This I Believe

Jeff - Ann arbor, Michigan
Entered on October 4, 2006

Intolerably Far From Community

My belief has very little importance to the United States, the world, or anybody other than myself. But this fact does not lessen the strength or conviction of my belief. I believe that you can never truly appreciate your life until you leave your familiar surroundings and are put in an uncomfortable situation.

I entered Ann Arbor’s Community High School as a shy thirteen year old who had only one friend in the building. I had decided to enter the lottery to attend Community as an afterthought and, now that I’d been admitted, did not now immediately what to make of the place. Its hallways overflowed with all kinds of people. You had the usual suspects, the preps and the jocks, to whom I had grown accustomed in my one thousand-student middle school in suburban Maryland. But these familiar groups were completely overshadowed by other “alternative groups.” After all, Community was known as Ann Arbor’s “alternative” high school and was supposedly filled with kids too weird to make it through the city’s two giant high schools. I had little experience with the kids who mingled in the halls, I had never known anybody like them before.

In such a situation I discovered what was so great about Community. The students were all so different from one another. Everybody had different activities and interests. But unlike the situation at many schools, these differences did not lead to problems or tension. Instead all of these students and their interests meshed together in a tolerant, friendly atmosphere. Even in a tight-knit group of friends you would find people with very different interests. Nothing epitomized this blend more than my group of friends. I played football and was completely consumed with that part of my life, while my close friends played on the school’s ultimate Frisbee team. In addition to their joint interest in Frisbee, Greg was a member of the school’s Jazz band and Noah was on the debate and mock trial teams. At the time I never really considered how strange our group of friends would seem to most other people. Community was such an open-minded place that nobody found it odd at all that these three people with such different interests were such close friends. The reason, I know now, was the tolerance of Community: I was not considered a dumb jock nor was Noah a nerd or Greg a band kid.

I took the tolerant atmosphere at Community for granted until I arrived for football practice at a small liberal arts college located in western Ohio. My first month at Wittenberg reminded me how far I was from home. Geographically, the campus is less than four hours away from Community High. Ideologically they are a million miles apart. During the first few weeks I heard the word “faggot” thrown around more frequently than the football. I even heard one student talk as though being open minded was a negative quality. The social environment on campus was also very different from the one I experienced at Community. In this new environment people were typecast into “cliques” that created a culture more often associated with high school. This was a little depressing, as many people go to college to get away from the high school environment and it appeared I had actually done the opposite. I finally understood that I had taken so much of Community for granted. Community had never seemed so far away, or so desirable. I remember how our school newspaper’s lead editor Luke, was a white Republican headed to West Point, while the paper’s business team was headed by C.J., a black man who was openly questioning his sexuality. I remember the school group created to fight student apathy, which was headed by a Muslim lacrosse goalie whose good friend was an Israeli who spent her summer at a Zionist youth camp.

I never entirely realized how beautiful the incongruities among my classmates at Community were, until I sat stifled in my dorm room, frustrated with the close-minded environment I was surrounded on campus. I realize now, as I sit in my over air conditioned room at an amazingly expensive private institution that I would trade anything to be back at Community High, sitting on the window ledge, surrounded by the tolerance that seeped through the air at a public high school that could not afford air conditioning. I wish I fully appreciated Community during the entire four years I spent there. But sadly, I did not, which is why I believe that you do not appreciate your life until it is your past and you find yourself in an uncomfortable present.