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Aliza Polkes

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An Education

Posted: 02/27/2012 9:00 pm

I'm a sophomore at Columbia University, and last week, I cut a class.

This was a decision that left me almost physically paralyzed with guilt for about an hour after I had chosen to cut. I had done the homework. I was prepared. And yet, two minutes before the seminar was scheduled to begin, instead of walking up campus, towards the stuffy little room where I sit and scan Shakespeare's sonnets and Milton's Paradise Lost for two hours every Thursday, I headed south with two friends. As we padded down Broadway, I prattled on energetically, trying to distract my brain from fully facing the enormity of what I had just done. I could literally feel the paranoia, that my teacher, my parents, and probably God, were somehow watching me, welling in my gut.

And then I got over it.

I spent the rest of the afternoon helping one of my friends work on translating her screenplay from Italian into English, a task which left me mentally exhausted, but at the same time, incredibly intellectually satiated. My day culminated in a Japanese restaurant, where I ate sushi with an Italian friend, her Romanian roommate, and a Lebanese man, who had coincidentally spent part of his childhood in the town right next to mine.

So what's the point?

If I had gone to class, I wouldn't have had this experience.

But let me backtrack for a moment.

I grew up defined by the letter "A". It was how I calculated my self worth. It was how I could prove to myself that my parents loved me, that I measured up, that there was something, somehow, more important than the daily trials of my gawky adolescence. It was how my teachers affirmed that I was a good student, that I was "smart," that I was being "educated." It was a letter which, if I could achieve in middle school, would take me into the advanced and AP classes in high school, which would then, with a good deal of SAT prep, lead me into a prestigious university. Which would then lead to where, exactly, I didn't know. The point was just getting there, wherever there was.

This is all part of the track I've been on, since I was born, in which one needs "A"s in order to advance to the next stage of life. Throughout my childhood, I have sobbed, pleaded, panicked, and driven myself near to the point of insanity over the letter "A". When I first arrived at Columbia, it seemed as though making "A"s was just going to be the logical next step in my education. Of course this insane process was going to continue, because making "A"s was all it had ever been about. The classroom, the textbook, the essay due next Monday, the vocabulary quiz on Tuesday. My life had revolved, almost entirely, around school. Which is why, for me, the notion of cutting a class, until this year, would have been akin to someone suggesting I cut off my arm.

So where does this stop, this endless quest for the "A"? Will making straight "A"s throughout my years at Columbia lead me to whatever next step on the track that has heretofore been my life? Does an "A" now lead to a perfect life later on? It's taken me a while to be able to see this, but, no, I don't think so.

One of the most amazing aspects of being a student at Columbia, which I'm finally beginning to realize, is the boundless resources I have at my disposal; resources which I can use to educate myself without textbooks, and without grades. The happiness that the letter "A" provides, I can say from years of experience, is, at most, frightfully temporal. The fulfillment that venturing off on your own, into a city which has everything to teach you, if only you can leave the classroom and let it, is magical. There is no need to continue living in shades of gray, when, all around the textbooks and study guides, the world is being projected in Technicolor. Getting a glimpse has brought me more satisfaction that an "A" grade ever could.

So what am I suggesting here: that we should all stop going to class, and make straight "F"s? Of course not. The academics at Columbia are impressive -- I know that. But so is the education I can give myself, when I embrace the world that exists outside the four walls of my classroom. When I remember that at the end of the day, the letter "A" is precisely that: a letter.