Learning to Listen

In a few days, I will be graduating. After my last days of finals, a memorable night in Boston with my prom buddies, the fancy graduation celebrations leading up to Commencement and finally the diploma circle, my days as a high school student will come to a close. I will be heading out to start a new chapter of my life in the upcoming fall.

I should be glad, right? Yet at the moment, I feel reminiscent and nervous, probably since I will be saying so many goodbyes. I was in love with Andover, and this inevitable breakup will be hard to get over. From my first day here, because I knew that I would be leaving in three years, I was determined to make the most out of the time I had. So, if I were to write an 800-word Commentary Reflection about my time at Andover, it would surely take no more than a few hours and edits — right?

Nevertheless, this might have been one of the hardest writing assignments I have undertaken here. Not because I feel pressured to make a glorified piece about my trials and tribulations as a insecure high school student, rising up to take over the school and leave an impeccable legacy. I have nothing of that sort. Instead, I am having difficulty fleshing out this piece because I do not know how I feel about my Andover experience anymore.

I can tell you right now that, if I were offered to do Andover again, I would say yes without a moment of hesitation. In fact, if I had the chance, I would want to do four years instead of three. When I first arrived campus as a new international student, I remember thinking, “People are crazy here” — in a good way, of course. The sheer energy and enthusiasm that students and faculty had for this community, for academic excellence, for passion and for goodness, were overwhelming. It was daunting at first, but undeniably exciting, and I leaped right in. Even as a wide-eyed new Lower, I could already see myself as an Upper and Senior at this school, contributing to and leading the community the same way my older peers did. By being part of this high-paced life, not only was I going to fit in, but by excelling in those areas, I was going to be a successful Andover student.

Andover handed me a slew of new experiences that pushed me beyond my limits: it was experiencing of bettering myself, engaging with opportunities and exercising my talents and voice. I tried out for the Yorkies, the all-boys a capella group: “Fun” is the nice way of putting my traumatic experience of serenading a girl in public right after coming straight from an all-boys school. Despite taking German for the first time, the support and passion of the German department inspired me to take a language program in Germany by myself the following summer. I remember my first B in math and my first kiss in Steinbach. I spent sleepless nights hammering out essays, editing videos and blocking plays: sharpening the tools I have as an intellect, artist and visionary. I fought hard in Philo, determined to win every parliamentary-style argument and make it to Senior Board. I discovered another community called Pine Knoll, which will always remain my second home long after I graduate.

During these three years, I have learned the language and built the confidence to speak about my ideas and beliefs, in the classroom and among my peers. I found life-long friends who I am dearly indebted to for challenging and supporting me throughout the years, crying and laughing together on the journey. I have also discovered true compassion and love — qualities I still often take for granted.

So why do I feel like something is amiss? Like I missed out on something?

My three years at Andover have been characterized by dialogue and discourse. When the Feminism movement swept across campus last spring, it ensured that I would never look at anything in the same way again, but I suppose it was only recently that I really started listening. In the past months, I have heard students — most of them my own respected friends and role models — talk about their Andover experiences within the context of their identity with respect to race, sexuality or socioeconomic background.

When the opportunity presented itself, like always, I was excited, eager to contribute, help and lead. But this time, I suddenly realized that I lacked the language and personal experience to contribute. I only had the option to listen. Despite those three years of hard work, fun, passion — whatever you want to call it — I didn’t know how to apply my time at Andover to my own identity. In fact, I realized I lacked a developed sense of identity because I had consistently avoided the difficult conversations about the different upbringing I had had as an individual before this community. No matter how diverse and welcoming Andover was, from the beginning, I was searching for a default “Andover experience” in which I could succeed. And that mold of “success” I found my Lower year did not have room for hard and often painful conversations — conversations I wish I could partake in more thoroughly now.

There is no default “Andover experience,” and as I prepare myself to leave Andover Hill, I realize that my primary regret is that I refused to challenge myself here. I am not talking about trying out for the Yorkies, taking six courses every term or building a perfect resumé for the college of your choice. Those were tasks I never shied away from. Instead, I am talking about things beyond Andover, beyond our accepted definitions of success and excellence; I am talking about acknowledging the racial, sexual and socioeconomic differences between us and not just accepting the diversity of our student body as a given.

Too often at Andover, we turn a blind eye to microaggressions that happen within dorm rooms and classrooms, between students and even teachers. We hold our arguments about race or gender by compartmentalizing the personal experiences and the political, when we should be striving to create a space for patient listening and understanding. People like myself, who are so focused on improving my parliamentary debate skills or making friends, feel afraid to talk about how my differences of experience because of our sexuality and race — and only through teaching its students to listen can Andover truly change that.

Because when I did not know how to listen or when I deliberately avoided conversations that try to understand how it’s like to be in other people’s shoes, how could I say that I was being truly “non sibi?” Even until the end, Andover never ceases to challenge me. I just wish I had recognized Andover’s true challenges earlier. Maybe then would I have had something more profound to offer today.

_Ben Yi is a three-year Senior from Seoul, South Korea, and the Pine Knoll Cluster President._