UWC Reflections, Part II
The good things
Note: If you don’t know what the UWC movement is, I’d recommend that you read Point 1 under “UWC Reflections, Part I.”
1. An unorthodox kind of nationhood
As a Canadian, I was often accused over my two years at Pearson of not having a real national identity. The worst part about this accusation is that it’s mostly true. Canada is beautiful in its multiculturalism and liberal political flexibility, but also somewhat hollow. It’s difficult to find a ritual, or song, or food that resonates with everyone equally. Most of us are deeply detached from Indigenous traditions that once defined the land we live on. I’m technically a second-generation immigrant, but in a vaguely fraudulent sense — my Hindi is mostly incomprehensible, and I have a regrettably tense relationship with our local pandit-ji (think Hindu priest) due to my Obnoxious Childhood God-Hating, Sam Harris-Loving, Atheist Phase.
At times, Pearson made me long for the depth and richness that my peers had experienced in their home countries. Some cultural expression is entertaining — we were all on campus for the FIFA World Cup, and I watched my peers wake up at 5am to throw on their jerseys, huddle in the living room, and shout unintelligible words into a screen. Other times, culture is difficult. On Nakba Day,1 Israeli and Arab students exchanged heated campus-wide emails about the history of Palestinian displacement. But the best types of cultural memory seem irreplaceably precious — a friend recalled to me the experience of living on land that had been passed down through dozens of generations, of walking through the same fields and graveyards as their grandmother’s grandmother.
There’s a common thread here. Outside the soulless concrete hellscape of the average North American city,2 lots of people continue to possess something the West has mostly erased from our political memory: a collective identity strong enough to motivate sacrifice or disagreement, and the ability to see oneself as part of something larger.
1.1. My jealousy subsided about a year in — because as much as Pearson made me see the gap in my life, it also filled it. The College feels like a small nation in many ways. It’s small and isolated. There were a little over 200 of us, living 40 minutes away from the nearest store and almost three hours by public transit from the nearest city. Within our little settlement, we ate together, and shared clothes, and on the last day, we put all our blankets on somebody’s bedroom floor and napped together too.
And like every other nation of substance, we believed that there was something unique in what we imagined, experienced, and created together. You can view the identity of the school in its official ideological terms — some students, more than others, internalised the unceasing motto of “peace and a sustainable future,” which is admirable in its own way. But I think I saw our collective identity in more mundane things — in stargazing; socks and sandals in the rain; cereal with honey; random black bear appearances; Zonta blankets;3 frequent trespassing; and a truly astonishing amount of noodles. We combined the copy-pasted cultural traditions of other countries with a good portion of our own weirdness, and ended up with something worthwhile.
2. Culture as a deliberate construction
My most precious possession is an A4 manila envelope. Inside it is a stack of notes and letters from my fellow Pearsonites — some of them on notebook pages, one of them on origami paper, and one, oddly on the back of a napkin. At the end of every year, Pearson administration hangs up an envelope for each student on a large wall, and encourages students to leave each other messages of gratitude for the two years they spent together.
The tradition is followed religiously by most students. If you walk around campus at any point in the last week, you’ll spot maybe a dozen kids sitting in the sun and scribbling thoughtfully into their notebooks. It’s not just the usual suspects, either. The artsy English literature people with cool notebooks are probably the most enthusiastic, but the basketballers and cyborg chemistry nerds and various other heathens do it too. On the buses and trains and planes home, people begin to sift through their envelopes. They rewind to and experience their two years again — this time through the eyes of people who love them. (If you ever take a flight out of British Columbia in late May, and have a very ethnic-looking student start sobbing uncontrollably into an envelope nearby you, this may be why.)
What strikes me about the letters is that they’re mostly a product of institutional action. I don’t know exactly how the tradition started, but presumably some teacher put up a bunch of envelopes one year, and kids decided to give it a shot, and over time it grew into something larger. If the envelopes had never been put up, a few people would’ve still written notes — but probably not with the same commitment and sense of importance.
This applies to many of Pearson’s cultural quirks. Faculty are encouraged to sit among students in the dining hall, and get to know them personally; this helps create a culture that is less hierarchical and more horizontal. Students work in the kitchen for at least 15 meals each year; this helps generate more gratitude for and connection with cafeteria staff. These examples suggest that culture can be cultivated and facilitated by those with authority. We can’t force people to interact with more kindness or authenticity or camaraderie, but we can coax them along.
2.1. I think society understates the possibility of deliberately constructing culture. We speak about norms and traditions as elusive, mythological things. “Culture is like the wind,” says the top search result, if you Google ways to change culture. “It is invisible, yet its effect can be seen and felt.” Many schools follow a similar line of thought. They will intervene in dire situations of bullying, or put up vague posters to ‘spread awareness,’ but are reluctant to cultivate positive behaviour more energetically or unconventionally. Maybe this can be attributed to a lack of inertia, or maybe they too fall victim to the ‘culture is wind’ fallacy: the belief that norms are inevitable, organic, immutable.
I wonder what the average school could look like if they overcame these inhibitions — if every administrator adopted letter-writing, aggressively jumbled cafeteria seating, enslaved their students in the cafeteria, and came up with their own wacky plots. It won’t work 100% of the time. Not every teenager will want to write 30 gratitude letters. But over time, I think we have an opportunity to construct more kind and compassionate communities.
3. Moving on
There’s a scene in Everything, Everywhere, All At Once that I think about often. It’s near the beginning of the movie, when the main character, Evelyn, goes into an elevator and wears a headset that takes her into a series of flashbacks. We watch a montage of key moments from her life — when she’s born, when she likes a boy in her class, when she moves to the U.S. with him, when she starts a washing machine business, when she gets into a fight with her daughter, and so on. It’s a distilled, evocative way of giving the audience a window into her past.
Lately, my mind has felt a little similar, for reasons that are not precisely clear. I don’t have flashbacks, of course, but I guess I’m a little less tethered to the present than usual; memories flow through my brain with less viscosity. I went biking past my old daycare, and my thoughts wandered into a cache of childhood memories I didn’t even know existed — eating bananas chopped into slices, putting five beaded necklaces on at the same time, sitting in a stroller looking out onto the world. Sometimes the reminiscence starts from something more random. The feeling of sun on my shoulders will bring back lazy evenings on the Pearson docks; sunbathing on the island in the centre of Matheson Lake; the bright mornings when our English class sat in the field and had leisurely arguments about the Chinese graphic novel that none of us read. It’s a light form of nostalgia: one that isn’t overpowering, or negative, or positive, but just bittersweet and occasionally more visceral than expected.
3.1. When you move on from most stages of life, there’s a comfortable, collective delusion that you’ll stay in contact with the people you leave behind. It wouldn’t be hard at all, most of the time. Maybe you still live in the same city, or they’ll be back for the summer next year. Over time, life gradually disabuses you of these delusions. I’ve made plans with a total of seven people from my previous high school in the past two years, and while I’m on the introverted side, I suspect a lot of people aren’t doing much better. The gradual withering of relationships isn’t even particularly upsetting, because people drop out of contact at roughly the same rate that you stop thinking about the place you left.
Leaving Pearson is different. People scatter to far ends of the Earth after leaving — back to 90 or so countries, to jobs and gap years and various colleges and sometimes mandatory military service. I probably won’t see around half of my graduating class ever again, being generous. Some people will eventually accumulate in nearby places, but I think there’s an unspoken acknowledgment that things won’t ever be the same — that so much of what we experienced was specific to the time and place, and the fact that 200 of us were all together. The loss feels much sharper.4 It lacks the insulation of hypothetical friendship: the knowledge that I could walk a few blocks and see the girl I sat next to in Grade 7 math, even if I never will.
And to be honest, I sometimes wonder whether humans were meant to live like this. In the tribe,5 I don’t think we would’ve hopped around from one community to another. Social groups would have been more permanently fixed, and when the village moved, it would move together. (I have a vague mental picture of a nomadic hunter-gatherer community that operates a bit like a travelling circus, but there’s about a 50% chance that I am factually wrong about how early human civilisation worked. Please correct me if so.) Something about transition feels not just unpleasant, but also somewhat unnatural.
The one good thing about impermanence is that it pushes us to cherish what we have while it’s happening. Andy says in The Office: “I wish there was a way to know you're in ‘the good old days,’ before you've actually left them,” and for the last two years, I think most of us did know. We talked about leaving often, and most of us made choices that acknowledged the finite nature of our experience together. We kayaked, learned Ukrainian dance, drank tea, went hammock camping. We accidentally wore a traditional Bolivian cultural costume on stage in front of 200 people while hosting a school-wide trivia night, and then got in mild disciplinary trouble — not for wearing the Bolivian outfit but for failing to consult the Calendar Committee on the timing of the trivia night. (Some of these decisions are more universal than others.) It’s rare to look back on a period of time and believe that you used most of your time wisely.
3.2. My time at Pearson ended at the same place it started — in the run-down gravel parking lot near the forest. We said our goodbyes there as people boarded school buses to the airport and ferry terminal, and produced enough tears to fill a medium-sized kitchen sink. As we headed up the winding roads out of Pearson, my bus was mostly silent. We pressed our heads against the windows to soak up the final images from two years. Eventually, the bus emerged from the forest. We turned our gaze to other things.
Nakba Day commemorates the Nakba (also known as the Palestinian Catastrophe), in which more than 700 000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes. You can read more here.
‘Average’ is an operative word here. I acknowledge there are pockets of urban North America which have resisted the erosion of culture. Good things are happening in Mexico, for example.
Zonta International is a nonprofit started in 1919 which works to advance women and girls’ rights globally. They have projects to end child marriage, improve education of girls, combat human trafficking, and to provide each student at Pearson College with a colourful hand-knitted blanket. We’re deeply confused as to why we made the list, but are grateful nonetheless.
And yes, it is high school, and yes, I’ll meet new people in college, and a hundred other caveats. But two years is actually a really long time for someone my age. It took me until at least age 10 to develop a coherent sense of identity, and there have only been eight years since then. So Pearson represents around a quarter of my relevant life experiences.
By “the tribe,” I am referring amorphously to early human civilisation. Credits to Max Williams for this crafty turn of phrase.