It took me until college to realize that the quintessential American town I came from was
such a unique experience. Bayside is a suburb inseparable from its neighbors, and the city
it echoes is too far away to actually know. I grew up in a world where right and wrong were
more or less clearly defined, or so I thought. The expectations were high, and I set my own
expectations, both for myself and my community, even higher. My town was filled with yellow
school buses, successful sports teams, manicured lawns, homecoming queens, and school orchestras
that traveled to the Czech Republic. The views of the mountains, ocean, and ferry boats are
absolutely spectacular. Opportunities were readily available: to participate in extracurricular
activities, to be academically challenged in the public school system, even as a “gifted
and talented” student. Anyone could be happy, successful, and rich if they just applied
themselves…and wore the right clothes, lived in the right neighborhood, and cracked
the right jokes. Anything was possible.
Fortunately, my family was a good Bayside family, and we worked together to maintain beautiful
flower and vegetable gardens, and even my dad took piano lessons and my mom participated in
book clubs. They, too, carried strong values for a good education, and life seemed to run seamlessly,
with family ski trips and quips about tidying one’s room.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I came to realize my family’s façade,
much like my town’s. My parents never discussed emotion or examined personal struggles
in depth. The stories were of the strength of independence and of success and possibility.
I came to internalize their valuing of emotionally and financially supporting oneself. If I
quit anything, I felt like a failure; when I was actively involved, I felt like a success.
During the years I was in elementary school, my family went on a “big family vacation” each
year. We traveled to Scotland and Costa Rica, Turkey and Greece, and learned about American
History, driving between Maine and Georgia. Some people argue that it’s a waste to travel
with kids because they’ll never remember the great places that they have seen, but they
were some of my most influential childhood experiences. First of all, my parents could find
amazing beaches to swim at, even if I had to put on sunscreen a million times and wear a t-shirt
while swimming. Second of all, they seemed to meet all of our needs for food and shelter as
well as finding things for us to do with only snip-its of the languages we’d learned
from cassette tapes during dinner in the weeks preceding our trips. But most importantly, they
showed me a larger world, where people ate different things and toilets didn’t work in
the same way, but where people would welcome us into their shops for tea and backgammon and
the kids liked to color and play, just like me.
By the time I was in high school, I partook in sports, music, and community service, like
many of my peers. I earned good grades, but not even the best when I tried. I struggled between
the conflicting goals of differentiating myself and trying to fit in. I felt like I was distinguished
from my peers in both positive and a negative light, for both my leadership positions and awards
as well as my lack of a boyfriend and my “disinterest” in attending the monthly
school dances. I relied on my friends to share laughter and secrets.
I spent a lot of time in these community service groups-planning projects and reaching out
to parts of the community with which I had never previously crossed paths. I think it joined
me together with peers with similar values and helped me feel needed and important. One of
my friends and I got so into it that we planned and presented a workshop for middle school
students about the importance and the benefits of actively partaking in service learning.
I sent out applications to escape the idealistic high school that was not turning out to be
ideal for me, and to explore the world. I landed in Switzerland for my junior year. A kind
person on the airplane taught me to count to ten in German, the language I would work to command
over the coming eleven months, and I joined a new family, a new school, and a new community,
whose values and expectations would take the whole year to try and understand. Though I did
study abroad again in college, I think that it was really this experience as a sixteen-year
old struggling to define herself that really awoke me to the possibilities and the differences
of expectations that people could have for me. Every time someone questions my values and beliefs,
I have to decide whether that person’s case is convincing enough for me to change my
opinions, or if my original idea is reinforced and solidified. It was also really my first “chance” at
financial and emotional independence, as I had left my friends and family behind in the United
Coming home for my senior year was a bit like walking into an American movie. It was still
a “wonderland” – I continued to excel at sports and music, and was challenged
by my AP classes. But I also felt worlds apart from it. Seeing as if I had new eyes, I found
my high school friends stratified into a caste system of stereotypes. In the course of our
twenty-minute lunch period, groups of friends would squish around a single table, pulling seats
away from other tables until only one person remained, sitting alone in a busy cafeteria.
Now, as I’m thinking about careers and what I want to do with my life, some of those
high school values are still salient. Despite my personal struggles of identity in high school,
I still feel a strong need to give back to the community and world which has given me so many
opportunities. My community expects me to excel at what I do. I had the privilege of growing
up in Bayside as well as going to Smith, and I still expect myself to give back.