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From Silver to Gold Lining; From Comparative to True Gratitude

“Optimism,” said Cacambo, “What is that?” “Alas!” replied Candide, “It is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.” – Candide, Voltaire

Sometimes, there are really bad moments in life. And, while it is possible to learn from some of these experiences, and better ourselves through reflection, there are just some moments that are plain bad. There is nothing that one could learn from these moments that couldn’t be learned in a less harsh way. And, we would likely be better off without having to experience these moments whatsoever. Hard stop.

Yet, when speaking about these “bad moments” with many of my peers, I am often given the advice to find gratitude in the silver lining of these bad experiences. I hear variations of it could be worse after all and at least I didn’t have it as bad as someone else had it. Before becoming a Resident Assistant, I took these responses as unquestionably valid. Finding gratitude through comparison seemed beneficial. In difficult times, it is better to be grateful than to be upset, I figured.

However, in listening to some of my residents talk about their difficulties adjusting to Duke, I realized some of the flaws in the Comparative Gratitude mentality. For instance, many residents have recounted their issues with balancing time at Duke, but then quickly qualify their difficulties by saying something along the lines of but I know I don’t have it as bad as Person X (who more often than not is an engineer or pre-med), so I am grateful and I don’t really have much to complain about.

 My residents don’t recognize that by drawing this comparison they belittle and delegitimize their own polemic in a way that is unfair to their personal health and wellbeing. They use Comparative Gratitude as a means to rationalize a less than ideal situation. And, this logic persists outside balancing class time; it also enters into the field of personal relationships. Namely, in my role as a Resident Assistant, I have also had numerous conversations about unhealthy friendships and/or romantic relationships that make the person I am speaking with feel drained or insecure or the likes. Similar to the other conversations, I often hear justifications for remaining in these friendships/relationships along the lines of well it could be worse or I should be grateful for the good things that the other person gives me. These rationalizations search for the silver lining in preventable situations to justify the status quo and use fratitude as their masquerade for doing so.

 After reflecting on this, I concluded that Comparative Gratitude is often dangerously metamorphized into faulty rationalization of changeable reality. Finding the silver lining then becomes necessary to justify such an existence. Drawing these conclusions reminded me of Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide which, among other ethical concerns, points out much of these same flaws with Comparative Gratitude and optimism (see quotation above). What a troublesome ethical rabbit hole this logic puts people in!

This past week I was once again listening to one of my residents recount their background and how it has impacted their experiences at Duke. A similar foundation was set: difficulties at home played into difficulties adjusting to Duke which play into current stresses that my resident feels. My resident paused – something I wasn’t accustomed to – they then continued to say, but I have learned from my experiences that true gratitude is not saying ‘person X has it worse than I so I should be happy with my lot’ nor is true gratitude saying ‘well my situation is bad but I should be happy that it isn’t worse.’ Rather, true gratitude is looking at the situation and after trying to make the best of it, being grateful with whatever the resulting reality is (even if it is less than ideal) because at least you know you tried your best.

I sat there stunned. In these few seconds my resident became my advisor. My questions about gratitude and finding silver linings were concisely addressed. No longer would I search for gratitude through comparing my life with others, but rather search for gratitude in its true form: the form that originates from being truly content with whatever situation I find myself in. And, while this sometimes may still require finding the silver lining in tough times, it would require finding the silver lining only after trying to optimize my reality. So in this sense, I would be finding a truer silverlining (perhaps more of a gold lining, if I may).

Through True Gratitude, I can simultaneously be happy and look to improve my circumstances. I no longer need to succumb to the naïve optimism that Volatire’s Cacambo references. Rather, I can be a grateful optimist who continuously strives to better himself and the world around him. I hope that my resident continues to inspire people and share their wise insights with those around them. I know that I certainly will!

Sanctifying Time

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.” – Rabbi Abrham Joshua Heschel

One American and one Mexican twenty-something, both friends, wandered into a Tel Aviv pub at 9pm on a Thursday night to listen to adults share their stories about family… while this may sound like the beginning of a joke, it occurred this past summer and I was one of those twenty-somethings.

A person standing on stage that contains many clocks

We came to this small pub because we had heard that there was a storytelling event in which people would share 5-10 minute short stories about their families (with a particular focus on sibling relationships). My friend and I thought, what better way to end a day than to listen to people share their life experiences.

It was dark in the pub, with the only light being focused on the dimly lit makeshift stage that each storyteller would climb in preparation to share with the attentive crowd. I sat excitedly awaiting people to share their stories. First we heard about how a brother and sister lovingly played with each other’s stuffed animals as children. Then another storyteller shared how because of a marriage, he and his sibling had difficulties communicating in their adult live. A third storyteller told a story that emphasized how grateful he was for his parents roll in forging a relationship between his siblings. After this story, my friend whispered to me “you know Andrew, all of these stories are normal. There is nothing special or incredible about them. And, yet, I am still intrigued by them and I am glad to share this moment with you. Thank you for inviting me to come and listen…” My friend’s statement was the highlight of my night. I realized how incredible it is to turn typical moments into enjoyable memories. There is serenity in making the ordinary extraordinary. There is a special beauty to sanctifying time and space that is typically left mundane.

This semester at Duke has left me often reminding myself of what I learned that night. With my sui generis class schedule (many independent studies) and living on east campus as an RA, I am left with a lot of free time on my hands and not a lot of close friends that live nearby. I have been lucky to have had hours of free time each week, while most of my friends have had midterms and long homework assignments to complete. And, while I recognize that I much prefer my position than their’s, having this free time made me realize how difficult it is to fill. There is a pressure at Duke to always be productive. And, I think this pressure makes students (myself included) fear time spent in ways that are unproductive. Scratch that, our fear is more specific than unproductivity. We have a fear of time spent not on class work or clubs or job related items. And, this fear is rooted in the fact that many of us don’t know what we would do if we ever had a moment free of stress and work. I find myself working so that I can relax and relaxing so that I can work, because I don’t actually know how to relax, and I fear relaxation time and the loneliness that comes along with it when everyone else around me seems to be perpetually busy. And, this semester, I have faced the challenge of living with a significant amount of “unproductive, relaxed time.” Similar to the Tel Avivian storytellers, I have had to find a way to sanctify the mundane in a way that is authentic.

In search for this sanctity, I have re-taken up the piano after years of hiatus, I have started writing more, I call friends from home and family more often, and I have even starting reading for pleasure (a privilege I haven’t afforded myself in quiet sometime!). But for me, the best moments have been the ones sitting in a cafeteria or coffee shop, or dorm room saying thank you to myself and beginning to turn the world around me into a story, into a memory that I can smile about when I want to look back on it. I have begun asking myself what I would do if I never had to work again, and I realized that story making would be it. It is my way of sanctifying time. And, I encourage you to reflect on what your way is.

Omens and Tremping

“Learn to recognize omens, and follow them” -The Alchemist by Paulo Coleho

I found myself waiting on the side of the road with my two Israeli friends. It was hot, and I was incredibly confused. My friend stuck his thumb up and reached out into the road, seemingly awaiting a car to pass with a few empty seats. Then it clicked: we were about to hitchhike. And, all I could do was stand there quietly stunned with the shock of reality.

Twenty minutes earlier my two friends came into my room and convinced me to come “tremp to a nearby natural spring” with them. They had sliced watermelon (my favorite fruit) and cold drinks in their arms and smiled invitingly. At the time, neither my friends or I had any idea what “tremp” meant in English, but their encouraging smiles sparked my curiosity enough for me to agree to come along. For the entire summer I had been living by a motto one of my mentors recommended: “say yes, unless it is illegal.” And, by this particular point in the summer, that motto had already led to many incredible memories. Using this motto as a guide, I trusted my two friends enough to know that they wouldn’t tremp if it were illegal, so without inquiring further and opening a Pandora’s box of translation issues, I agreed to tag along. We began walking until we found ourselves on the side of a road basking in the Middle Eastern midday sun. There was no plan, no ride and no natural spring in sight. While my friends seemed fine, I was silently panicking.

Suddenly, my friend who was wishfully sticking out his thumb into the hot, dry air turned around and matter-of-factly exclaimed that “typically when I tremp there are only one or two open seats in the car, so we will likely need to separate.” For a brief moment, I felt my silent panic evolve into a shout of fear, frustration and utter shock. I had unknowingly agreed to go hitchhiking to a nearby spring that I now doubted even existed, and I was about to have to separate from my friends to travel with some stranger?! No way! I was about to crack, but I just barely managed to maintain my composure, irrationally trusting in the universe and believing that it would all work out.

Less than five minutes after my friend’s exclamation, a car passed by and seeing my friend’s thumb slowed down with its window open. A brief exchange in Hebrew between the driver and my friend resulted in my friend inviting us all into the car. Apparently, because my friend and the driver happened to be from the same small town in Israel, the driver was more than happy to take all three of us to the nearby natural spring. I thought what were the odds of that happening? It was nothing short of a miracle.

Yes!There are moments in life that the entire world seems to create the impossible. Our environment bends to our will and the path of least resistance merges with the path of purpose both sweeping us along for the ride. This was one of those moments. Paulo Coelho famously writes “when you truly want something, the entire universe conspires to help you.” This summer helped me appreciate what he meant.

I sat in the back of this stranger’s car still in shock and began reflecting on the motto that guided my summer and led me to my current circumstance: “say yes, unless it is illegal.” The first thought: this motto is incredibly risky! How could my mentor ever live like this! There are a lot of legal things, like tremping, that it may be much safer to say no to. But, I also realized this motto, despite its riskiness, had successfully led both my mentor and I to some of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences. I needed to further investigate how to balance risk with reward.

The car came to a halt and we exited, thanked the driver and began our trek on a small path enclosed by barbed wire on each side that, according to my friend, would lead to the natural spring. I recall this walk all too well, as all I had to distract from the heat were my thoughts about the motto. Say yes unless it is illegal is not just about risk, it is also about trust. Living by the motto places trust in the world to work things out requiring faith in what Coelho describes as the universe and an understanding of what he describes as omens. I began to wonder what some of the other omens were in my life and if I were listening to their messages.

My friends’ excited clamor woke me from my thoughts. I lifted my head and saw a beautiful small natural spring with birds and a few locals enjoying the fresh, cool water. I smiled the same smile that my friends had earlier that day. One friend turned around and whispered to me “this is what I call a victory.” He was right. It was a victory because I had followed my omens and they led me to this moment.

In this victorious moment, I made three promises to myself: 1. I would search more actively for omens in my life and follow them, 2. Save any extreme circumstances, I would never hitchhike or tremp again, and 3. Going forward, I would ask for more English translations!

Andrew in Wonderland

Everyone needs a metric to measure if they are overworking. Two weeks ago, I realized mine was when I don’t have time to enliven a lifesize cardboard cutout of Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter.

It was 12am and my two friends just entered my room on a Thursday night with beautiful weather that seduced overwhelmed and procrastinating students to come outside. We had a lot of energy, and none of us had any pressing deadlines coming up. Scratch that. We had a lot of energy, because none of us had any pressing deadlines. In fact, it was a small miracle that my friends and I could all find time to be together in the first place. This hangout night was in the pipeline for quite some time and finally it came to fruition, so we were going to make the best of it.

Inviting my friends into my dorm room, they immediately saw the large cardboard cutouts of Alice and Wonderland characters that I had scavenged from last week’s East Campus Council’s Alice and Wonderland themed party. I recounted how, earlier that week, my residents had appreciated going door to door pranking their Jarvis hallmates by knocking on a door and leaving only a super creepy life-size cutout of the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter or a giant mushroom to answer. Well enjoyed may not be the best word to use for everyone (particularly for the person who punched the Queen of Hearts), but for us (the ones doing the pranking) it certainly was.

Since that night, these cutouts resorted to their original lifelessness. They were Flat Stanleys waiting for the next energizing event to resurrect them. I described this to my two friends who consequentially, as if there were a string that attached the intangible ideas that lingered in the depths of our minds, simultaneously exclaimed “so, let’s bring them to life again.”

Our hangout night turned into a down-the-rabbit-hole adventure around East Campus. My two friends and I formed a sui generis mobile acting troupe in which I enacted the Mad Hatter cardboard cutout who was a loyal servant to the Queen of Hearts (played by another friend) who had recently lost her mushroom plant (played by the third friend). We crafted a skit together, quickly memorized our lines and prepared for the most spectacular piece of theatrical improvisation the world has ever seen.

Our first stop: Blackwell Common Room. We entered and found a few first years stressed and taking a break from what appeared to be mounds of work. Announcing our entrance with absolute seriousness, we performed our five-minute skit, all while seeing the audience’s smiles that warmly greeted our ridiculousness. The culture of overwork that permeated Blackwell dorm was lifted for those five minutes. Our performance played a role similar to that of a Harry Potter patronus fighting off the Dementor of overwork.

Through witnessing the smiles of our audience members, I recognized the true measurement to overwork: overworking is when I don’t have time to do ridiculous things with friends; when I don’t have time to make others happy. And, I also realized that although overworking has its time and place (it is inherently super productive), too much overwork overpowers wellbeing, and, once wellbeing is overpowered, authenticity becomes a concept only present in Wonderland. Perhaps one’s goal ought to be to find a little of their Wonderland each day, I figured.

After no less than two hours of performances, the Wonderland Acting Troupe retired, and the cardboard cutouts lied lifeless again on my dorm floor awaiting revival once again. My friends left, taking nothing with them except unforgettable memories. I was ready to go to bed satisfied, but I heard a knock on my door. Confused, I opened the door to find three residents eagerly asking to borrow the characters that lied flatly on my floor. Feeling immensely prideful for inspiring such hooliganry I eagerly handed them off on the condition that they update me on their successes…

Two weeks later, on my birthday, I received such updates.

I had invited friends to celebrate, and among these friends were the members of the Troupe and the recipients of the wonderful Wonderland cutouts. My Troupe friends and I were talking when a group of my residents carrying the cutouts facedown entered the celebration. They quickly amassed all of the attention in the room and announced themselves… I expected them to have prepared a skit of their own, but what they had actually done was far better.

Turning the cutouts around, everyone burst out laughing. My residents had taken pictures of my face (from when I had braces!) and fixated them on the cardboard cutout faces. They had one-upped my ridiculousness and fully embraced the value of a good laugh among a Duke Blue sea of seriousness.

From that point, these cutouts were eternally anthropomorphized into a living reminder of the value of a smile. We all need to make time to smile. And, to this day, these symbols look out of my Jarvis window reminding unsuspecting people passing by to not take life too seriously…

With the help of my friends and some cardboard, I have created my own little joyful Wonderland. It is a place that exists outside of the five senses. It can only be experienced with the sixth sense: a sense of humor. And what makes the sixth sense so beautiful is that it is enhanced by bringing others along. I have created a (not-exactly-Gothic) Wonderland and have shared it with friends, and through that sharing, I have enhanced my Wonderland.

Andrew in Wonderland

 

 

 

The Third Rule

Before I left for college, my grandfather gave me three rules to follow:

  1. Never fight over a woman (the right woman won’t let you fight over her)
  2. Don’t become brainwashed (don’t lose pragmatism among a sea of idealism), and
  3. When in Rome do as the Romans (don’t state your own opinion or identity if it’s different from the prevailing one; it’s not worth it, just blend in).

I repeated these rules to myself as my plane took off from the cool JFK airport and once again as it landed in humid RDU, making sure I wouldn’t forget. It has been a year and a half since I started my Duke journey. In that time, I managed to not fight over a woman and maintained an undying sense of pragmatism alongside an ever-growing idealism. But, although I tried, I couldn’t “be Roman,” sorry grandpa.

It’s not that I disregarded the third rule the moment my foot reached my freshman dorm, rather it was only within the past few months that I began to take off my figurative pileus[1] and reveal the figurative yarmulke[2] that always lied beneath…

No that’s not completely true. I never had the courage to willingly “take off” my pileus, knowing I’d be so many people’s “first Jew.” I didn’t want to be thought of as “one of those rich people who’s really good with money” (a stereotype that I had been associated with a surprising amount since revealing my Jewish identity at Duke). Rather, there was one moment at Duke that brought forth a “spirited wind” strong enough to “knock off” my pileus. And, since then, I have had the courage to not put the pileus back on.

It was a sunny afternoon when the news reached me and the Duke Jewish group chat exploded. First with questions, then with concerns and finally with pictures of the huge, blood-red swastika that desecrated the gold colored mural we had painted commemorating those who were murdered during the Pittsburgh shooting weeks before. Robert Frost famously wrote “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” In this moment, I understood what he meant. The beauty that was so delicately crafted was destroyed by another act of hate on campus that directly targeted my community and by extension that directly targeted me.

Being on the Jewish Student Union Executive Board, the act created a crisis that required each board member’s level-headed response. During our board meeting, the conversation centered around “how we could best represent the needs of our Jewish friends and peers amid the inundation of emails and phone calls from concerned parents and newspaper articles that repeatedly highlighted the desecration.” However, all I could think about was how could this happen on my campus, and how can I make sure something like this never happens again?

In that moment, I wasn’t sure of the answer, but I did know that hiding my Jewish identity certainly wasn’t it, and, I recognized that in the times when my community hurt the most, it is crucial to show solidarity. Instead of hate becoming a suppressor, hate became my catalyst. My figurative pileus was blown off my head, and I have no intention of ever putting it on again, sorry (again) grandpa.

Since then, I have been on a mission to spread awareness about Antisemitism and prevent acts of hate on campus. I have begun an independent research study focusing on Antisemitism on college campuses that will culminate in policy recommendations. I have advocated for campus wide events and speakers educating people on Antisemitism. I have worked on a taskforce with peers, Professors and Duke Administrators to create a culture of intersectionality among various minorities on campus… And, I have gone from being Jewish only around other Jews, to being proudly Jewish wherever I am.

So, grandpa, while I won’t fight over a woman and I won’t become brainwashed, I can never “be Roman.” Why would I want to take after a now fallen civilization, when instead I could proudly be part of a people that have thrived for thousands of years despite countless acts of hate? Sure, it might be easier, but convivence doesn’t build resilience. Through challenging my own beliefs, I have learned the power of identity, and I look forward to exploring it further as I progress along my college journey.

[1] A pileus is a hat that was worn in Ancient Greece and later in Ancient Rome

[2] A yarmulke is a religious skullcap worn by Jewish people

In Defense of History

“We need to learn from several centuries of genocides, epidemics, enslavements, migrations and the like if we want to improve as a species. But I also think it’s more than that. Done right – accessible in writing and focused on those who are often unseen – history can be the best, most accessible record of humanity.” – Barry Yeoman, Durham Independent Journalist

Kenan disappointing my parents“History is important because it explains where we come from,” Ms. Leona Tate answered my question with. Just over 50 years earlier, she had been one of the four Black girls to desegregate New Orleans’ public schools. She had made the history that we study today, and by doing so, as a first-grader, she took part in shaping her own explanation from where she came…

I recently declared my second major as History. And, while I am proud to call myself an economics-history double major (with the signature Kenan ethics certificate of course), I was apprehensive to share my decision with my family. In reality, I felt that the Kenan in the, “Kenan | disappointing my parents” t-shirt [1] could very well be replaced with History. I wasn’t sure if my family would support history as a major, because there are no direct career prospects (at least far fewer than in other, more practical, majors). I am lucky that my family is extremely supportive; however, before telling my family about my decision, I thought it worthwhile to fully understand the value of history and why it’s worth pursuing. Accordingly, I spent my Spring Break on a quest to defend history.

My friend and I rolled up to our Air B&B in Badin, North Carolina after a car ride through the countryside. As we parked our Enterprise rental car, the house owner — a middle aged, African-American woman whose gave off an aura of kindness — opened the front door and invited us inside. Leaving the car, we wearily unpacked our bags and entered. The house was humble: wooden walls, pictures of family, furniture with designs dating back to the early 90’s.  Although we were both tired from our travels, my friend and I wanted to learn more about the person we were staying with and about Badin, North Carolina.

“So, what’s it like in Badin?” my friend asked the owner, who was eager to answer. She explained that she had grown up in Badin, that her great uncle had built the house and that Badin’s tranquility is something she treasures. The conversation took off from there. She made mention of Badin’s French roots, its segregated past, and lasting environmental and racial legacy. She then mentioned how the old aluminum plant, which was the city’s major employer, was found responsible of significant environmental injustice, and had to pay reparations after losing a lawsuit. Eventually, it decided to shut down, and set up shop in a less troublesome place, leaving many Badin residents unemployed. She explained that now Badin is mostly an aging community, with few young folk coming in because of the lack of employment. She was so in touch with her community’s history that I was compelled to ask her why she thought history was so important, to which she responded “because it helps us know where we come from…”.

We went to bed, and, I pondered her response. I considered how her understanding of history’s importance shapes how she views the present and her place within it. I began to reflect. Why do I think history is important? What role do narratives play in shaping identity?

The next day, my friend and I walked into a small shop in downtown Badin. Another woman — this one strong-spirited, White and only slightly older than the woman we were staying with — approached us in full Carolina gear and introduced herself. We quickly learned that she had grown up in Badin “where everyone would look out for each other,” and, after a career elsewhere, she returned to the humble town to run her father’s shop. Similar to our Air B&B host, the store owner explained how Badin was a former French town, and how there used to be a large aluminum plant that closed down, leaving many unemployed. I asked why it had closed down, expecting to hear about environmental injustice, but she explained that no one knew exactly why. She then mentioned that it could have been because there was a cheaper place to manufacture abroad, perhaps in Mexico. When I asked about environmental harm the plant caused, she explained that “sure there was harm, but they did the best they could knowing what they knew at the time.” It was fascinating to juxtapose this with the narrative I had heard the night before.

My friend piped in and asked her about growing up in Badin. She expressed that she had grown up in segregated Badin, and was in high school when schools were desegregated; however, she clarified that her family was working class, “not those county club folks, nope, we were their caddys.” We spent nearly two hours talking to her in her shop before we decided it was time for our hike. But before we left, I asked the store owner why she thought history was important, to which she responded “because it makes sure we learn from our past.”

On our hike, my friend and I spoke about the differences in the two ladies’ recounting of Badin’s history. Both had a different understanding of the role of the aluminum plant and segregation in Badin’s past. And, the framing of these narratives significantly altered their implications today. We tried to consider what led to these differences. The aluminum plant was a major part of town life, and there were fundamentally different understandings of the role it played, whether the plant’s actions were justified and why it eventually shutdown. I wondered how their two understandings could be reconciled. And, if a small town of less than 2,000 people could have such different understanding of their past, what implications that had for the rest of world.

Driving back to Duke from Badin, all I found myself reasking: Why do I think history is important? What roles do narratives have in shaping identity? And, how can different narratives of history be reconciled?

The next day, I found myself on a plane to New Orleans with Kenan’s Living Learning Community. Our trip focus: environmental and racial justice in New Orleans. Throughout the trip, we spoke with accomplished figures ranging from activists and city councilmen, to a professor specializing in New Orleans’ architectural history, to the current Rabbi of a New Orleanian Jewish congregation founded in the 1840s, to the Ms. Leona Tate (quoted above), to countless strongly opinionated Uber drivers. I made sure to ask each of them questions about why they thought history was important and how history shapes contemporary New Orleans. Each gave a similar, but slightly different answer. It reminded me of Badin again. I was still unsure why I thought history was important, what role narratives play in shaping identity and how to reconcile different histories. 

With these questions still on my mind, I entered into our group debrief. We sat as a group and reflected on what we found worthwhile or noteworthy from the day. Typically, I sit quiet during these kinds of moments, but this time I felt compelled to share what was on my mind…

“We heard from people that history is ‘how we orient ourselves,’ ‘how we learn from our mistakes’ and ‘a tool for change,’ but how do you suppose people make sense of contrasting narratives of history, narratives that are fundamentally different?” The room went quieter than Badin, North Carolina in the middle of a cold winter night.

And then someone responded, everyone has their own recounting of a story, but that is just what history is — a collection of stories. As long as we make room for both the told and untold narratives, and don’t deny anyone — save extremists — the legitimacy of their history, their version of the story, we can begin to reconcile very different understandings of a shared past. It is through nuance, and individual relationships that this reconciliation can begin… There is no wisdom in the public square.

That last part stuck with me most: “there is no wisdom in the public square.” That was to say that discourse with a large audience makes nuance difficult to find, and, seeking these nuances is not what most media does today. To deny complete legitimacy to one side is dangerous. Doing so is a catalyst to unhealthy polarization. It’s easy to fall victim to the wisdom-less public square, but we must rise above that temptation. Understanding multiple narratives of history gives people the power to overcome ignorant polarization. The wisdom of the public square lies within its history.

I recalled my earlier conversation with Ms. Tate. She was right. History does explain where we come from. And, with the proper interpretation, readiness to listen to multiple narratives and a healthy rebellious spirit, history is a tool we can use to understand our identities in the present and shape our futures. History was used to initially keep Ms. Tate in segregated schools, and now history is being used to keep Ms. Tate’s grandchildren in de-segregated schools. I found the answers to my questions.

As I leave New Orleans, refreshed from a Spring Break, I am ready to return home and excited to explain to my family that History is my second major. I am studying a field that everyone can relate to, a field that although seems distant, impacts daily life, and a field that can polarize people as quickly as it can build intersectional bridges between entire communities. From studying History and Herstory one understands Ourstory, and ultimately know how to uplift and progress toward a better world…

Eagerly entering my house after a long week in New Orleans, I shout out “Mom, Dad, Makayla… I am a history major!” And then they all come down smiling and congratulating me. No justification needed, no questions asked…  Okay that’s not exactly what happened, but it’s good to stay idealistic!

What actually happened was as I told my family about my historical decision, and they, like expected, were supportive. However, I could tell they were thinking why history deep down. To help qualm their apprehension, I explained to them what I discovered over Spring Break about history, concluding my sales pitch by mentioning that I am still an economics major. Finally, I could tell that they were comfortable with my decision.

I am now back at Duke and still unsure how much of a role my justification, versus the fact that I was still studying economics played in ultimately getting their approval. I don’t think I will ever know, and, I am not convinced it is important to know. Rather, I am confident that my decision is grounded in logic, feels right, is based in my impassioned curiosity and combines pragmatism with idealism. And, for those reasons, I am confident I am making the right choice.


[1] Each year the Kenan Institute for Ethics produces a satirical “major declaration” t-shirt for students who “declared” they are studying ethics or the sorts (note: there is no ethics major, just a certificate, making the shirt even more satirical). One year the shirt featured this expression. Just like in any good satire, there lies a piece of truth under the humor. While it’s taken for granted that professors are experts in their field, it is refreshing to know Kenan professors and staff are experts in their fields with a good sense of humor.