|Jane Friedman, media guru and friend|
I grew up in a rural Indiana town of 2,000, where every year they still crown Little Miss Sweet Corn. It's a town of a dozen railroad crossings and no traffic lights. I went to sleep and awoke to the sound of train whistles, and my friends and I would lay pennies on the train tracks and collect flattened pieces the next day.
My town's high school consisted of 300 students, and that was after drawing from surrounding farming communities that didn't have high schools of their own. There wasn't much to do aside from go to school, visit the local library, and do what the local teens called "cruising." Cruising meant circling around town on the major thoroughfares—one mile per lap—with country music blaring.
As a bookish sort—always the first to raise her hand in class or volunteer to help the teacher—I didn't fit in too well. I tended to participate in activities I wasn't cut out for, just to fit in and have something to pass the time—track and field, volleyball scorekeeper, church youth group activities. These were pre-Web days, and even though I had a desktop PC, I had no way of learning how to program or finding more advanced activities, unless it involved raising livestock, welding, or preaching.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I saw a poster in the library announcing a new magnet high school for gifted and talented students, limited to juniors and seniors. It was called the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities, and there was no tuition because it was a publicly funded school.
Of course there was no doubt I would apply for admission, and my mother encouraged it. I was the only student from my high school to apply, and to this day, I'm still the only student from my hometown who has ever attended. That's partly because it's a 4-hour drive from my hometown to Muncie, Ind., where the Academy is based. Attending the Academy meant I wouldn't be at home more than once a month—during mandatory breaks—which my mother wished was even less often. (The drive was hellish when undertaken 4 times in one weekend, and Academy students were not allowed to have cars.)
I applied to the Academy because I wanted an academic challenge. But I was afraid of leaving my hometown friends, so much so that I hesitated to confirm my spot when I received my acceptance letter. My mother nearly went out of her mind with frustration when I indicated I might not go. How could I pass up a tremendous opportunity to improve my education because of friends?
So in fall 1992, a new world opened up.
For the first time, I was surrounded by people smarter than I, people who were far more advanced in their schoolwork. I had to take the lowest level math courses since I was so far behind everyone else. But I devoured the eccentric and deep-dive literature classes, such as Lost Generation Literature, Shadow Literature, and Shakespearean comedies.
For the first time, I found friends who I had something in common with aside from geography.
For the first time, I found that boys could really be interested in me.
For the first time, no one made fun of me.
It was only after graduating from the Academy that I realized its biggest gift had nothing to do with the education (though that was invaluable, too); it was the gift of a community that accepted me and gave me permission to become whoever I really was. I developed confidence, a unique voice, and a foundation of independence that I later built upon while in college.
Today, I still retain some social awkwardness and introversion, someone for whom making new friends feels more difficult than it ought to be. What's so paradoxical is that the Academy has been both helpful and harmful when it comes to such tendencies. The Academy showed me what real friendships look like; it was a far more intimate and personal bonding experience than what I found in college.
But because I once lived and breathed in a tight-knit community of like-minded people, I'm impatient and dismissive of anything less—and since then, I live with a distant desire in my heart, a dream of finding another community that can be that personal and meaningful.
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See how the Not Bob blog is getting a little more personal with these posts: