Commentary: Have We Ever Spoken Before?

How many people on this campus do you really know?

An Upper in my dorm was filling out an application in which she was asked to define our school community. She didn’t quite know how to, but she insisted on the existence of a “common Andover identity.” This struck me because, honestly, I spend a lot of my time here thinking about division: between my friend and that Senior she thinks is cool, or me and that group of guys, or tables in Paresky Commons separated almost completely by race or class or gender. She, on the other hand, talked about the unity she feels: what it’s like to cheer at a Blue Key Head audition or run into another Andover student at a college tour. Even if you’ve never hung out, you share a connection.

And yeah, I get that. There’s something really wonderful and nostalgic about that one warm day in Winter Term when everyone looks happy and we start to forget about our worries, or the collective admiration we have for particularly detailed face paint jobs on Andover/Exeter Weekend. But why are these moments our permission to relate with one another? Why do we need to be up against another school to feel like we represent a team?

I know it’s idealistic and unreasonable to expect sudden closeness in the entire student body, but I just feel as though we miss our opportunities to get to know each other. I can still remember, at my first common room meeting in Nathan Hale House last year, observing where we had all chosen to sit. I imagined bold lines dividing us, coincidentally — or not coincidentally? — by phenotype. That was only week one, but it felt like we had all already taken our respective places just by sitting on either side of that line in the common room.

The formation of separate friend groups is inevitable, but what strikes me is that the number of honest conversations I’ve had with girls from “the other side” totals to something like zero. Why? People will say it’s just the high school experience or that it’s human nature to seek out people we relate to, which is valid. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel as though we waste this school’s potential every time we choose comfort over challenge. “Youth from Every Quarter” and “Intentional Diversity” could be so much more if they meant as much to the students as they do to the administration.

I’ve started doing an on-the-side personal project where I ask random people, mostly in Paresky Commons, for 15-minute conversations. I have a list of vague questions to prompt us: Do you consider yourself average? What do people first think when they meet you? What are you tired of? Frankly, asking strangers anything at all is daunting, but the conversations themselves are incredibly fulfilling. Skipping the small talk allows me to understand people better in 15 minutes than I would in over a year of repetitive, polite exchanges.

I did get my first rejection last week, though. I approached someone at a corner table in Upper Right, gave my whole spiel on meeting new people, and got an “Ehhh… I’d rather not” in return. It made me wonder if the issue of community divisions is all in my head. And, in all honesty, my starting 15-minute conversations isn’t a random system — I’ve only ever approached people sitting alone, the majority of whom are other females. I don’t want to impose these conversations on people who are already comfortable where they are, but then again, someone else’s comfort level isn’t always discernible. I can’t tell who else is daydreaming in Silent Study or who else wants to talk to strangers for a refreshing departure from the day-to-day. I don’t know if I’m the only one who gets this occasional weird feeling: not loneliness, because I love my friends, but something more akin to feeling stuck in an unchanging social routine.

I wish I could offer a definite solution to this problem, but instead I’m full of unanswered questions. What if, Junior Year, I had been more willing to seek commonalities with people on “the other side?” Or if I had refused to pick a side at all? Ultimately, what’s stopping me from overcoming the divisions I notice — if they even can be overcome?

Division isn’t a problem unique to Andover; it’s a universal one. And yet, I think we could come closer to fulfilling our school’s ideals if each of us tried to be more open-minded, less confined to one group, and less intimidated by those we have yet to understand. As for me, I’m pledging to continue asking for 15-minute conversations in the hopes that every person I talk to feels even slightly more connected to this community.

Maybe it’s not a common Andover identity I’m looking for, but a common human one. If this is something you’re also looking for, ask me for a 15-minute respite from the ordinary whenever you see me around — it might just bring us closer to the answer.