I thought things would be better when I got to college, but I was dead wrong. The very first night, everyone in my dorm gathered around to introduce ourselves, and in the middle of it, the Stanford Band—an entity notorious for their GOOFY ANTICS—broke in and swept us all up for the band run, an annual tradition where the incoming freshmen are expected to run through the campus at night, led by the Stanford Band, and sing along to juiced-up Mighty Mighty Bosstones songs. It was supposed to be an exhilarating, community-building, school-spirit-enhancing exercise, a major AREN’T YOU PUMPED TO BE ATTENDING STANFORD, but at the end of it, I just felt drained and disappointed. I had been looking forward to no longer feeling like a misanthrope and a misfit, but I just couldn’t get it up for all this enforced silliness. I felt the same way I did in high school: humorless, uptight, joyless.
I started to question my whole personality. Why didn’t I like football games, anyway? Why didn’t I want to paint my face the school colors? Why didn’t I want to join the others and fountain-hop across campus in the spring or go mudsliding after the first fall storm? I had no problem with other people wanting to do those things, I just didn’t want to be pressured to do them too.
But there were plenty of things I did like. There were, in fact, things I loved—it was just that the things I loved seemed so hard to explain to other people. I loved going to see Le Tigre perform in San Francisco and hearing Kathleen Hanna tell all the men in the audience to move to the sides and the back so that the women could be up front and dance without worrying about being groped or hit. I loved the first time someone recited a poem into my ear, while I was holding my dining tray piled high with pepperoni pizza and French onion soup. I loved wearing a long skirt with no underwear when I took the train to San Francisco with a boy I was crushing on and having a picnic in Dolores Park and purposely propping my legs on his knee, exposing my bush, because what was funnier than flashing your pubes at a cute boy? But the fact that I loved so many things just made it that much more frustrating that the things I hated were getting so much more play.
In March of my sophomore year, George W. Bush was on every television, explaining to the American people that we were going to invade Iraq. I was part of several anti-war email groups, and my inbox was quickly flooded with planning and strategizing emails for an anti-war protest and teach-in. I was trying to read Absalom, Absolom! for my Faulkner class, but my brain kept saying, Who cares? We’re dropping bombs on civilians in the name of democracy and nothing makes sense. Meanwhile, every time I looked at my inbox, there were another 50 emails. With each one, the list of professors, student leaders, and community members volunteering to give speeches and lead workshops kept growing, and students from all the progressive organizations on campus were coming together, soliciting and offering help. I watched with equal parts awe and envy as this massive campus-wide protest was organized over the course of a single night.
This kind of cooperation represented everything I was not. My lifelong commitment to my own individuality had made me incapable of being part of something bigger than myself. I clearly saw what I had missed out on by being so focused on myself and my own significance—two things I was so sick of thinking about.
At the rally, I was moved to tears by the professors and students and activists who spoke with amazing clarity and urgency. I remember one professor pointing out that, almost without fail, every time oil was discovered in a Middle Eastern country, it led not to economic growth and prosperity, but to increased corruption, poverty, and inequality, and more conflict and war. I stood in the same spot for hours, sweaty and transfixed, and at that moment my own life seemed very small. Why had I spent so many years dwelling in fear and outrage, when it was now so obvious to me that the only life worth living was one in which I strove to follow the example of human compassion playing out before me? There was too much injustice in the world to waste time judging everyone else. I felt a real affinity and tenderness for everyone at the rally, which was the first time I’d ever felt anything other than horror and disgust while engulfed in an organized group of people. Every now and again I’d catch someone’s eye, and we’d nod at each other as if to say, “Thank you for being an ally.” I guess that is what activists mean when they talk about solidarity and why they refer to one another as sisters and brothers in the struggle.