September 24, 2020

WILK | Breakup With a Small Town

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Coming to college made me conscious of the problem of having an introduction prone to misinterpretation. Every “where do you live” since my first introduction to my freshman year roommate has made me wonder if my graceless attempts to illustrate the distinct small town-ness of where I was raised give people an entirely wrong impression.

I grew up in an oxymoron. Rural New York is a descriptor so pitted against itself that it almost cancels out, diffusing into a vast Middle of Nowhere that disappears off mental maps when you’re tasked with telling someone where you’re from and where that is. My jumbled words between ‘um’s’ and ‘have you heard of’s’ could never capture the character of my piece of upstate in an icebreaker-friendly time crunch, so what follows is a hunch that feels like an itch that strangers walk away thinking of charming shots of green and hay from Hallmark movies instead of the slightly less magical reality I knew.

It was a reality dominated by six-hour days in a single-floor brick building on Pancake Hollow Road, a winding double-yellow-lined path that separated the school’s badly paved parking lot from the dirt one that belonged to Wilklow Orchards. Until the end of the July after my senior year, when I procrastinated packing a suitcase for a week-long stay at Cornell’s campus for a first-generation student program. Even though I received an invitation for the much longer PreFreshman Summer Program, which, like mine, seemed exclusively inclusive of students of color who came from backgrounds that might require a more rigorous, guided, hands-on transition into college.

My conflictedly homesick head tried to grapple with the way these college-mandated, college-prep getaways did what they did. The thoughts turned over like a tide in my mind throughout the week, murky waves mixed with indebted gratitude and an anxiety with a monstrous appetite, which they gave a special name to — ‘imposter syndrome.’ I was already learning, observing, like an outsider, the way this institution continually assured us we belonged here all while singling us out by identities they decided quite literally didn’t belong on campus without some tweaking.

Since that first walk up the slope, to take a helpful though insecurity-inducing summer writing workshop sponsored by the Knight Institute, the view from the ivory tower has been enlightening. Cornell offered me distance, in a bird’s-eye-view kind of way, that makes reflecting on the prologue to university like watching myself trapped inside a snow globe. I could see, all at once, the flats of farms and the hills of apple orchards, the aged, 80s charm of the Gateway Diner and the backroads and potholes in between that kept everything together — there wasn’t much new to take in, but anything there was could no longer hide. My snowglobe was a world isolated inside a world, but instead of icy crystals raining down when I shook things up, I was met with dirty puffs from the exhausts of pick-up trucks and confederate flag memorabilia.

All the out-of-place, out-of-time details about my hometown might actually be very charming if it weren’t for the stinging intolerance that they carry; a chronic disease of that old country conservatism. My change in perspective has made returns on breaks uncanny: Rooms and stretches of pavement look different, filled with feelings I didn’t know I noticed before. But this summer made years of uncanniness stir, settle and stir again, demanding confrontation. Glances and dry inside jokes traded between the “diverse” students snuck off school grounds and turned into texted conversations, which turned into full-fledged google form testimonials about the experiences of students of color, which then stood across linoleum tile and bled out their truths and anti-racist urges in front of a school board who were six feet and shades away from those whom the grievances came.

Distance showed me how different home looked. It made me wonder how I let memories that ranged from microaggressions to teachers espousing Nazi-like rhetoric slip into the center of my numb little head and stay stuck there, forming a repression tootsie-pop. While writing and reading the racism-drenched testimonials that would be presented to the school board, my sister and I laughed deliriously with each new, confusing, painful memory that resurfaced and brought to light how diffuse ‘the problem’ was.

Although the problem might be more obvious when it’s wrapped in Confederate flag and camo getups, it doesn’t take events like Back the Blue rallies to sense it here. It arises on this campus in ways that are most often more covert than my public high school’s testimonials but is also buried in admissions with a legacy and magnitude that no testimony could communicate. Higher education has a funny method of hiding its problems with the very acknowledgement that they exist.So when I’m sent to breakout rooms and burdened with answering questions like how my zip code defines my identity, words get minced, testimonials get left out and I hope that the quality of my webcam obscures a blankness in my stare as I wonder how current students turned alumnus will choose to chop up and serve bite-sized versions of their own complex histories at this university and if experiences here, too, will be prone to misinterpretation.

Alecia Wilk is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at awilk@cornellsun.com. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Friday this semester.