I could not answer it, I could not console him, and I could not believe that I had let myself forget that once upon a time, this question plagued me too. We students had just listened to Rajel* speak, passionately crediting his involvement in extracurriculars, specifically Judo, to teaching him life- changing values. He ended his inspirational speech with a restatement that we must take charge of our own lives and explore what is around us. Samir*, a quiet young man I had not earlier noticed, stands up and offers his life as an example. Until his 12th year of schooling, he had not been exposed to the scheduled examinations, computer work, and extracurriculars so ingrained in my own education. He did not know that they existed, much less that he could take advantage of them. How, he asked, do you find yourself then? Yes, empowerment can come from within; yes, one can be dedicated, hardworking -- but is there still a need for opportunity before one “find themself”? In the 7th grade, I knew even more nothing than I do now. At this point, the threads of the person I wanted to be were just being woven into my goals and dreams. I thought I knew I liked English and despised math because my grades in the former were better than those in the latter. Therefore, I would be a journalist. If that plan fell through then I would settle for being a lawyer, as my father wanted. I remember trying to write my high school applications and blanking on the extra-curricular checklist. How could I prove I wanted to be a journalist without school newspaper experience or a portfolio of creative essays? How could I “show, not tell” that I would make a great lawyer when I had never spoken to a lawyer, much less interned in an office? Four years later, I think of the experiences that have smoothed out my rough edges: dancing with SLAM, cheering at games, teaching classes, learning Japanese; they are things I had not even known to consider.
It scares me to think that I may not be my personality, I may just be the result of my opportunity. I had the opportunity to join SLAM, so now I am a stepper. I had the opportunity to take Japanese, so now I am a lover of new languages.
I remember realizing that there were so many jobs in the world. Not everyone was a teacher, doctor, lawyer, or manual laborer. The day I heard someone describe ‘political science’ and ‘international relations’, I grabbed those titles and wrapped them around my identity like blankets on my shivering confusion. Would I be so passionate about these topics if I had made a small, maybe lazy, decision that I would rather stay at home instead of board? Or is it the luck of family values, the chance of acceptance, and the privilege of my school that let me concrete my values and know there were these choices?
In an attempt to answer this, I think of Riverside. I think of their notion that every child can reach success, what ever that may mean. I think of my immediate hesitance to accept what I thought was an idealistic approach. I remember that 7th grade girl, having the inkings of passion and the willingness to dedicate herself to everything offered, but no outlet for it, no opportunity to express and demonstrate and form.
I agree with Samir, personal motivation needs opportunity to become potential. Potential is not an exclusive spark, it is a dim light polished and coaxed by family, education, and willpower until it is bright enough to light one’s way. And while I would sleep better thinking that everyone could work hard and climb the ladder to their goals and fulfillment, the fog is fading as I examine my privilege.