This summer I had the privilege of teaching a class about the psychology and philosophy of dreams to New Haven middle school students. When a videographer came to document our summer program, he asked a student named Thomas to name one thing he took away from my class. Thomas thought for a few seconds and responded, “Life is a lot more than it seems.” When the teachers watched a rough cut of the video the following day, we all laughed at the vacuous gravity of this seventh grade student’s message. My class was supposed to be deep, but I didn’t think it could be profound.
Amid the hectic adjustment period that often accompanies the start of fall semester, however, I could not dismiss the immense weight — at once overwhelming and refreshing — that Thomas’ response carries. A few weeks ago, after a worsening cold and looming job interview prevented me from seeing friends after a long week of classes, I finally had a moment in which to consider my everyday thoughts, decisions and exchanges within a context greater than Yale College. For the first time as a senior, I had stumbled upon a chance for reflection. As I tried to pinpoint the most significant thing I have absorbed in three years and one month of college, I realized that the lesson Thomas learned as a seventh grader is the lesson I am learning as a 16th grader. Through the process of making meaningful friendships, experiencing new places and cultures and plunging into the stories and systems of world history, I have come to fully and passionately agree with Thomas: Life is a lot more than it seems.
While it is impossible to capture the gravity of Thomas’ message in a few short paragraphs, it is important to me to try. It is important that, every so often, I look beyond myself and recognize my own colossal privilege. In this way my experiences and endeavors within and beyond the walls of WLH and HGS have revealed their wonderful power to humble. Try as I may, it is beyond my capacity to understand the complex forces and interactions that create our collective, and my personal, present.
At the same time, Thomas’ words are empowering. The idea that life is more than it seems to one person at a given moment should motivate all of us to become less selfish, more patient, more understanding and more open-minded. When we look hard enough, or long enough, there’s almost always another question to ask, another person to listen to, another perspective to take into account. The beauty of Thomas’ message lies not only in the rich substance of his words, but also in the fact that it was he, a seventh grader, who spoke them. Too often, society writes off and even silences youth. Yet the way young people see the world is more than just unique. Their perspective also opens up many opportunities to deconstruct the regimes of power and social organization embedded in our adult thinking and actions. We have so much to learn and unlearn from other people, especially from those whose experiences and viewpoints do not resemble our own.
Like all historical actors, we as young adults in an academic setting such as Yale have biases. Our biases are toward what’s immediate, comfortable, reliable and established; they are against what’s unfamiliar, destabilizing, uncharted and novel. These biases preclude us from examining our daily decisions and from grappling regularly with the larger structures and ways of thinking and living that shape who we are and where we will go. It was only through teaching a class on dreams to middle school students that I could begin to formulate bold and specific dreams of my own. Just as reconstructing the past can help us envision possible futures, listening to the perspectives of young people like Thomas has allowed me to conceptualize my own future as an aspiring teacher. To me, teaching entails being a lifelong student.
Seeking knowledge about issues and experiences that diverge radically from our own is not a futile task. Far from it. Reflecting on Thomas’ wisdom has led me to conclude that a sustained willingness to listen to and respect lives beyond our own cultivates safer, healthier, more informed and more just communities. His words have also led me to conclude that sometimes, what seems simple is actually complex. Sometimes, what seems extraneous is actually useful. And sometimes, what seems overwhelming is actually refreshing.
Andrew Stein is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at andrew@firstname.lastname@example.org .