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On the Most Important Lesson I Learned at Stanford

This has been a difficult blog post to start and write. I’ve hesitated. Stopped. Started. Spent afternoons thinking about it. Debated whether it should be done at all and then realized I no longer had a choice. Because this post is about the most important lesson I learned at Stanford. And that is the lesson I hope you get from me. But it is a lesson born from pain.

I didn’t talk to people in my freshman dorm. In fact, at Stanford I was pretty anti-social. So much so, that the party-throwing class president, earned a reputation for being a recluse. This is what happens when you are uncomfortable in an environment. I remember the conversation that happened when I was deciding to apply to Stanford, my English teacher told me about how people at Stanford were different. They cleaned up after themselves. They were kind and compassionate. They were smart and well-educated. They cared about others. I heard this my whole life, this message that the people at the top were better, and that if I wanted to be “good” I would have to join them. I was told that their success was because they were better, smarter, more moral. I was told that I could be one of them too.

It is easy to believe this if you are the kid that got out. Doesn’t that validate it? But I was troubled by the bodies left behind. I was troubled by the fact that I knew that I had been one bad decision away from being stuck in North Highlands. I wasn’t an angel. I was a punk kid with an attitude who went home to a party house. I didn’t do what I was told. I wasn’t sexually naïve, I had not gotten pregnant because I had a lenient mom who believed in birth control. I knew, always that I was one step away. I could feel it. The stakes were so high. We’d talk about our friends as they, one by one, got pregnant, got on hard drugs, dropped out; we’d talk about them as if they’d been given a death sentence, and that’s because a lot of them had.

I couldn’t stop seeing their faces at Stanford. The kids I’d known as I went through my stages of “getting out.” At my best and worst, they had my back. They were beautiful. They were brilliant. They were talented. I’d see them in the faces of my classmates, some of whom were profoundly and uniquely brilliant, none of whom were any more brilliant than I was, and very few of whom were more brilliant than several of the kids I left behind. I am a researcher; I cannot lie in the face of evidence. I’d cry at night, seeing those faces.

My classmates treated me like a walking poster child. They wanted to know what “it was like.” They wanted me to confirm their vision of a meritocracy. They wanted me to tell them that I got there because our system was fair and that they deserved to be there too. They accused my friends and family of being stupid and immoral. They said we were poor because of drug use, alcohol, teen sex, willful ignorance; basically all the individually bad choices. They told me my men were sexist. They told me my family and community was ignorant and didn’t value education. They wanted me to nod my head, and eventually I decided that spending my Saturday night fighting was a good way to be very tired on Monday morning. So I stopped going out. I started drinking heavily in college. I did it because it was the only way to socially cope. I did it because it was the only way for me to get battle scars that I didn’t feel. Little by little, I was broken down, and I am only now regaining my strength.

I watched as they had abortions, snorted coke, went to class high, sexually, physically and mentally abused each other. I watched as my girlfriends’ boyfriends told them to lose weight, stop talking, and stop working. I listened and challenged and then gave up as I tried to have discussions about philosophy and history and my classmates couldn’t keep up. I came to understand the thing that changed my life.

I learned that my suspicions were true. That the system was stacked and that there was no reason why they had earned their position besides the fact that the game was rigged. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t us. It was a system so unjust that even after beating them at their own game, for the first time in my life I can afford proper health care, healthy food, and a safe neighborhood, while many of my Stanford friends complained about that same food, neighborhood and healthcare. They complained about how they couldn’t afford the lifestyle their parent’s could when I was the first person to get a lifestyle most of my community could only dream of. Their worst was my best, even though by every standard I had matched or bested them.

The lesson that I learned at Stanford was that they were no better. If they are no better then they have no justification for why the system is what it is. And if they have no justification, then they have no legitimacy. And as any historian will tell you, if they have no legitimacy-no right to power- they will fall. Maybe not tomorrow, but they will fall. The war has already been won. I hope they are ready to finally join the human spirit and contribute to a human history that is not about war but is about giving EVERYONE their unique humanity. And if they aren’t? Too bad, they don’t have a choice anymore. Even if you got rid of me, I promise I will send more your way. Teaching is an intentional act. That’s why I never feel bad when they tell me teaching is beneath me, because it takes an incredibly small mind to fail to see their own downfall. I hope they keep worshiping at the altar of shiny things, the more distracted they are the easier my job is.

I just smiled at parties when they sang Kid Cudi’s Pursuit of Happiness. They can’t hear what they don’t understand and they can’t see what they refuse to see. I don’t do this for them. I don’t care what they think. I don’t care if they approve. I don’t care how they feel. What I know is that every day the kids prove me right. If you think I am radical, imagine what I would have been like with a teacher like me. We’ve already won. That was the most important lesson of all.

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