While discussing the seminal middle school text, The Giver, one of the students posed the theory that Jonas, the main protagonist, was living in two worlds. As the Receiver, he was made privy to memories, which opened up a world filled with rich colors, troubling violence, loving family, amongst other aspects of life that were noticeably absent from his experience. At the same time, Jonas’ lived reality centered on his monotonous, sameness ruled community, where color, violence, and familial love did not exist. The other students all agreed with the student’s idea. I wasn’t satisfied; that revelation did not seem revealing at all. In fact, it seemed like a logical conclusion. I wanted more. To push their understanding and challenge the class to analyze the potential depth of the statement, I half-jokingly asked, “What’s the problem with living in two worlds?” And here were their responses:
As I wrote their responses up on the smart board, I felt an indescribable feeling. For a brief, fleeting moment my hands shook as my breath left my body.The students did not notice my transient feeling of deep understanding and connection to their words. Somehow the class was able to capture my personal feeling of difference in roughly eleven words.
public school my community my friends in the beginning of sixth grade when I entered an academically rigorous, magnet middle school. My interactions with my neighborhood friends decreased. I was unable to play basketball with them during the weekday because I was getting home from school roughly three hours after they had; they walked home from the local public schools, while I took an hour long train ride home after an after school commitment. This disconnect continued into my high school career experience, which was further complicated by the fact that my high school was compromised of a predominantly white, affluent community. The conversations I had with my friends from my home community and my friends from school varied, each pulling from a seemingly different aspect of me.
And that is when I truly started to feel like I lived in two seemingly contradictory and different worlds, where the values did not match. Likewise, neither did I. My family and friend could not empathize with my frustrating experiences because it was uniquely me. They tried to sympathize. Conversely, my white, affluent friends from school did neither.
I maintained a relatively strong connection with a small handful of close friends from my old neighborhood, but as the years passed, the physical and emotional distance grew as well. I tried with all my might to hold onto “where I came from,” and “where I was going” simultaneously battled for my attention. Those two destinations embodied a Grand Canyon-like distance.
Tug and pull.
As the rope, my body became taut, filled with tension and hurt from marginal acceptance and marginal rejection from both worlds. I kinda fit here. I sort of fit there.
“You think you’re better than me,” my mother once yelled at me, her eyes ablaze, “because you went to those fancy schools.” Hurt exemplified. The academic, social, and emotional path I traversed to get to where I am is littered with sacrifices, joy, fractured relationships, assumed assumptions, and love. Stretched stitches as I weave my identity formation within two separate arenas.
Those nestled within the comfort of their respective world are able, with the blink of an eye, to spot somehow that I am an intruder.
“You don’t belong here,” the stripped whispered in my ear as she sat on my lap. Strippers are the best conversationalists because that is how they really make their money, not from the magic-like tricks they contort their shapely figures to perform. I was dressed no differently than the many men in the club. Maybe it was my speech. Who knows? Whatever it was, she, a people’s specialist, noticed a difference and determined my presence in the club was somehow odd.
Even this past Sunday, as I entered an exclusive Chelsea apartment building, the doorman gave a look over. He did not say anything differently to me, I assume, when other visitors enter the building. But his look, his stance screamed, “What are you doing here?” I know that look. I have experienced it countless times as a student and now as a professional.
Jonas’ conundrum parallels my own lived experience, straddling these two worlds. I definitely have difficulty sharing the experience; I definitely feel frustrated and isolated at times; I definitely feel like I’m looking for my place.
What Would Jonas Do?