EXETER, N.H.—Schools operate on a different schedule than the “real world.” From primary school through university, students live by the semester, these marathons interspersed with the confusing emptiness of break. If late August is the students’ New Years, then graduation is New Year’s Eve—a whirlwind celebration of past accomplishments and outsized resolutions for the future, which drags on through the hot days of summer until we are thrust back into the reality of the fall.
I am attending my younger brother’s high school graduation. Last year, I was sitting in his place, waiting to receive my diploma. Today, I’m reflected across the podium, seated in the crowd of family members packed on the school lawn.
There’s something bitter about seeing a younger sibling graduate but still not feeling like you’ve graduated yourself. Returning to high school has made me feel the stupidity and shame of victimhood all over again—as if the emotion itself were tied to the place. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized how strange my high school was: The lack of discussion and training on sexual assault I experienced, despite living in a coed school of over a thousand students, is jarring.
The previous day, my sister and I hosted a meeting in one of the local coffee shops—probably where I finished editing my Common App. The topic of the meeting was sexual assault, and I was joined by current students and alumni. We talked policy: the way things are now, and what we want to see changed. The meeting was uplifting because I realized I was not alone. It was depressing for the same reason.
An upset in life usually implies a deviation from the comfort of one’s day-to-day existence. I imagine the word as some giant thorn, thrusting up in throbbing obscenity from an otherwise level field. The act that upset my life is of the opposite nature. It is a perpetual past that I live in, a day-to-day existence completely undisturbed.
We get mixed messages about the past in society. “Don’t let your past dictate your future,” we tell people. I’m spending the summer at a non-profit, and we meet people for whom that ought to be the case: people with offenses on their Criminal Offender Record Information records, refugees from other continents. But in practice, the world rarely operates in this manner. CORI reform only took effect two years ago, and we still live in a world where people are judged by their accents, their hometown, and their college degree. If you had to rely on cash assistance or food stamps, the assumption is that your parents didn’t work hard. If you attended boarding school, you’re probably a rich brat. You can’t escape your past, even if your past is just someone else’s generalization.
And then the other side of the coin: “Remember where you came from.” To me, the dictate suggests humility. Remembering your origins means that your ego can’t explode with the accomplishments of today. No one is an island (another tired aphorism), and by that logic, every successful person has an army of supporters behind her. Remembering that fact means honoring those people as well. To me, it recalls my school’s motto: Non Sibi, not for one’s self. You might have made it, but remember how you got there.
I sometimes worry that my obsession with sexual assault is just an example of my past dictating my future. I used to want to be a starving artist, to illustrate children’s books in hendecasyllabic Latin. The past year has shifted that: I instead want to work for a women’s non-profit. At least some things stay constant—in either case, I would be just above the poverty line.
But if I were to sit passively watching this injustice continue, wouldn’t that also be succumbing to my past in a different way? Returning to my high school reminded me of myself as 17, the confused girl too shy to come forward with an explicit accusation against my attacker. The incident has forced me to constantly remember—and constantly reflect on—my past, and what has brought me here today. Perhaps I should thank my rapist. Without him, I wouldn’t be in this position. Without him, I wouldn’t be motivated to give back to the other students in my situation—both the girls who attended my meeting, and the nameless ones who couldn’t.
The graduation exercises have ended, and the students trail off to their families. The class of 2014 has left. Boys and girls spend just four years at this school, and then turn into men and women who spend a lifetime giving back to it. I’ve become one of them, and I feel the anonymity of being one among very many. I’m not sure if what I say will make a difference.
Tez M. Clark '17 is a Crimson editorial writer in Adams House.