Friday, August 17, 2007


Yesterday I went to a pre-orientation camp for rising college freshmen--I was invited to represent my department and to answer questions for students after all other faculty had done their brief introductions. At the picnic table where I met with students there was one kid who I think I would describe as a misfit. He sat apart from the other students working on a book of sudoku puzzles. I didn't even know he was sitting behind me (all the students were ringed around me, so I had my back to this particular student) until he spoke up to tell me that he hated Jane Smiley (I had mentioned that she was one of my favorite authors). He was socially awkward, to say the least, never made direct eye contact with me or anyone else, and the entire time he discoursed about his contempt for Smiley, he kept his eyes riveted on the sudoku puzzle book, only once looking up, to glance at us all, and then he started fingering the strap of the purse that was sitting on the table (which happened to be my purse, and which made me feel weird to see him worrying the strap back and forth between his fingers).

The look on the students' faces around me told me that his behavior had been consistent during the camp--or at least, he seemed to have been branded the "misfit" by everyone. Certainly, his behavior at that moment seemed to cast him in this light. And weird as his behavior was (certainly his outburst about Smiley seemed strange and a bit hostile) I also felt an extraordinary amount of concern for him. Because he was here, at this camp, with these 149 other rising Freshmen, and he clearly had some social anxiety issues--and yet, I'm sure there is a part of him that wanted to be connected to everyone else, even as his own behavior prevented him from doing that. I don't know whether his participation in the camp was from his own desire or his parents' insistence--perhaps they wanted to give him as many opportunities to socialize with his peers as possible. All I know is that he was regarded, by these same peers, as an oddity. And I could forsee some difficult times ahead for him.

But perhaps he'll also be OK. I'm not exactly sure why I'm choosing him to write about. Maybe because he demonstrated, in such a clear way, behavior that I often feel I mask. Being a misfit. Not knowing how to say the right thing. Feeling hostile of your environment but longing, at the same time, to conform and be liked and be acknowledged as just like everyone else.

I guess I think about this in terms of race, a lot, because especially at this camp, students of color were definitely in the minority (I counted about half a dozen African American students, and maybe a dozen Asian American and Latino students, which would mean 25 students of color out of 150, but of course judging by phenotype alone is a very imperfect measure, and I also may have missed a few students in the back rows). While the student I describe above (who is white) may have been socially awkward due to various factors (perhaps he has a learning disability, perhaps he has aspbergers, perhaps he was having a bad day) I do wonder about the fact that he was clearly labeled as a misfit at that moment--he didn't fit in. And how often do we start to label people, who don't "look" like they fit in? The snap judgments we make based on what people are wearing, their accents, their scents, their facial expressions. Add to this race--a visible, racial, difference, and it may be easy to see how being a person of color, a "minority" person in a majority white setting may make you feel like a misfit.

And yet, isn't there a little misfit inside all of us?

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