Observing Alex

Casually organized thoughts

Dreams, Action, & The Middle World

January 24, 2018

Last week, I was feeling down. It was noticeable to my parents, my teachers, and my friends—all of whom commented on how I was being quiet and how I kept on going off to be alone. This is not uncommon for me. I have these bouts of sadness every three to four months. I know what causes them, but nevertheless, I continue in this cycle.

The first time I remember feeling this sadness was in second grade. I don’t recall the exact date, but I was talking to a classmate about fishing. I don’t fish. I’ve tried catch-and-release, but I personally find it tedious. There is an endless supply of information to learn, problems to fix, and experiences to have; I don’t want to spend my finite time waiting for fish. Despite my opinion of fishing, I pretended that I really loved to fish. The conversation was too long ago for me to remember exactly what I said, but I do remember exactly why I pretended to like fishing—I wanted to fit in.

In school and at home, I was always told it’s normal to feel like you don’t fit in every now and then. This feeling is just part of life. I trusted this advice, and I still believe it is true in most cases. But as I jump from social circle to social circle while in school, I have only once been able to pause this reoccurring sadness—during eighth grade.

I often look back and try to identify what about my time in eighth grade flipped the switch off for these reoccurring fits of sadness. I think now I’ve finally identified enough aspects of my eighth-grade experience to write. But before I can continue with my explanation, I think it is important to describe what I feel during these bouts. Without an understanding of the problem, how can one see the solution? Just like the meaning of life is 42, but how would Deep Earth know the question if he is not alive? (If that reference went over your head, just ignore it. It’s kinda a joke, but it does hold some truth. It’s to lighten up the story a bit.) But in all seriousness, understanding what I feel is the only way to understand the solution. And without skipping to the end, the reason I’m sharing all of this is not that I want my friends, my family, and others who read this blog to know all of my problems. I share because I have faith I’m not alone.

Alone. Loneliness. Isolation. The concept of being separated is, in simplest terms, what these bouts of mine are about. I just stated that the reason I write about very personal topics is that I have faith that I’m not alone. While this is true, I don’t always remember that I have faith.

My feeling of isolation sprouts from my desire to always be one step ahead of where I currently am. This manifest itself as being a year ahead in my classes, working for pay starting at 13, and devaluing the overly structured and mundane struggles of the traditional coming-of-age story. The restrictions of childhood bore me, and I tried so hard to bypass the period. In elementary school, when everyone would be on the playground for recess, I sat with the recess proctor and talked about new things I had read about or watched videos on. In the summers between middle school, I didn’t go to camp like many of my peers. Instead, I chose to go to my dad’s office, where I practiced writing code and discussed new technologies with his employees. The result of these activities has been that I feel more like an adult than a kid. I don’t socialize the same way most of my peers do. I do not care about the same things. But at the same time, I am not an adult, and I don’t want to be an “adult” that has grown up too fast. I find myself feeling alone, somewhere in the middle.

Speaking in overly general and stereotypical terms, in the adult world, you gain resources and freedom to do whatever you please, but usually at the cost of no longer believing in yourself and no longer having the capacity to dream. In the adolescent world, imagination and creativity flow free, but you are restricted on how much you can bring these dreams to light. In the adolescent world, you imagine a fort and build it out of pillows. In the adult world, you build a real house, but hire someone else to design it. In my middle world, I want to design the house and build it. I want to dream and act. I think being in the middle world is what has attracted me to computers from such young age. In the digital, resources are endless. I am free to build whatever I want—the only restrictions are my willingness to learn and time itself. And even better, with the Internet, I can make the things I create available to the world. The Internet enables virtually anyone to change, and be changed by, the world, regardless of their access to physical resources. I love the world and all of its intricacies and mysteries. I want to be free to explore, learn, create, and change things.

My current situation, at school and in my day-to-day life, does not fulfill my desire to explore, learn, create, and change things. Each day I go to classes where I only learn enough about a subject to take a test. While there are definitely applications for all the things I learn in school, we don’t spend time thinking about and discussing the greater meaning and the connections between phenomena. In best cases, we are led on to find the greater meaning the teacher wants us to find, but in most cases, we just memorize facts, learn tasks, and take tests that have no effect on anyone but ourselves. I often question the relevancy of the education system during my bouts, and during my most recent fit, I met with one of my teachers to discuss why the system operates the way it does. In short, the reason he gave for why we are taught the subjects we are taught and why we only go so far into topics was logistics. In a physical building with so many students and only so many teachers, you need to pick a few things to teach. Even great private schools, like the one I’m so fortunate to go to, don’t have the resources to have every student learning completely different things at completely different paces. This reason makes sense, but it doesn’t make me enjoy the system more. In the same conversation with my teacher, I brought up how the digital world could remove some of these logistical problems. What if everyone could learn at their own pace, on their own time, and about topics that really interest them? You’re still restricted to the limits of the digital world, but it’s far better than the current restrictions currently face. He agreed, but I will not see that freedom before I graduate high school. Thankfully though, I will get to be one of the people who creates the new system.

I try to do well in school, but it can be difficult when I don’t feel like I can do much with what I’m learning. And when I say, “don’t do much,” I don’t mean the age-old question of “how will this information mean anything to me as an adult?” I can’t do much in the sense that I don’t have the resources to really go beyond learning information for a test. With all the time spent preparing for formal assessments, there is no time to, say, design an actual experiment that figures out something not already written in our textbook. Or build a robot without an instruction manual. In my high school environment, there also isn’t time for much discussion. Or maybe it’s simply there is not enough interest among the student body for discussion. Looking back, there are only two times I can recall ever having really good, deep, and long intellectual conversation with my peers, and both times were on school trips where we housed together.

At the beginning of eighth grade, the entire class went to a dude ranch for a few days. While I hated most of the trip because I had a persistent headache from unquenchable dehydration (the cabins that didn’t have air conditioning during the day and being that it’s Florida in August…I don’t think the “feels like” dropped below 90°F), the last night I remember having a great, thought-provoking discussion regarding the ability to determine truth. And last year, during a Spring Break trip to visit colleges in New England, every morning, bus ride, meal, and evening was spent talking about topics ranging from how best to handle workers displaced by automation to the origins of ethics.

I want to be in an environment where I am not the only one living in the middle world. I want to constantly be challenging myself to dream bigger and build more because that’s who I am and that’s the only way I can be happy.

In retrospect, what made eighth grade so great was that my environment was influenced by the middle world. My friends loved learning anything and everything about the world. We constantly shared with each other new things that we had learned about, and we worked together to help each other understand new topics. We didn’t need to worry about grades and tests because they were so easy, and because of this, we had time to dive deeper into the endless expanse of human knowledge. We were free to learn and to dream, but we were also free to act. During this time, I started working on Concept Glue which was a program to create high school entrepreneurship clubs and later became an online course. Also, I worked with one of my science teachers and the technology director to start Open Lab, which was a space that for almost an hour every day, students were free to build whatever they imagined. It grew quickly and by the time I left middle school, it was, and still is, an aspect of the school that the admissions department highlights.

My environment has changed though, and the cycles have resumed. To many, this post will probably sound depressing, but that’s not my intent. This post represents a recognition of who I am as a person and a recognition of the environments I will be the best and happiest version of myself in. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to change my current environment enough to stop these cycles before I leave high school, but by recognizing what about my time outside the cycle made me happy, I can better navigate the environments I choose in the future. I can find the best college for me, the best jobs for me, the best communities for me.

I want to learn, I want to create, I want to dream, I want to be free. Although it can be lonely in the middle world, I believe there are others who live here too. I don’t know them yet, but I am on the lookout, and I will find them. If you’re reading this and you too live in the middle world, you know for certain there is another person out there—me. I hope we meet soon.