed in the 7 years since I was at Newman. I could go on and on about how you can accomplish so much with your ability to consume, create, and distribute information over the Internet. Or how lucky you are to grow up in a New Orleans full of opportunity and growth.

Instead, I’m going to focus on 3 things that I hope has changed since I was at Newman, but probably haven’t.

1. College t-shirt day

I recall a day at the end of Senior year where everyone wears the t-shirt of the college they’re going to. I remember wearing my new Wash U t-shirt with pride. I can hear Dr. Sheets telling me maybe we shouldn’t have this day because that pride I feel is at the expense of someone else’s shame. But I was too proud to listen to Dr. Sheets.

Definitely not the shirt I wore. Photo from Victory Tailgate.

He was right though. I hope we no longer celebrate the unspoken expectation that every Newman student goes to the best college they can get into, or any college at all. Despite Mr. Graf’s best efforts to guide us to a school that matches our dreams and desires, we’re more interested in how high up the US News & World Report rankings we can get.

And we never even consider if college is the right path for us.

I’m not here to say college is worthless, but as a college drop-out, I can tell you it’s not for everyone. It’s certainly not guaranteed to be the best 4 years of your life. (Because that would be sad.)

My lack of a college degree has in no way affected my life. Not one of my 4 employers has asked me about it.

If I missed some academic experience, I make up for it by continuing to read, write, and work on projects in topics that interest me such as design and social justice.

If I missed some extra-curricular experiences, I make up for it by jumping from one hobby to the next. I make candles and build furniture and work on my house and organize bike trips so much more.

If I missed social interactions, I certainly have made up for that by finding like-minded, amazing, creative people in San Francisco and have already continued to do so in New Orleans.

Those who know me are probably thinking “yeah, but you’re a computer geek. Easy for you to say not everyone needs college.” Which brings me to my second point.

2. Making with our hands

When I was at Newman, there was almost no exposure to students of woodworking, cooking, gardening, or really anything physical beyond sports and the little bit of crafts that happen in the school’s basements. We don’t make, build, or grow things. I hope that’s changed.

There are plenty of paths in life that don’t involve sitting at a desk. We at Newman just think we’re too good or too important for those paths. Articulating it this way seems extreme, perhaps even feels hurtful. But the more I sit on the phrases “too good” or “too important,” the more it feels true.

Let’s look at my new neighbor in St. Roch, Simond, for example. He found an empty lot and turned it into a farm and plopped an Airstream trailer on it. That’s it. There was no business plan, no funding pitch; he didn’t have any legal authority to even be on the land. No Newman student would be that reckless, right? Or live in a trailer? Well Simond is one of the more happy, fulfilled people I’ve ever met. He’s brought together a community that was experiencing an exodus.

Simond on his farm

By my values — not the perceived values of our culture—Simond is doing better than most Newman alumni I know.

And while Simond is one example of someone pursuing a path that isn’t presented at Newman, there are many others. The ski instructor that travels to Australia in our summer so she can ski year-round. The couple running a waffle stand in Portland. There are so many cool things you can do, and (if you avoid getting into debt) so little money required to do many of them.

I’m not exactly using my hands in my day job, yet. But I did leave a cushy job at LinkedIn and took a 60% pay cut to work on something I believe in, and to have the flexibility to work whenever and wherever I want. I definitely don’t regret that.

3. “Gay”

When I was at Newman, students said “gay” to mean stupid or bad. Like, “that test was gay.” An apparently small thing (we all know you don’t actually mean the test likes other tests of the same sex) but I cannot overstate the influence I believe my Newman peers’ use of the word gay had on me.

Poster by Alsion Rowan

I was someone who almost never got in trouble in high school and usually got decent grades. When I played tennis I preferred to lob the ball as to never hit the net. On family ski trips I never once fell. I was afraid of messing up to a fault, and indeed into my adulthood it’s been a huge area of growth for me.

At age 22 when I told my family that I’m gay, they mostly wondered why I waited so long to come out. The truth is, I came out to others almost immediately after coming out to myself. It was coming out to myself that took so long. In retrospect I don’t know how I believed myself to be straight when I so clearly wasn’t.

There’s a term to describe this: cognitive dissonance. It’s the state of having inconsistent thoughts, especially as relating to one’s own behavior. On the one hand, I knew I had homosexual preferences and some feminine characteristics, but on the other hand I knew myself to never do anything wrong. My subconscious thinking was: if gay means bad or stupid, I can’t be gay.

It wasn’t until after I dropped out of college–when the walls of the unspoken expectations of Newman began crumbling around me–that I could recognize this dissonance. It’s not about good or bad, smart or stupid. It’s just who I am.

It goes without saying, I hope students don’t use the word gay the way they used to. I hope that’s changed.

Conclusion

So three things: We shouldn’t have college t-shirt day, we should make things with our hands, and we shouldn’t us the word “gay” in a derogatory manner.

There’s a common thread here. It all comes down to expectations. The expectation of not messing up, of not being reckless, of being smart. All of this is weight put on Newman students, that as an adult I’m still struggling to rid myself of.

I’ll add a caveat here that your parents, teachers, and school administrators have explicitly stated expectations which you should respect (most of the time). They want the best for you.

But what I believe is damaging to our development is the unspoken expectations like the ones I just talked about.

So I ask of everyone here, as you embark on this school year, just ask yourself if you’re acting of your own ambition, or in response to unspoken expectations. If the latter, I encourage you to try to articulate these expectations—to yourself, your peers, or the adults in your life. Try to understand if they’re real or imagined.

Congratulations to the homecoming court, and Go Greenies! Thank you.