Today was my first day of classes. Actually I just had one class, so today was my first day of a class. This class is American Urban Environmental History, taught by Chris Wells. Aside from the fact that this is an *awesome* class (apparently a redundant statement) it fulfills a couple graduation requirements, part of my core for my major, and potentially part of my Urban Studies Concentration. The academic and practical reasons for my taking this class are apparently clear. But the question he asked us in class today wasn't to understand those reasons; it was the more intangible mentality behind motivation. It was to understand us as people, not as students. I wish I'd gotten that immediately, but it's provided me some inspiration for thought. To dwell upon something that has been bothering me for a while.
How did I get here?
It's a question that is asked of me on almost every tour I give, by every freshman I met in the last week, by my peers, by my friends from home, by my professors, and now by me. A lot of times it's easy to put myself on autopilot. To assume a character and just go, feeling compromised at every turn as I make decisions for someone else's rational and not my own. What took me to Costa Rica the summer after my junior year was not an interest to improve my Spanish-- I didn't, after all, speak it yet-- but being turned down by a scholarship Arabic program in Egypt which I was interested in because of my desire to travel and potentially study international relations.
What I experienced in Costa Rica, however, was not the colors and bright experience I expected. It was a much darker, richer, and sweeter culture than I ever knew. To understand this, you must know that from my earliest memories the places I have lived have been in pristine neighborhoods of prim suburbanites who get together on the rare occasion to dine together and chat about politics. The places I have lived have been full of middle class people who belonged to country clubs and went skiing in the winter. Kids rode their bikes without fear of dangerous strangers, hopscotch games and chalk drawings littered the sidewalks, and squirrels darted up and down the elm and maple trees on the tree lawns. Residents of the Twin Cities would recognize this as Edina. Clevelanders would recognize this as Shaker. With the exception of three years of my education, I have always attended public school. I felt as if I’d worked for my education, instead of my daddy buying it for me like those spoiled rich kids who lived out in the far reaches of the developments.
I had a spoiled childhood, however. My mental status was so innocent that it surprises me that I ever learned anything about the world. My parents didn’t actively shelter me, yet since they did nothing to teach me of the dark world I really lived in, I never ventured out of the safety of the bubble that I had been placed in. I knew of war, to be sure. Yet in my mind, war was something that had died out ages before. My brother and I would take toy fighter planes and shoot at each other, we had beautiful death scenes that would last for ten minutes, only so that we could be resuscitated and die again. It never occurred, at least not to me, that such tragedies and atrocities were still very much a reality. We went on playing these games until we moved on and I outgrew them.
Needless to say I grew up from the little tomboy who loved to fight with her brothers and shoot dart guns. I was smart, and I wanted to learn as many languages as possible. I wanted power. I had delusions of grandeur, that I could someday change the world with my influences. Going to Costa Rica knocked me back into place. I lived in a house that had a dirt floor, that had cockroaches in the shower, with people that were so poor they could barely make rent, and yet opened their arms to me. They threw huge parties and fed everyone who came by. They wanted to know about you. To hear your stories. But best of all, they knew how to sit together in the evening in silence, enjoying the place around them. They were poor, by American standards. But they had so much more than I did.
I realized that to instigate policy, I had to be able to understand the symptoms that arose from the fundamental problems. I wanted to be active in a community, to volunteer, and to experience. I decided that I would take a gap year in order to do something different with my life. At that point I played with many ideas of what I wanted to do. At first I wanted to return to Costa Rica and help out with the English program at the local technical school. I changed my mind, however, deciding that maybe it would be better for me to work locally. I thought about getting an internship with a law firm, or a small business, but that was the old me, not this new idea I had of myself. It was at that point I called Dr. Scott Miller.
Two years ago I was still that naïve little girl who believed she could change the world in a year. I wanted to help people, and I still do. I was so ignorantly confident that people would be willing to receive what I had to offer. So the first day I walked into Cleveland School of the Arts, I made sure I looked good. I wanted to reflect the person I considered myself to be, a smart girl from the suburbs who wanted to learn more about the world around her. My hair was blow-dried and straightened. My nails were perfectly manicured. I wore a tunic shirt and black leggings with neat clark flats on my feet. I wanted to look professional. I was there to teach and be taught. I was dressed how I imagined a student teacher at Shaker (my alma-mater) would have dressed. I tried to look older as well, acknowledging that it would be hard to get respect if the students could tell how young I was.
Looking back now it’s hard to keep from laughing at my naïveté. The students could not help but laugh at me. They had to listen to me? Someone who was self described as living in a bubble? The boys snickered and made crude comments. The girls rolled their eyes. They didn’t understand me. Who had Dr. Miller brought in this time? The year before they had another student teacher, a 22 year old woman who soon after completing her student teacher requirement decided she did not want to be a teacher.
I sat there smiling while Dr. Miller spoke of me, saying that I was talented in math and could help the students anytime they needed. He encouraged them to use me for tutoring and help. “Oh we’re going to use her,” said one of the boys. I looked up, blushing beet red. Dr. Miller glared at the student. He continued with his introductions, however, not bothering to stop. I rationalized that the comment in and of itself was innocent, it was silly. Before I knew it the students were moving on to their next classes and the juniors and seniors were pouring in.
Looking back on that year, I wouldn’t say that I didn’t learn anything. That’s certainly what I thought immediately after finishing. It was hard, and the hours were ridiculously long. The students often fought against me, and I know I never fully earned their respect. After that year, I felt like it had been a waste, wished I had travelled more, or even just gone to school right away. I hadn’t learned what I had sought out to learn. But I’m not sure I knew what I wanted to learn to begin with. I wanted to know about the things outside of my bubble, as broad of a description as that may be. If nothing else, that time at CSA taught me to be even more self reliant and independent than I was already inclined to be. I no longer felt comfortable asking my parents for money, for help, or for advice.
I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore, nor did I want to major in theater. When I got onto campus, I took one glance at the course schedule for those majoring in International Studies and realized it no longer held much interest for me. I knew I was going to be an Environmental Studies major.
But I’ve jumped ahead! Bear with me as I provide you background information, that for the sake of continuity, belongs here, and not earlier in this reflection. Before I ever applied to go to Egypt and then got put on a plane to Costa Rica, I was really bad at physics. In fact, I got a C in physics freshman year. Senior year, I was given the choice of taking either AP Physics or AP Environmental Science for my science credit, so I opted for the one I had a better chance of passing. The class was a lot more math and science than I expected, but I still (somehow) got an A in the class both semesters and a 5 on the AP exam.
Then I took my gap year, thought about my future, did a lot of reading about Environmentalist movements, finished up at CSA, and left for college.
Now you’re caught up.
I took Environmental Science again my first semester at Macalester. I figured it would be a recap, but it’s also required for an Environmental Studies major. My professor was absolutely phenominal. Though I knew the material, one chapter in my textbook caught my attention immediately. It was a chapter about urban environmentalism. Each chapter of that book usually took me about 2 hours to read but this one I finished in 30 minutes. I was so interested that I actually read some of the suggested readings at the end and wrote every paper from that point forward about Green Urban Development. I was hooked. Being from Cleveland, I never really knew cities could be beautiful. Though of course there is nature in Cleveland, it does not have nearly as many parks and gardens as the Twin Cities, so you’d have to stretch your imagination to call the place beautiful. It’s drab. It’s dirty. And God is it poor. Looking at pictures of the ingenuity and creativity coming out of Berlin, however, one would wonder why the movement hasn’t spread more quickly.
I thought about taking American Environmental History that next semester, but I was told by my ES professor that it was really Chris Wells’ class. That I should wait til he came back from sabbatical. Instead I took Ecology and Science of Renewable Energy-- two natural science courses that would provide a good foundation of understanding. In addition to those classes, I took Intro to Human Geography. I didn’t, at the time, know it would count for my major. I just figured it’d be a nice introduction to Urban Geography (since Intro to Urban Studies wasn’t offered that semester). But that class, in combination with Ecology, led me to begin to view the city instead of being separate from the Environment, as actually being part of a greater system. Humans aren’t separate from nature, we are nature.
Which brings me back, again, to something that happened before I got to Macalester. The second summer of my gap year (the first being after I graduated) I travelled to Tanzania on a mission trip. I was there to look at hospitals, schools, and churches to see where there was opportunity to send over volunteers (stemming from my newfound humanitarianism). I was there with a man who had just graduated from college having before that spent 5 years in the Marines. During one of our many long conversations, he said something that I haven’t been able to shake. He said, “Humans always come first, no matter what.” He was talking about policy, but it didn’t sit right with me. It’s that long debate of pitting humans against nature. Either or. Would you save a hundred tigers if it meant that 50 humans would die? It’s a hard question to answer. It’s uncomfortable to say the least. But if you view the system wholeistically, as an Ecosystem—encorporating every organism and inorganic components as well, then saving the rainforest will often save more humans than it hurts. If we preserve and take care of our ecosystems, then we are in turn helping ourselves. The ethics of this statement can be debated over and over again, but ultimately, whether God created us or we’re here by coincidence, we are nourished by the same things that other organisms need to survive. The only thing that truly makes us different is the ability to conciously recognize this fact. Doesn’t that make us responsible?
If every ailmant that befalls humans today could ultimately be attributed to our ongoing struggle to control everyting around us, including nature, what would that mean? Humans without clean water because of humans polluting and losing their natural resistance to the organisms that now make us sick. Humans starving for food because their buildings and development has driven away all the game. Humans dying of cancer because their cars pollute the air and infest them with carcinogens. Humans poor because their agroeconomies are built on failing monocultures and they don’t grow any food they can actually eat. If I was a part of the people searching to find a way to negotiate with nature to reestablish harmonious living situations, could I have also found my humanitarian needs filled?
How did I get here?
The decision to apply to live in a sustainably modified house fit in nicely with my interest in Urban green movements, so that, in short, is how I came to the EcoHouse. And how did I get into American Urban Environmental History? Well first and foremost because someone else dropped out of the class and I was first on the wait list, but also because I need to take the course to fufill my major, Chris Wells is teaching it, and it’s an awesome class.
But I wouldn’t have declared the major if it hadn’t been for that chapter I read with that awesome professor who told me to wait to take American Environmental History until Chris Wells came back because it’s “his class” so then I did a little research on what other classes he taught, found American Urban Environmental History, and decided I absolutely had to take it, no matter what, it would fit in my major core it just had to, and declared the Sustainable Development core partially for that reason.
I could go on for about six more pages about the randomness and chance decisions that brought me to this bed I’m sitting on with this laptop before me. I could talk about the millions of other things that make me who I am and have caused me to reapproach my life in an attempt to detach from the material and petty desires that bring me unhappiness. I could talk about my summers at camp in the Vermont mountains breathing in the clean air and losing myself in the woods to feel entirely connected to everything.
Everything is how I got here. A lot of it is why I’m here. But where, in the metaphysical sense of both words, is here?