This past weekend, I was at a restorative justice conference downtown. 1 For an hour I listened to a principal, a school administrator, and a group of students in purple “Let’s start a movement” shirts, talk about how they trained a group of ~30 student “Circle Keepers” to help their peers resolve and prevent fights and conflicts by tackling the root of the issue, as opposed to simply disciplining students with the code of conduct.
After the session, one of the circle keepers walks up to me, a boy with brown hair streaked blonde at the tips.
Him: I went to B my freshman year.
I had mentioned my school once during a question- I didn’t think anyone had notice. Nonetheless, he starts listing things about the school- the “crack” hall, the laptops, the international festival, the horrible bathrooms, the ramen room, the hour long lunches. I confirm that the school he remembers is the school I go to.
We try finding mutual friends:
Him: You know those people who walked around wearing all black? That was my group of friends.
I shake my head. He starts naming people.
Him: Were you in Anime club?
Him: Live Music club?
Him: Color Guard?
Him: Were you in any clubs?
Me: Uh, the really nerdy ones?
We go back to talking about lunchtimes.
Him: Oh, there was also that sushi place I always went to during lunch- you know, at that strip mall near the Target
Me: Wait you were a freshman. How did you get off campus?
Him: Oh, literally no one cared. My group of friends and I would walk right past the police officer and he didn’t care. Oh my gosh, there was one day- I literally skipped finals just to go run rampant at that strip mall. Yeah, those were the days when I was a bad kid.
As we kept talking, I realized that all I could do was laugh with him- to be in awe of this boy younger than me, brash and nice, someone who experienced a different side of the same school I went to.
I knew so little and yet so much about him. I knew that some teacher at his current school thought he was worthy of being a Circle Keeper, that he could help other people talk through their problems and authentically relate to them- that the things I would never dream of doing were completely normal to him. That he must carry personal stories more serious than what I had heard, stories that could resonate with the people that needed to hear it the most. That he knew his story and wasn’t afraid to share it to help others. And I respected him for that.
For the longest time, I obsessed with how other people saw me. One of my old notebooks literally has a page with “How I want to be seen” written on the top. I have multiple pages across multiple notebooks with this title in fact. And even though I hate leaving blank space in my notebook, I’ve never been able to fill more than 2 lines on this page.
Every time a college interviewer asked me “How would your friends describe you?”, I gave a shoddy answer:
“Um, well, we crack jokes with each other and nerd out. Sometimes we stuff food in our faces together.”
It terrified me that other people saw me in a light that I would never see myself. Throughout high school, I had trouble figuring out where I was rooted, where I was growing, where I was branching out. Where I belonged in the context of my class, my school, my community.
Over time, I’ve started compiling this identity through introductions to people, ridiculous amounts of introspection, and writing blog posts/college essays, but I’ve begun to recognize the downside of whatever privilege I’ve grown up with- that regardless of what I accomplished, I would never carry a compelling backstory.
Would the boy I met be the type of person I’d notice in my classes? Heck no- most likely, he wouldn’t even be in my classes. Would I meet him at college? Maybe, but he’d likely be the exception.
With less than 20 weeks in Houston before college, I wanted to have more of these types of experiences before I leave.
- Context: Restorative Justice is a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. (Thanks Google.) In other words, using rehabilitation and understanding as opposed to punishment. ↩