November 12, 2015

WEISSMANN | My Twenty Percent

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By RUTH WEISSMANN

A few days ago, at a lecture series on campus, the speaker told us that school is twenty percent what you learn from classes and eighty percent what you learn from everything else, from the very act of being a twenty-something on a college campus joining clubs, battling vindictive landlords, leading volunteer work and attempting time management. Upon reflection, here is my twenty percent.

Everyone in our creative writing class had to do a portfolio that would get critiqued by the rest of us, torn up, gnawed to the bare bones of their work. It’s a unique form of torture, the veritable hell that is workshop, in which your classmates point out design flaws in the name of a participation grade. But writing is interpretive; they’re allowed to hate the things you love. For that matter, life is interpretive. Remember that you don’t know the backstory on nearly anybody, and that a judgment made in a second is an enemy made for a lifetime.

In my introductory business class, the professor favored certain students in no discernable pattern. It was as if I would still fall just below the curve, no matter how many days I sat in office hours or nights I stayed up studying. There are always going to be people who win out over you for no good reason. The brave thing to do, upon defeat, is to keep going. It’s easy to bail out on a class after a poor grade, to disappear in the face of what looks like a fool’s errand. I was never going to be one of the favored students, but the real credit was in continuing to show up.

The genetics class was held early in the morning, so most of what the professor said barely registered. Look to your left, he said, look to your right. There are 30 million differences between your DNA and any stranger. The girl to my right had a neck so impossibly elongated that the others in our row appeared as if their heads were sinking into their chest. Binding Giraffe Neck and I together were the same thousands of strands of A, G, T, C repeated into eternity. Put us under a microscope, and everybody is the same.

In my psychology class I was one of the teaching assistants, and people would inquire as to how I got to a position of leadership. The truth was, I had simply asked — sent the professor an email asking if spots were available. Often, merely asking for a chance will grant you one. Until you come to the end result of something, you will never know if it’s a bad idea or a good one. It’s okay to consider yourself important enough to go after something. No battles are won by waiting for polished armor, and many are lost by watching from beside the arena.

The point of the education course wasn’t to memorize definitions, it was to learn about the problems that different cultural groups faced. I heard people talk about struggles I didn’t think were real. Like exaggerated headlines or overused phrases, I thought we were hunting hyperbole. There might be issues in the world that you don’t see because they don’t touch you personally, and that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. Yes, sometimes the big issues are screamed from the headlines, marched across campuses and plastered on bumper stickers. But do not mistake noise for importance. Often, good work is quieter because the people doing good work are humbler. That which is right does not have to be loud.

I was doing well in the statistics class; he wasn’t. There were two big prelims, and he had nearly failed both of them. When the final rolled around, we met in the library and studied until the numbers looked like letters. Two years later, he came over to fix my smoke alarm. It doesn’t matter what level of success you have attained — always be willing to offer your knowledge. There is no use in climbing the ladder if you don’t help others up behind you.

A few days ago, at a lecture series on campus, the speaker finished his lecture by telling us that college is a buffet, and you don’t leave a buffet hungry. Twenty percent isn’t a whole lot, but it isn’t nothing. In the end, it doesn’t matter what your GPA was, or what lecture you might have skipped because just once, you wanted a full night’s sleep. It doesn’t matter what you got on that prelim. What matters is that you identify what the real lesson was.

Ruth Weissmann is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at raw287@cornell.edu. A Word to the Weiss appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

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