Flying the Coop
I dithered for so long that I laughed for joy when I finally made the decision.
I've been talking about taking time off for more than a year now, since I began worrying about where my sugar came from. Concern about cane sugar quickly snowballed into concern about the source of my pants, my toothpaste, the energy that heated my co-op, and Oberlin's endowment. I managed to tame my anxiety by letting go and letting God. But it has stayed with me. I love Oberlin passionately, but I am deeply disappointed in some of the decisions we as an institution are poised to make, and I need some dirt time to clean out my head.
There are references in old posts about taking PLOA (personal leave of absence) this fall semester, and the reasons I didn't are complicated and personal, but I'm glad I stayed. I grew a lot this semester. And I learned a lot: about cell signaling, meristem development and neuroanatomy, yes, but also about things I will carry for longer. I learned a lot about handling disappointment. I learned a lot about taking advantage of the resources available to me, which are vast in scope. But the most important lesson I will take with me is the knowledge of the net under me, held tight by friends who catch me when I'm falling. I have often been falling. But I am caught and held until I struggle upright, every time.
Now I feel like I'm bouncing out of the net, but I know it will be within reach. No one in Oberlin will be able to hug me when I'm in Pennsylvania feeding pushy dairy goats or poking seeds into the soil with cold fingers, but phone lines and ethernet cables will mark my way back. And love and care will follow me, even across mountains, even across months of separation.
I will miss those hugs, though. There are things like shared experience and shared presence that are hard to replace. So why am I leaving? In some ways, it's because of how acutely I love Oberlin. I am keenly aware of how lucky I am to be here, and I want to appreciate it as fully as I can. And right now, I'm not.
Many of my reasons are personal: I want to be a farmer, for one, which means I am greedy for experience on a real farm. Now is a great time to take a semester off from my own mini-farming experience at the AJLC, because my remaining hens have retired in sunny Michigan and I don't need to raise new chickens until May.1 I also want to be a functioning social primate, which is difficult sometimes, and I think I want to be a functioning social primate elsewhere.
But many of my reasons are institutional, too. I respect that the decisions Oberlin has made on our central campus heating system and our credit system are necessary and that they have been made with consideration and care. I think the trustees and the faculty, respectively, have the best interests of Oberlin and its students in their hearts as well as their minds.
But I disagree with them. I think we have the money to go beyond the feasible and install a truly sustainable source of campus heating energy, instead of natural gas boilers that will contribute to the contamination of our water and the pollution of our air. And I think the credit system we have, however flawed, is superior to a "simplification" that creates parallel systems of credits and courses, relegates learning assistance classes to co-curricular status, and awards the same credits for an introductory three-hour lecture and an upper-level chemistry course with a separate lab.2
I think that these decisions have been made and will not be unmade. I think that there are great evils to be fought in the world and that these decisions are grains of sand compared to the vast and shifting deserts surrounding us:
I think I need to find an oasis. Oberlin has been my refuge for so long, but I need one with more nonhuman people. Just for one spring.
Of course, there are reasons to stay tugging always at my heels. This spring was my only chance to take a class called Vertebrate Structure and Evolution, which I have been planning my schedule around since my first semester as a bio major. I would have loved to learn about the phylogenetic ties that bind families together. I would have loved to learn about synapsids (mammals, and their ancestors) and diapsids (most extant reptiles, including birds); homology and analogy; all the bones of all the animals I have loved from afar. More pragmatically, I would have wanted to know how goats and sheep and chickens are put together and why.
But I can learn more about chickens and sheep and goats than their bone structure and their ancestry. I can learn how to husband them: how to shelter them from the cold, how to feed them and make them comfortable, and how to help them give birth to the next generation of vertebrates. This is what I want to learn and teach.
My curricular studies at Oberlin have almost nothing to do with that. I dithered over the "almost," but it would be unfair to say that Plant Systematics, in which I got comfortable with plant families, has had no impact on my ability to plan a garden.3 And among my several plant biology classes I am sure I will find one or two facts that will be useful.
But of course, learning facts relevant to a career is often not the point of a liberal arts education. Maybe it should be, but it's not. A liberal arts education is allegedly about maturing one's ways of thinking, ways of learning, and ways of being, and although it's a very expensive way to do those things, it's a very good one. I have learned to view the world through the lens of its evolution (blurred by anthropocentrism, but who among humans can help it?). I have learned to try to see further than the present: back to the childhood of the earth and forward into the future of her citizens.
Part of that has to do with my own future. Right now I don't see a future in which I will benefit from a bachelor's degree. I do see one in which my Oberlin education - in the broader sense - serves as a rock to stand on in the aforementioned desert. Still, it's hard not to think about what I would do with the same money, were it given to me. I could buy land outright and not labor in the knowledge of debt that will take a long time to pay down. I might even have enough to build a little barn and a tiny cabin. If I just didn't come back next year, I could leave a fourth of that money in the bank while pursuing my real education. And when I found a little parcel like the one I'm dreaming of, on a gentle southern slope with a talkative brook and plenty of land for my animals, I would be able to quit dreaming and buy it.
But I am coming back. How could I do otherwise? On January 3rd I drove back to Oberlin to meet Emily, with whom I'm farming during Winter Term. I'd only been gone since the 22nd of December, but I felt like a stranger coming home. Walking into Harkness made me dizzy. (To be fair, after a ten-hour drive, the dizziness might just have been due to standing up.) I greeted my plants, and watered them well, of course. As I talked aloud to my plants and to Whitman, who drove West with me, I was also silently greeting Harkness itself. Harkness has ghosts. Friendly ghosts, mostly. Traces of memories, mine and others', that settle on shoulders and wind around heels. They carry miscellaneous weight and hover when a Harkie comes home.4
I stayed in Keep with Whitman for the two nights I was in Oberlin (having already moved out of South, I was spared the need to find excuses not to sleep there). I lived in Keep my first year - some of the signs I put up as CLEC still hang above the trash cans - and being there reminded me what Oberlin was like before my days revolved around Harkness and my seasons around the Environmental Studies Center. It was already home. It's possible that in some ways it always will be, but of course, most of the people that make it home will be gone in not too long.
I can't describe to you, readers, the people I will be coming home to. There are too many people who fill my heart up and the adjectives that imbue them with life lie flat on the page. Compassion and courage are such empty words when applied to unspecified people; dogged idealism sounds oxymoronic, although many of the Obies I admire possess it in spades. I will come back to artists, anarchists, animal-keepers. I will come back to co-opers and their kitchens, groundskeepers and their gardens, and my own loved ones who have sent me on my way with hugs, well-wishes, and one rainbow scarf.
These are my personal reasons, but some of them are institutional.
I mentioned, briefly, that I am frustrated with Oberlin's submission to the reasonable in our campus energy policy. So are hundreds of students, and many of them protested the trustees' dinner in the science atrium when the trustees came to visit. About two-thirds of the space was filled with tables, chairs and mingling party guests. The remaining third of the atrium was filled with silent students, still dripping from the rain outside. I don't know what would have happened at other schools. At Oberlin, they were given the mic.
John Bergen delivered a statement on behalf of all the students present, speaking to the need for the consideration of alternatives and the importance of community input. The trustees heard him out. I don't know what will happen at this school, in the long run, but it would have been so easy to usher the protestors out. Instead they were ushered in.
I also mentioned that the resources to help disillusioned students are vast in scope. The academic support I have found at Oberlin deserves its own post (one I plan to work on while homesick next semester). I have been buoyed up by weekly check-ins with an academic counselor; extensions from professors; diligent note-takers; and amazing teaching assistants. I'll still need some of that help even as a senior, and I'll be glad to know I'm coming back into the fold of a college that does what it can to support struggling students.
Meanwhile, I'll be out with the goats. I'll see you all in May.
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 May is late to start raising chickens, and laying hens won't be as productive as they could be their first year, but they will be fully-grown and well-equipped to handle winter weather.
 Please comment or email me if you differ in my assessment of the new credit system. I'd like to discuss any specific points of difference, but rehashing all the reasons that I think it's a bad move just makes me anxious.
Plants in the same family often need similar nutrients from the soil and are susceptible to the same pests. For instance, tomatoes and potatoes are both in Solanaceae, and they are both prone to the same late blight. Sweet potatoes are in the morning glory family, so they aren't. It gets a lot more complicated, but families are a good place to start!
Calling somewhere home requires a caveat, because I had a wonderful home before I had ever heard about Oberlin, and I still consider my parents' house my home. After all, my family is there! I just consider Oberlin my home too. And it's one that particularly hurts to leave because I know the net that welcomes me back to Connecticut will always remain tightly held in place between my parents, my brothers, and my dog, while the one that currently spans Oberlin will stretch thinner as people graduate. Soon it will be a very loose net, although it will span the country and the world.