There was a time when I was a kid, like a really, really long time, where I felt like I didn't belong on the planet and had been dropped off here by accident. Then I remember looking into the sky when I was four, earnestly believing that I must have been put here on purpose, and that my people would come and pick me up once I'd completed my mission. I just wanted them to drop by, maybe fix the things that were malfunctioning in my machinery. (I was also convinced that I was probably a robot.)
In my defense, I was reeeeally into Star Trek and all things science fiction - I built a model of the Enterprise when I was 8, and was obsessed with "A Wrinkle in Time," and thought time travel would be like cars by the time I grew up. I am still mourning the fact that this is not a reality. And now watching my older son play ninja or wizard in the back yard has convinced me that if my behavior wasn't normal, it was most certainly genetic. He is completely convinced of his ninja wizard skills. He believes he has power over all the things in his environment. Today he told me he wanted to make liquid Mercury safe to drink, so that the fish wouldn't be poisoned, and also that he wanted to invent a machine that could make you invisible. I bet he'll do it, too.
Maybe the outer space robot thing was really a coping mechanism so that I could explain how vastly divergent my mother's perception of reality was from my own. What ever that was, that sensation of being a stranger and an imposter with a purpose has never really left me. I'm no longer convinced that I'm a (broken) android left here by negligent space aliens, but that feeling that my differences and purpose for inhabiting space on this planet are tied together, that still lingers.
So why I bring this up is because yesterday I had a remarkable conversation about how difficult and maybe even impossible it can be to speak about the truth of one's experience in an academic setting if it doesn't comply with the dominant cultural paradigm. This is especially true here in the Midwest. I've lived here for five years now, and most of that time has been spent measuring my words, my tone and my intent very carefully. It's been pretty much a waste of time, which has led me to question my perception of my own experience - essentially, my sanity and my worth as a human being. Yesterday, I met someone from the East Coast who has had the same experience and it occurred to us both at the same time that a) this is the definition of oppression, and b) what's going on here is pretty much equivalent to institutional gas lighting.
I live in a county that has an illustrious reputation for education. As a friend so succinctly put it today, this Midwestern University is the ivoriest of ivory towers. But the education offered here is not tied to the experience of living, and in fact, resists and discourages those ties. The result is devastating to the community it serves. This county has the worst racial disparities in the entire country, I believe in part because those in power - those who were raised and educated here - have not been taught how to make their educations relevant to their communities. In fact, those people who don't exist in the academic world aren't even counted as members of their communities. I don't believe this is intentional, but intent in this case doesn't matter. As another friend said today, "It's no different from a caste system, and those at the bottom have no choice but to accept their fate if those at the top have no choice, either."
The woman I met yesterday has already given up. She came here to be a part of the solution, but the price is too high. I feel her. And opening this dialog up to friends has made me realize that there are so many of us who feel her, too. All of us are over-educated and should, in theory, be included in any academic community. But our life experiences - homelessness, teen pregnancy, addictions, minority status, poverty - have informed us more than what our tuition bought us, and means nothing to those who could make real changes.
This is something I've known all along, but right now, I feel empowered in a way that I haven't felt in many years. I'm not alone, and I'm not crazy, and what I've lived through has tangible value. But speaking truth to power has cost me dearly, and other people I love have paid an immeasurable and personal price, too. Owning the value of our experiences over the value of our education, and using it to change the power structure will exact a lifelong price, and I think this is the take home message. It takes huge stones and unflagging commitment and a willingness to withstand heartbreak and discomfort to pay that price over and over again. But where you spend it, that's what makes all the difference, yes?