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Reviving Experience

Not long ago, an experienced, respected professor told me that "if students were really honest, they would footnote every sentence until at least their junior year because they don't have anything of their own worth saying until then." Absurd as this statement is, it all too clearly represents traditional assumptions that help form the foundation of our educational and social systems. Even teachers who would disagree with the statement put that baldly use techniques that reinforce the idea. As a result, by the time students get to college many of them agree. Almost every term, sometimes even well into the term, students tell me they have nothing worth telling, and one student told me she had no right to write down her opinion when people who knew more than she did had already written on the subject. After all, students are told what to read, what to write, what length, what form, and they learn quickly that pleasing the teacher gets a better grade than exploring a new idea. And still, teachers wonder why they keep getting such similar papers year after year.

However, every class you take or teach is really focused on the problem of how to live, not just how to make a living, and even if you haven't traveled to Athens and Rome, you've dealt with how to live every moment of your life. That's a lot to write about. On top of that, you really have nothing except your own experience, same as your parents, your teachers, and your friends. When you read a book, assigned or not, you have your experience of the book, not the book itself. You have your experience of a conversation, not the conversation itself, and that experience will be just a bit different for everyone involved, and a lot different for someone at the next table overhearing snippets. Two people across town from one another may look at the same spot in the sky, but one may see a rainbow while the other may still see the rain, or the sun that follows. Each experience is filtered relative to all our experiences. Some of those experiences are quite individual, and others are common elements of living and growing. We share the need to eat and breath, the aging process (including the insanity of puberty), and to varying degrees we share the tendency to ask why of everything.

One of the essential shared problems is how to grow up. How do I manage to become an adult when it appears to be everything I fear with none of the joys of childhood? That's a tough one, and I watched students struggle with it year after year without fully satisfactory resolution. I knew that part of the problem revolved around our inaccurate pictures of adulthood and childhood. I was somewhat surprised to realize just how many college students are terrified by what they think they must become, a person wrapped tightly by responsibilities with no concept of fun. On the other hand, the majority saw childhood as a golden age without worries. As usual, extreme views were inacurrate, but knowing that didn't provide a solution. In part, of course, each person has to discover and create the solution individually, since off the rack answers fit worse than one-size-fits-all clothing. Still, one eighteen year old dug into his experience and found something crucial.

When Jason stumbled across the tree image in one of his journals, he knew it was important, but figuring out the how and why required time and facing frustration. The tree was the one he had climbed in the backyard of the house he lived in around age six. Trees and yards contain power and meaning for a lot of us it turns out. Heading into the second month of revision, trying to write his way to understanding, Jason's frustration peaked as some of our conversations turned toward adulthood. The sense of oppressive responsibilities, the (unreal) need to pick the "right" major and get his entire future perfectly in line, started to show more each week, and he really wanted to go back to that tree. That's when several things fell in place for me.

"Why? What was different then?"

"I don't know. It was just that everyday had a sense of adventure."

"So what's really different now?"

There it was. The only real difference was attitude. Adventure is in the mind, the approach we take to life. Now, I can see the answer everywhere. The end of the film version of "The Wizard of Oz" used to annoy me deeply because I thought it contradicted the rest of the story. Nope. The heart's desire is no further than the backyard because the question of adventure and desire are internal, just as the rest of the story had been. You can also find it in the "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip. Those books are on loan at the moment, but it's the last cartoon in one of the collections. Faced with a morning landscape covered with untracked snow, our adventurerous pair sled off with the final words, "Let's go exploring." If you're looking for the meaning of life, that's a good one to start with from childhood all the way through, and it can be found in a comic strip or through the examined personal experience of a teenager with a great deal of his own worth saying.