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  • Writer's pictureTashroom Ahsan

Reflections on Being Mean

A genial flow streamed through Deep Springs in early July. Just hours after my beloved second-years left the valley for the last time, the bells tolling as they crossed the cattle guard, I became a second-year myself. The flow carried children, who were deposited like sediment at the green bank of the main circle. Handed from one set of nurturing hands to another, the children exchanged parents before me. We went into the dorms.

As a second-year, I was an architect of their new parenthood. I was to create the environment which would sustain their growth for an entire year, to reconstruct eternity and history in their eyes. Yet, when I first saw these young faces, I couldn’t grasp that I was responsible for rebuilding something which I, a child just a few hours ago, thought had always existed. A year before, I arrived at Deep Springs. It was ready-made; there were pre-existing norms about seminar, how to treat one another, and what giving to the community looked like. I inherited my landscape, a child taking in the world constructed by their parents. I figured that the Deep Springs I knew was the Deep Springs that would always be. After spending a year destroying myself to become a Deep Springer, I felt that I was to guard the institution that I was thrown into, not rebuild it as an architect.

When I first saw their faces, I did not see children—instead I saw the ghosts of my second-years, those great people who created Deep Springs, behind their eyes. In these ghosts before me I found emptiness, cultural artifacts of a world alien to this valley. Their language, not yet code-switched for our incessant academic jargon, consisted of “vibes” rather than “sentiment.” Nuance and dichotomy were as yet unknown. They wore what I thought of as clown suits rather than Carhartts. AirPods, anime, and timidity entered the landscape. To me, these foreigners resisted instantaneous cultural adaptation, trying to change a place that existed for over a hundred years. I found in their very existence a challenge to the institution I was to defend. They were the ghosts of my second-years, as Deep Springers, but dressed in a perverted inversion of what the institution stood for.

My resentment for them came out in Summer Seminar. Academics were my bastion, and I knew what class ought to look like—I was acting as the Curriculum Committee Chair at the time, and just edited the Letter on Seminar which gave form to class. When I first entered class and heard their words, I failed to respect them. They didn’t do class the way I wrote about it in the Letter. They approached texts from themselves rather than from the text. Obviously they didn’t read close enough, and why would I tell them that they didn’t? They should’ve known. I couldn’t stand to listen to their superficial takes—I didn’t even find them worthy of engagement. I didn’t challenge them, I didn’t even speak towards them. I simply made reactionary faces and jotted down angry notes in the margins of my notebook, writing “A says nothing worth listening to,” or “I can’t stand B’s voice.”

I had completely failed as a student, a second-year, and, most importantly, as a nurturing architect of the Deep Springs experience. This term constituted the most embarrassing conduct of my life. The first-years were afraid of me, and, since I was a second-year who represented the philosophy of Deep Springs, afraid of Deep Springs. One, who I’ll call G, found my notebook after class one day. She read through my angry marginal notes, every last one of them, and told others about them. I found out about it a few days later. We agreed to go on a walk. The scent of summer sage, a scent which lingers from my first year, filled our noses as she told me of the fears and difficulties she had with adjusting to Deep Springs, especially in class. I was humbled by her openness, grateful to hear from her. She and I had similarly difficult transitions into the valley—nobody to talk to, intimidated by the long-winded obscurity of others’ words, and a general sense of not-belonging. My notebook, she said, gave substance to her previously abstract insecurities. The words I kept private, and the silent reactions I made public, together, were one of the greatest barriers to her feeling like she belonged. I felt ashamed to be a barrier to her adjustment. Sitting by the reservoir, we talked for hours. Kierkegaard, her interests in art, her family, how I could be constructive in seminar—these were among the many things we talked about. I apologized to her and listened generously to what she was willing to share. G, who I had yet to intellectually respect, had taught me far more about my conduct in a few hours than I learned in several months of mental preparation for my second-year. I realized that my position was one of nourishment, not punishment; parent, not guard. Even more, I realized that interpersonal resentment is born almost entirely of ignorance, of an inability to empathize with the humanity of the resented person. As we talked, the veil of disrespect faded, and I grew a fondness for her being before me. To disrespect someone comes from neglecting their personhood, not from the rationalized disdain I held. Such a disdain can only flourish in the absence of another’s humanity.

After our conversation, I intentionally shifted my behavior in class to be guided more by curiosity than judgment. I fought my instinctual reaction to comments, asking for clarification when I disagreed with something rather than disengaging and writing angry notes. Unsurprisingly, I began to learn in class. People talked; I talked; conversation stimulated fertility in my mind. Later that term, I wrote cards to every student about what I appreciated about them, seeking to begin repairing the relationship I had begun with resentment. I couldn’t repair every relationship, but I spent the rest of the year trying. I committed to having conversations with others, listening to where they are coming from, especially when I felt frustrated by their actions. This practice allowed their humanity to come before me again—problems resolved with conversation. My pent-up frustration and defensiveness cooled as I continued these practices. G and I became good friends after I gave her the space to forgive me. I came to appreciate the minds of others more over time—I learned to love them.

I wish I had realized that I was an architect sooner, that my sphere of influence extended much further than I had ever thought it could, that I could transform the institution from one which annihilated me into one which welcomed others. I wish I treated others with the generosity of humanity rather than the resentment of ghastliness; that I wondered where they were coming from rather than think they are not here. I wish I talked sooner, for with words, I found, resentment dissipates. The year could have been spent growing with others rather than healing. As I healed the wounds, I noticed how easy destruction could be. In trying to reach others, though, my arms of empathy grew.

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