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Marks My Words: Confronting the backstory

By the end of spring quarter, you can comfortably eat all your meals outside. Who wouldn’t want to eat outside? The sun is shining, the birds are chirping and by dinnertime you know that the rest of your day is doomed to be spent crouched at a desk in front of a computer. And so, earlier this week I found myself at a picnic table in a scenic little corner of campus.

I was in the middle of telling some fascinating anecdote, when my dinner companion looked past my head and gasped in excitement. I hate being interrupted, so I was immediately on-edge. Whatever was causing her to lose interest in my story had better be good. But she was still staring past me, open-mouthed and smiling.

“What is it?” I asked, hoping the annoyance in my voice wasn’t too obvious.

“A squirrel! Look, it’s a squirrel on the wire!”

Oh. Seriously? A squirrel? Like the animal? On a wire, like the kind that stretches across telephone poles? I was totally unimpressed. But I tried halfheartedly to be excited too.

“Wow… a squirrel!” How terribly exciting. The worst part was that, by the time I turned around, the squirrel had leapt into a tree and was nowhere to be seen. If a squirrel runs across a wire, and I’m not there to see it, did it actually happen? My brain was full of philosophical questions.

But my dinner companion couldn’t get enough. “Did you see that squirrel? Crawling across the wire? Whoa!”

I didn’t see the squirrel. And I didn’t think it was a big deal that squirrels can run across telephone pole wires. Plus, I’d seen it happen a million times before. I was ready to be judgmental and mentally file this girl away as a weirdo who would interrupt people to stare at squirrels running across wires.

And then it hit me–maybe this girl had never seen a squirrel run across a wire before.

I grew up in a Midwestern suburb full of squirrels. In fact, there were probably more squirrels than people in my neighborhood, and plenty of telephone poles and wires. From my room, I could always see a bunch of telephone wires suspended over a street, and so I’d pretty much grown up watching squirrels prance across electric wires.

All this is to say, I had seen a lot of squirrels in my time before I came to Stanford. And in an eye-opening moment it occurred to me that, because she didn’t also grow up in my hometown, she might not have watched squirrels all her life. I had to investigate further so several minutes after the squirrel sighting, I made my move.

“By the way, where are you from?”

“Phoenix, Arizona.”

Time to pop the question. “Just wondering, are there squirrels in Phoenix?”

She gave me the same “you are weird” look that I had just given her, and then she remembered the squirrel episode and smiled. “There aren’t! I hadn’t really seen a lot of squirrels before I came to California.”

And it suddenly all made sense. Something as small as a squirrel running across a wire, a sight I had completely learned to take for granted, was apparently mind-blowing in the eyes of another person.

Naturally, this realization in the context of squirrels running on telephone poles has wider implications. There are other things one might not have the chance to see: palm trees, mountains and vegan Chinese food, for those of us from the Chicago area. Other people may have grown up without seeing poverty, or wealth or inequality.

If we’re not careful, we’ll tend to assume that other people have seen the same things that we have, that they must think the same thoughts as we do. And when our assumption is proven wrong, we’ll judge them.

Maybe you decided that your friend with a huge house was “rich,” but then you learned about real estate values in their area. Maybe you laughed at your friend’s views regarding relationships and marriage before you learned about their cultural traditions. Maybe you belittled your friend’s political opinions before exploring their context–the household they grew up in, the information they could access, etc.

In all the situations above, the key to less judgment lies in learning more. You find out where someone’s from, what their background is like and through asking questions and hearing stories, you come to understand the reasons for your differences.

Coming to college has meant that we meet people from very different backgrounds. The only thing we need is open minds–a willingness to gather more information from other people. Sure, it can be time-consuming and even exhausting, but if you take pleasure in new stories, you’ll always be rewarded. And eventually, once you’ve heard everyone’s story, you may no longer need to pass any judgments.

 Send Miriam a story about squirrels or some other moment of near-judgment at  [email protected]

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