I can vividly remember the stuffy feel of the classrooms when I entered ninth grade. This was due not only to the heat, but also the weight of the topics at hand.
I was surprised when the adults around me began asking my peers and me for our opinions on things I was used to having adults step around.
At my school, Bard High School Early College Cleveland, students finish the traditional four years of high school in their first two years, and the last two years they are both high school students and college students. For a model like this to work, students and teachers have to be engaged and academically motivated. Previous experience made me feel like I was doing something wrong by engaging in conversations about the world and inequality.
I hadn’t realized I was allowed to have thoughts on politics and the world around me.
We never discussed politics at home. My family avoided these conversations at all costs.
Reading the Bible as a literary text — something my literature professor at Bard asked us to do — made me afraid to talk about my schoolwork with my family.
I feared I had been given too much knowledge and power to think freely, and that that opportunity would be stripped away from me if the wrong people found out just how opinionated I was starting to become.
My professors began to give me new vocabulary to use, and words like “privilege” and “agency” started to change the way I viewed the world around me. I was given a new lens through which I could view my surroundings, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it.
I was being asked to see problems in the world that I was previously ignorant of. This was overwhelming at first, but I eventually found a productive way to deal with this new information.
Shortly after school started, we held a club fair and I found a way to navigate and address these problems.
I joined forces with a few friends and our literature professor to start our school’s first debate team. In our meetings, I found a space to have these difficult conversations outside the classroom.
We spent countless hours practicing different speaking techniques and ways to make convincing arguments. Along with learning how to be persuasive, I learned the importance of being able to analyze situations and think about them complexly, even if I happened to disagree with a given stance on a topic.
Debate has helped transform me as a student. I am better at engaging with my peers and the texts we are discussing and learning from them, because I know how to articulate myself and respond to others in a productive way. But as I’m growing as a student, I’m also learning how to be an individual.
I am no longer afraid to jump into uncomfortable conversations on controversial topics. The way I engage with ideas now does not scare me or feel forbidden; instead, it is exciting and I’m sure it will benefit me for the rest of my life.
The way I experience the world now can be overwhelming, but I am forever grateful that I no longer live in a space where I am afraid to have opinions or to express them. Now, I actively engage in difficult conversations and try to not shy away from topics that are hard or uncomfortable to talk about. I remember being a little scared and hesitant at the freedom of thought I was given when I first started at BHSEC Cleveland.
The classroom set-up made me feel safe and continues to make my opinions feel valid.
The seminar-style discussions have improved my relationships with my friends and peers. Since I know how good it feels to be an agent of my own being, I actively encourage others to talk to me about their opinions and to be their own agents, too.
One of the things I have learned in my time here is that my feelings and opinions are valid, and I try to remind my peers of that as well.
It’s been a bit like receiving a new pair of glasses — the blur that was the world before became almost painfully clear.
I still have so much to learn.
Wynnter Fay Millsaps is a student at Bard High School Early College in Cleveland, Ohio.