My high-school friend Becca is an avid reader of this blog. She doesn’t comment here, because she doesn’t want to be bothered signing up for a WordPress account, but instead she tends to email me with her thoughts every now and again. I love it, and I love her, which I hope she knows even though about half the time I never get back to replying to those emails.
It’s strange in some sense, though not really at all once you get into it, because Becca also happens to be a devout Mormon. On surface glance, she’s not the most likely demographic for a blog that gained popularity due to my love affair with the word “fuck,” and where I published glamor shots of my love affair with Jack Daniels. You know, stuff that most devout Mormons, as a rule, aren’t going to be into. It just doesn’t seem like their style.
Becca and I are the same age. She’s married, with two adorable kids. She’s got this very adult-seeming life with a family and a church community. I’ve got a coffee addiction, a fully stocked bar in the kitchen, and a panoply of freaks and weirdos I call my dearest friends, some of whom have different colored skin and some of whom have badass tattoos and some of whom are boys who like boys or girls who like girls or any combination thereof. So her life feels sort of foreign and mysterious to me. I imagine my life feels the same way to her.
She emailed me the other day, and asked for my advice. She’s been asked to teach a lesson to the girls’ youth group in her church about the importance of education, and wondered if I might have anything to add. She sent along the church’s lesson plan, which I read and promptly felt about three inches tall. The whole thing was structured around the idea of why God thinks it’s probably a good idea for young women to gain an education, and try as I might, I’m just some girl who walked around last week with mismatched earrings and a coffee stain on my shirt. I have no authority to convince these girls of anything, especially not when compared with what God might have to say on the subject.
The first email I sent her had a link to Malala Yousafzai’s interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. I figured, here’s an easy jumping-off point! Look! In other parts of the world, this is an issue of such grave importance that this brave little girl is risking her life, after being SHOT IN THE FACE BY THE TALIBAN. We have it so easy. We take so much for granted. Don’t let me be the one to tell you. Let her. She’s sixteen and knows more about the world than we ever, ever will.
And then I thought more about it, and I thought, you know — maybe that’s not actually the right move here after all.
When I was in high school, nothing infuriated me more than knowing adults were talking down to me. As an adult myself, it turns out that talking to teenagers is hard. As adults, we can’t help but view them as children. We’re so naturally protective, so unwilling to let them figure out that the world is complicated and that adults don’t really have it all together either. But as a teenager, I felt so much like an adult already. Please, I’m a person, I wanted to scream at every patronizing authority figure who proffered well-meaning but condescending advice. Talk to me like one.
And as a kid who grew up fairly sheltered, in that uniquely privileged way particular to middle-class white girls from the suburbs, anything outside the reaches of my own little bubble seemed so far away that it didn’t really apply, necessarily, to me. Sure, it’s terrible, what happens in other parts of the world. But, look, I’m kind of busy over here ignoring my parents and crushing on boys and trying to keep my grades up and not get shoved into a locker. I’m sure I would have watched that video at sixteen, thought, yeah, I guess I’m pretty lucky, and gone right back to ignoring whatever point the teacher was trying to make.
Which brings me back to my original point. I don’t know these specific young women in Becca’s youth group. I don’t know anything about them, and they don’t know anything about me. I’m not Malala Yousafzai, and I’m certainly not God. And if their worldview isn’t expansive enough to listen to either of those two authorities on the subject, I have no idea what I could possibly add to the conversation.
The email that I finally wrote Becca looks like this. I don’t think I got it completely right, but it’s a start.
I don’t know if Becca will use it, and I don’t know if it will actually speak to those girls at all. The idea that “education is important,” had been ingrained in me at such an early age that it was a surprise to learn that there are parts of the world where it simply isn’t seen as that big of a deal. I remember, too, what it felt like to be so disappointed and discouraged by shitty teachers at various points throughout my life that I sometimes felt like school was kinda pointless too. (I also was very lucky, and I had some pretty incredible teachers that changed my life. In my experience, the good usually outweighs the bad).
I know that I went to college, and it blew my mind, to be surrounded by students who wanted to learn, and teachers who loved to teach.
I know that I couldn’t have written this letter if I hadn’t received my education from teachers both terrible and transcendent. They taught me both so much, in such vast and incomparable ways.
So Becca? Here goes.
Hey, ladies. You don’t know me. I live far away, and I’ve never met any of you, and I don’t know anything about you — your lives, your hopes, your fears, your dreams. So it wouldn’t surprise me if you didn’t want to listen to what I had to say at all. Why should you? I’ve done nothing to prove that I’m worth listening to.
My friend Becca asked me what I would say, if I was able to talk to you today. I struggled with this for awhile. For starters, because of all of the stuff I just mentioned. Why should you care what some woman you’ve never met thinks?
The other part that I’ve been struggling with is — I’m not great at talking about God. And I imagine that Becca, unlike me, is GREAT at that. She’s always been good at that. We’ve known each other since high school, and we would sit on the school bus and on my living room couch, talking for hours and trying to solve the massive puzzle that is faith and logic and reason and the meaning of everything. (Plus, you know. Sometimes we talked about boys. Ok. We talked about boys a lot. Don’t tell her I told you that). We landed on different sides of the country, and on somewhat different sides of the argument. She wound up out there with you guys, plus with two beautiful babies and a husband, and a strong relationship with her church community. I wound up in Philadelphia, where I live next to a vegan coffeeshop and hang out with my gay roommates and my weird artist friends. I do some of that stuff you’re not supposed to do — I drink sometimes, I curse too much — and I’m honestly not sure where I land on the whole God thing. In some ways, I’m still that kid on the school bus trying to figure out the meaning of it all.
So, no. You probably shouldn’t listen to anything I have to say.
But here’s the thing. Just because I’m not sure what I think about God doesn’t mean I’ve stopped asking questions. And just because Becca and I wound up making different choices and living different lives doesn’t mean that I think one of our paths is any better than the other. They’re just different, that’s all.
Much like Becca and myself, you’re going to go different places in your lives, too. Look around the room. Some of you might stay in this very town for years and years and years, and that’s a beautiful choice. Some of you might travel the world. Some of you might live in faraway cities, and some of you might climb mountains or become president. Some of you might get married and start families. Some of you might not. None of those things is better than the other. They’re just different. That’s all.
Here’s the part that I think is universal, no matter what choice you make. Having an education is critically important, no matter where you go. I can’t talk to you about why God thinks you should get an education. Becca can do a way better job of that than I ever could. I’m just going to talk about why I simply think becoming educated makes a lot of sense.
You’re all going to go different places, and that’s a wonderful thing, and I am telling you, from the bottom of my heart, that if you have some understanding of the world around you, and the desire to know more about it, you will find your life deeper and richer because of it.
Look, “education” isn’t some vague concept dreamt up by bored schoolteachers with nothing better to do than lock you in a room and tell you some boring stuff at a boring desk surrounded by boring kids reading boring books who are incredibly bored. It’s not. I thought it was for awhile, and there are some lousy teachers out there who might make it hard to think otherwise. Don’t let ’em get you down. That’s not what this is about at all.
Education, at its core, is about learning HOW to think. That’s what this is all really about. Stay in school not because you have to, but because I think asking the question “Why?” is the most important thing you can possibly do, now and for the rest of your life. Education is about answering that question. Education is about teaching you how to reason, how to interpret facts and distill feelings. It’s about the thrill of learning what it is that you believe, and why you believe it. When you ask, “Why?,” you’ll go off on a journey, in search of an answer. (The best questions are the ones where you end up having just created more questions than answers. How much more there is to learn, and to discover!)
You gain an education so that you can understand the world around you. So you know why it is that the sky is blue and why the grass is green and what kind of bug that is. (Looking it up on your phone is one thing. Knowing and understanding are something else altogether).
You gain an education so that you can be transported to new and wild worlds just by opening a book. Learn to LOVE to read, so that the words of the people who have figured out a thing or two themselves can bring you along with them on their journeys. Some of those authors, you’ll click with. Some of them you won’t, and you’ll slam the book down and roll your eyes and click on the TV. A little TV is fine. I’m not knocking you for wanting to know what’s going on with How I Met Your Mother. But it’s not giving your brain the workout that it needs. Words are intoxicating. Learn to love them. Stuck with lousy teachers right now? Good news — there are so many great ones. They’re at the library, any time you want to visit. (And — if you’re lucky, there are some good, flesh-and-blood teachers in your lives, too. Talk to them. The good ones will talk back. The really good ones will change your life.)
You gain an education so that you can vote intelligently. There are a lot of people yelling about politics, ALL THE TIME. On television, on the radio, on facebook, on twitter. I find it exhausting. It’s really, really hard to sort out the propaganda from the truth. When you can think critically enough to wade through the murk and ask the question, “What is it that I truly believe?,” you won’t believe how exhilarating it feels to discover what is important to you, and why.
You gain an education so you can understand people. Education can teach us to listen, really and truly listen, to what others are saying. It can open our eyes, not only to what our brains are doing on a chemical level (Brains are AWESOME! There is so much we still don’t know!) but also allow us to be better at figuring out what we feel, and how to think about our feelings. And if we are able to better articulate our own feelings, we are better able to understand what others are feeling, which is called empathy, and I’m sure you can guess why that might be a skill we might want to strengthen. (Hey, and did you know — a scientific study was just released that says that people who read literary fiction are actually strengthening their brain’s capacities for understanding empathy! You can actually train yourself to be a better friend, sister, daughter, mother, wife, — all while you thought you were just doing your English homework!)
You gain an education so that you can talk to people. Not just about the world immediately around you — though that stuff is present, and important, and occupies most of our time. But the world is bigger than you, or me, and being able to think critically about it and talk about the world around us is fascinating. Plus, you’ll be way more fun at parties.
You gain an education because we are tiny humans on this planet. We are incredibly and beautifully complicated creatures, and it could take a lifetime to figure ourselves out, and we’ll still never get there. The world around us is incredibly complicated, and it will take a lifetime to try and figure it out, and we’ll still never get there.
But the world, and you, will feel richer for trying.
Your teachers don’t know everything. But they know a little something. And they’re probably learning from you. Especially if you ask them “why?” every now and again.
Learn from them. Ask questions. Ask “Why?” You’ll be glad you did. Wherever you end up. Whatever choices you make.