Monday, July 25, 2011

A Very High Dinner

An intimate and formal dinner for 360 students, and a handful of masters.

All in their gowns, some, like me, borrowed for the evening as my gold edged bright red gown with a beefeater hat was in a storage unit in La Mesa. I have attended a few of these ceremonies before as a graduate in England. The last one, I am happy to tell anyone who would listen, ended up with the young female vicar telling stories of past misdeeds. The port passing slowly as everyone was enjoying sharing their seemingly illicit taste of honesty. Stories that proved common, despite our attempt to preserve their uniqueness in our memory, until that day.

This was to be another kind of an affair. The din of reverberating voices was ear shattering and a harbinger that this will not be a quiet passing of the port event.

Up on the high table were the top GPA students. Normally the high table is the exclusive domain of the masters. But here at Ormond they are more egalitarian and they invited the top students to join the masters. I was flanked by four such students, Mathew and Iliza on my left--my bad ear--and Elisa and Brad on my right. Average age 19, not including me in the algorithm.

By shouting questions across the table we developed a rudimentary method of communicating. I was interesting in the surreal nature of this evening. Everyone in their finery, like how I would visualize an 18th century European court. Bow ties for the men and frilly shiny dresses for the women. Followed (or preceded) by cleavage and strutting.

Do you feel privileged?

That is what I asked and they all said YES. It is important at a school that costs $48,000 a year to feel that you are privileged and unique and special. And such occasions make you appreciate that fact. I kept thinking about what happens back home, in the United States. We even stopped having snacks after graduation to save $500. By stopping such rituals we are explicitly saying to students "You are not worth it." So it is right that these students feel special because we make the effort to make them feel that way. It is something that will carry them throughout their career. The feeling that someone invested more than money to make their academic passage important. Back at SDSU we rarely acknowledge the students while they are with us.

But that is not the question that made me sit at my desk to write this entry. What made me ponder, and discuss with my small goup of colleagues, throughout this week was the response to my second question. And it is one that originated with me when Obama was elected president of the United States three years ago, and one that I have been waiting for answer since then. And that is that I thought (and wrongly predicted) that racial issues will be openly discussed. So I asked this question to my dinner neighbors.

Do you discuss race, are you aware of it?

And the answer I got was not what I expected (again.) Enough so that I asked each of my four neighbors the same question separately with the hope that I will get a more textured answer. But no. The answer was monotonously consistent. Race is not discussed and it is not an issue.

It took me a few days to combine the two questions together. It seems that feeling privileged allows you to view other people as unique and speical as you. To look beyond the obvious. Ofcourse race is not an issue when you feel that you--and your colleagues--are so lucky to be here. Regardless of background, race or gender. The feeling that all of you are beyond common evaluation. So I dwell on this for a few days, and ofcourse the next minute I think about the obverse. What if you feel that you are not unique, that you are unappreciated, degraded. Is that what causes us to derogate others? That is another question. But it might be an answer to the questions I have been asking.

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