Evaluating good character is difficult. Well-meaning people make mistakes, and this is to be expected—we’re all trying to navigate the world with limited knowledge. No one will keep perfectly to their morals, but, if you spend enough time with someone, you can gather enough data to see their fundamental character.
The past year, for all its tragedy, has been a convenient test of character. Since my first post on this blog, I’ve tiptoed around many of my feelings that, after this year, I’m finally able to confidently articulate. These feelings have weighed on me more than most acquaintances, and many of my friends, likely realize. Most who knew me in my teenage years only saw a façade, with the rare open curtain in a window, a peek into the hazy inside. While I have moved on from the feelings I’m about to share, there has remained a part of me that wants to explain to those who knew me before why I was how I was; if for no other reason but closure.
From ages five to eighteen, I attended a private day school called Berkeley Prep. My parents value education, and they wanted me to grow up in an environment that they believed would be more supportive of academic pursuits. My early childhood was idyllic, however by the time I graduated, my relationship with the school, and in a confusing way, myself, was complicated. In many ways, the school was my home. I grew up there, virtually all of my friends were there, and I trusted the people there. At the same time, I did not feel like I was good enough for the place and its community. This insecurity motivated me to work harder, but it was at the expense of paying attention to the moment and enjoying the good parts of life. This reality hit me hardest the night we rang in 2020; as friends joked and reminisced, in my head, I struggled to remember the stories in any detail. Even though I had been physically present in those stories, my mind had so rarely been in the moment that they sounded made-up.
This past summer, with the coronavirus rampant and Black Lives Matter protests shaking the globe, my mom shared a letter sent out by the Head of School. In the letter, which was a response to a group of Black students and alumni, he claimed that “there is no racism at this school.” He proceeded to say the claims of feeling uncomfortable by Black students and alumni were lies, and that the school would not make any comment on the protests as they did not have “educational value.”
Of course alongside this response, the school was making decisions about how it would handle classes in the fall. When they announced that students would return to in-person instruction only, family friends who still attended the school said they wished to leave for somewhere that would allow classes to remain online. The school responded by refusing to refund the tuition they had paid in advance. While after much dispute, the school eventually did allow some students to stay remote, talking with friends there, doing so was considered taboo, and when students tested positive, it was kept quiet. Even in a public statement published in the Tampa Bay Times about the decision to hold graduation in person, a school representative said “no one is being made to come,” then immediately continued, regarding their expectation that faculty members attend, “it’s part of their job.”
Despite these blatant disregards for the community, around the same time, I received an email asking for money. I was so put off by this request, because for a place that claims to want to “make a positive difference,” how—when so many were, and still are, suffering—could they justify receiving donations when they were contributing nothing to easing the pandemic or addressing societal ills? I hoped the email was automated—a technical error. Instead, the message acknowledged the hardships of the year, and reassured us that even if we couldn’t contribute as much this year, any amount would still be appreciated.
Thankfully, I was not alone in my frustration. In response, one former classmate posted a list of organizations that would be better to donate to if you were financially able. However, my shock over the school’s remarks quickly evolved into personal embarrassment.
I already found myself needing to clarify my character to those outside of Florida. In the summer after I graduated, I was volunteering at a community garden in San Francisco, and after about a month, the older couple who I worked with shared that they were initially hesitant to say certain opinions around me on account of where I grew up. An entire state is too complex to stereotype; there are plenty of compassionate and wonderful people there. But the perception of my former school was different. That was my community. Of course there are individuals there who don’t agree with the actions of the leadership, and several faculty members have jumped ship, spreading the word about the culture created by those in charge. But in my early life, the school, as an institution, had my trust, my respect, and my care. I was embarrassed to feel like I was one of them.
Following the events of this summer, I’ve come to realize that my character has always been stronger than that of the administrators of that school. All the respect I had for them in the idealism of childhood, they have lost. Now all I feel toward them is pity, and the part of me that felt any attachment to the school has died.
Cutting off, and now sharing this essay for anyone to read, has made me feel free. Free from feeling like my mistakes define my character; free from feeling like I could never be good enough. I now look back at moments that made me feel so small, and laugh at the thought that I ever believed these individuals’ judgements were legitimate. Being told I would never get into college by my third grade teacher because I didn’t know at the time that simply rephrasing other sources wasn’t making them my own. In eighth grade, being told that my not believing in Christianity was a “phase” I would grow out of—and when I asked about my friends who were Jewish, hearing the response “Well I can’t say anything about that.” In high school, being told I was a sexist by the dean because, when making a school-wide announcement, I started with “hey guys” instead of what she felt was the more appropriate, “y’all.” And when I responded to her complaint with something to the effect of “my bad, that wasn’t my intent,” having her corner me and yell about how I lacked any respect because of my use of “my bad.”
Looking back, the irony is I feel I have more respect than that administrator can comprehend. On the virtue of shared humanity and life, the highest form of respect is empathy. Perhaps the faculty members who made the aforementioned remarks were all having bad days—that’s not really why I am writing. My frustration stems from the repeated cases of questioning students’ character upon their, often unknowingly and rarely with the intent of harm, breaking of social conventions. The school’s rigid culture, that requires performative forms of “respect,” ignores this fundamental empathy. These repeated, superficial critiques of my character, by those I trusted to guide me, made me feel like I was incapable of ever being a decent person. And this insecurity has come close to consuming me.
Even with good people around, which there have always been at that school and in my life, I could not help but feel like they were just being nice in their validation of my character. I focused on the words of those who led my community, and I internalized the feeling that I was not good enough. I reached the point where I could not comprehend why my friends would want me around—I make mistakes too often. I lost interest in the activities I enjoyed, as any time I spent not working or studying in an attempt to gain a sense of esteem and “be better” felt like a waste. I did not date because I genuinely felt like I did not deserve the care, and as I felt affection toward others, I repeated to myself that I was not good enough. It was lonely. Especially, as my own eager-to-please disposition I knew was fake, I questioned if those I was closest with were just being nice too.
I now realize that character is a more wholesome way to value oneself and others, and cannot be measured incident-by-incident or through conventional manners. Making a mistake does not define your character. Even making several mistakes does not necessarily define your character. It’s an average overtime. The self-hate I felt for so long, I now see was encouraged by leaders who lack the very character they claim to foster, but maintain their own esteem via performance and delusion. And since becoming aware of their striking imperfections, I no longer am caught in the delusion that I must be perfect or else I am not as good of a person. Writing this now, it seems ridiculous that I ever thought those who were supposed to be guiding me were perfect—deep down, I think I knew they weren’t. But the theatrics of the environment made me believe that they were on a higher moral plane than I was capable, like they knew something I didn’t. I still internalized their critiques, forgetting to acknowledge that making mistakes is okay, and in fact, means you’re growing and trying.
I’d be lying to say I wasn’t somewhat resentful toward the school, but I also don’t think it’s helpful to dwell on the past; that time no longer exists. The silver-lining of this tragic year is that I can still move on. I’m upset that I got caught in their delusions, but there are other things to appreciate in life. Though, it’s true that it can be hard to move on. I get particularly frustrated and resentful when friends talk about their childhood so fondly, and I think back and feel like I squandered away many parts of an otherwise extremely fortunate youth. It’s frustrating being 20 years old and trying to discover activities I enjoy, because anything that I did “just for fun” felt like a waste of time. One of the worst parts is in relationships, where my lack of experience makes me feel like a middle schooler thrown into the college social scene. Even in friendships, where I’m still suspicious of compliments, and overly hesitant for fear of being an imposition.
Though, I write this as I enter a new era of my life. Since graduating high school, I’ve still struggled on-and-off with the feelings about myself the school instilled. This year has been exhausting, but now as more people get vaccinated and life restarts, I want to leave these thoughts in the past. I am tired of relying so heavily on truly life-saving friends to regularly adjust my thinking. I’m tired of the hate I feel toward certain pathetic individuals who run the school. Not that I think you care, but if you’re reading, I never really was like you, and I’m glad I’m nothing like you now.
To conclude, this post is for others as much as it is for myself. I wanted these words to be timestamped and publicly available so my feelings are clear—to myself, old friends, new friends, and those I will meet in the future. I’m embarrassed to have been associated with the institution, or at least what it has become, but I don’t recognize myself as the same shell I was then. Attending that school was a mistake that my parents and I don’t hesitate to acknowledge, and this is my formal way of saying: I’m not one of them. I felt so bad acting as the person they tried to make me, but thankfully, I can say that mask no longer exists.
Thanks to my professor, Jennifer Lutman, as well as, George Chachkes, Phoebe Metzger-Levitt, Emma Hubbard, and my dad for help editing. Also my mom, Jeremy Koch, Zoë Anderson, Alex Lohr, Carissa Edwards-Mendez, Cohn, and others for being there at various times over the years as I’ve worked through these thoughts.