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Friday, October 24, 2014

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Katie Steen: Sorry to burst your bubble

By Katie Steen, Columnist
Published April 10, 2014

The other day, I was called “pretentious” by one of my students. He’s a great kid, and usually pretty polite, so I wasn’t offended by the comment so much as taken aback. (The comment came absolutely out of nowhere. It seemed as natural to him as commenting on the weather.)

“Pretentious?” I said, feeling suddenly flustered. “No I’m not! What! Pretentious?”

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “Come on,” he nodded his head as if we were both in on a little secret. “This is Ann Arbor. We’re all a little pretentious here.”

I still don’t think he knows the meaning of pretentious (for instance, he asked me if I listen to Neutral Milk Hotel in attempt to prove his point). But his comment stuck with me — “This is Ann Arbor.” What did he mean by that?

I’ve felt simultaneously frustrated and in love with Ann Arbor for some time now, not because there’s anything blatantly wrong with it — quite the contrary, because it’s just so good. Too good. Too cute. Too green. Too locally-made. Too grassroots. Too academic. Too “politically correct.” Too leaders and the best. Too proud. Too active, too passionate, too happy. We really do have it all in this little college bubble. Except, it’s not … real.

Ann Arbor isn’t flawless — hell, I complain about Ann Arbor biweekly in this column. Just like pretty much everywhere else in the world, Ann Arbor has problems with sexism and rape culture and all the other shit I write about pretty much nonstop. But at the same time, Ann Arbor is somewhat of a liberal haven — a place many young twenty-somethings wish they (we) could hold onto forever. And maybe we can. There are lots of bubbles in the U.S. and in the world. I myself have lived my whole life in a series of bubbles — sometimes one inside another.

I grew up in Grosse Pointe, a more conservative-minded bubble I never quit fit in, but a safe, beautiful little bubble with a lake nonetheless. (It’s a bubble with strong, fear-based walls, I might add — both figurative and literal walls, like the one built out of snow this winter on Kercheval Avenue, cutting off GP from Detroit.

Then I moved to South Quad in Ann Arbor — a nine-story bubble where I was surrounded by a bunch of socially awkward nerds like myself and fattened on a cushy meal plan. Scattered around the halls were advertisements for all sorts of cultural events, posters advocating for depression awareness and notifications of “bias incidents” that occurred in the dorm. Overseeing everything was our benevolent R.A., a sweet girl with an affinity for Bananagrams.

After South Quad came the co-ops, where we have regular meetings in which we're encouraged to feel “empowered” to speak our opinion, where we can have SAPAC and IGR come to our living room and lead discussions and workshops. “Safe space” is something of a buzzword here.

And currently, I’m student teaching at a high school that my field instructor likes to call “magic high school.” It’s a small community of kids — many of them professors’ kids, I’ve begun to realize, and many of whom are intimidatingly passionate — about learning, about social justice, about expressing their identities, their creativity, about finding what it is they care about in the world and jumping in head first.

We all have our bubbles. But most of us, at some point will leave the safety and comfort of our bubbles — for many of us, our exit is coming sooner than later (May 3, actually). And that, I think, is for the better.

The unfortunate truth is, the world isn’t safe, and it’s not a bubble — it’s a hungry beast that you can battle or avoid behind closed doors. We can create little bubbles of our ideal realities, but they are not the norm.

Many of the people reading this article will be graduating and moving out of good ol’ A-squared at some point, and you’re probably going to feel at least a little lonely and unprepared and scared. “Real Life” will finally arrive, and it will probably seem kind of shitty at first compared to your last four years. But I’m asking you to take everything you’ve learned in your college years and beyond, and apply it to Real Life — to make Real Life a better world for everyone. Don’t feel afraid when you leave your safe space; feel empowered. We all have our beasts to battle, our-isms and our anxieties. Don’t shut them out — go after them.

P.S. I’m not pretentious!

Katie Steen can be reached at katheliz@umich.edu.