While I value both, I will never think of my college experience in the same way I think of my high school experience.
The difference between the two is perhaps exemplified by my feelings on my graduation from each. When I graduated from high school, I remember an overwhelming feeling of mutual accomplishment and elation with my classmates. We had done it. We had crossed that first threshold into adulthood.
When I graduated from college, on the other hand, I probably couldn’t name more than a half dozen of the faces seated in the bleachers around me. There was a sense of accomplishment, but not what I had felt upon completing high school, even though one could argue that a college degree is a far greater accomplishment than a diploma.
Why do I tell you this? Because after much thought, I have decided that the reason for these vastly different experiences comes down to a single word we hold to be of highest value in Tooele: community.
My high school was relatively small in the grand scheme of high schools. I can’t say I knew everybody or that everybody knew me, but I knew a lot of my classmates — I’d estimate a good 50 percent.
I doubt I could accurately claim to have been one of the “popular kids,” but I wasn’t unpopular, either. I had a few close friends. I don’t know what the majority of the school knew or thought about me, but my senior year they voted me the most likely classmate to write a book — which honor I honestly took as a high compliment.
What I do know about my high school experience is that, socially, I had a place. I may not have “fit in” in the sense that I didn’t wear the trendy clothes or land a place on the cheerleading squad, but I fit. I had a role that none of my fellow classmates could play in quite the same way, because they all had their own, unique spaces we needed them to occupy. Whether we were nerds or jocks or preps, the class president or the shy quiet kid in the back, we all had a place.
This is what I think it means to be a community. Community happens whenever a group of people of diverse backgrounds and ideals come together and learn to cooperate, share and appreciate one another. It’s not about being the same. It’s not about seeing eye-to-eye or agreeing on all the important issues. It’s about learning to value the unique talents each individual — each very different individual — has to offer.
For me, this was the great difference between high school and college. In high school, I was stuck with a group of about 300 people I had to find a way to exist among whether I liked them or not. I felt I was an outsider, but I had a place there on the outskirts of our social pecking order.
College was much bigger. Huge. So many people no one knew where to start, so instead we divided ourselves into majors and clubs and who knows what else. And I don’t know that many of us really got outside of those smaller social groups. We gravitated to people just like us, and we never got outside to encounter different people, different values or different ideas that could help us learn and grow.
I don’t know whether this is representative of a typical collegiate experience. I can only describe what I experienced.
But as I have truly emerged as an adult in society — or at least as someone who is trying hard to pass for an adult — I have observed a trend that concerns me. Here in our adult world, and even in Tooele, we are dividing ourselves into those same social factions. Young people to one side of the lunchroom, old people to the other. Religious over here, atheist over there. Gay and straight. Liberal and conservative. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
It’s not just in our day-to-day social interactions, either. With the advent of the Internet and social media, everything we consume — our news, entertainment, even advertising — is filtered through these social lenses. It’s ironic, really. The Internet has such great potential to open the world to us, and instead we’ve allowed it to narrow our social spheres to such an extent that if all you want is information about gaming, well, that’s exactly what you’ll get. Good-bye big wide outside world. Good-bye real-time community.
Somehow in the process of all of this, we have become deeply divided across these social lines. It’s as though our exposure to diversity — and I’m not necessarily talking about race — has become so limited that we’ve lost our ability to react to new ideas or values that seem to oppose our own in any kind of civilized manner. We have nothing intelligent to say to these alien strangers, so conversation devolves into petty insults.
I can’t say I know how to halt our transformation into a fractured nation of Internet trolls, but I want to ask a favor of you. Tomorrow, or the next day, or perhaps the day after that, go meet someone you don’t know. Knock on your mysterious new neighbor’s door. Sit by the loner at church. Introduce yourself to a stranger at the store. Strike up a conversation at the bar instead of staring resolutely into the counter. Don’t make this a surface conversation; really try to get to know this person. Is there nothing about which you agree? Is there nothing you can learn from him, or him from you?
Then ask yourself: Isn’t there something of value within this person? Isn’t there a place for him in our community?