Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 21, 1996 Form

Experience Is
The Best Teacher

An Undergraduate Life:
A Gazette series
offering a first-person
account of a freshman

Stacey Patton
Editorial Intern

As a high school student I always had the notion that the best kind of learning only took place behind the walls of a classroom or library. Teachers and professors were the best qualified to conduct the lessons. Recently, I came to realize that the most beneficial lessons of life, the ones that are really worth learning, cannot be taught in the classroom.

Earlier this semester my anthropology professor announced that we would be taking part in an extensive research project. The focus of the study would be the welfare system. I figured we would be spending a great amount of time assessing statistics and professional theories on the who's, how's and why's of the system. Little did I know that I would be going outside the walls of the classroom and the perimeter of the Homewood campus to learn lessons in the real world.

I was going to do field work, and I chose to study youth shelters and group homes that housed children between the ages of 11 and 18. My research involved a firsthand experience of communicating with children who were recipients of the system as well as with providers of the system in Trenton, N.J.

My professor emphasized the importance of looking beyond our own values, beliefs and views to understand people. Her advice helped me in the context of my field work and in developing a true understanding of anthropology. I would learn that no theory, statistic or model could explain the realities that I encountered.

My train slowly crept onto the northeast corridor of the train station in downtown Trenton. During my two-hour journey from Hopkins I listed questions on a long sheet of paper. I practiced my lines of introduction. Most of all, I reminded myself of the importance of maintaining objectivity.

I visited the youth shelters only to discover peers who did not have the opportunities and privileges that I have enjoyed. Those teenagers were caught in a vicious cycle they probably will never escape. Never before had I been so thankful for my education. But, these kids taught me lessons about survival. I sat down to talk with a 17-year-old boy named Raheem.

"Man, I could tell you 'bout science, geometry and all them theorems and stuff," he said to me as I stared into his serious eyes, "but ain't none of that stuff gonna' help save me out there--out there in the streets. When somebody's got a gun to my head and knife to my throat, they don't wanna' hear about that stuff."

I tried to imagine his situation. It gave me pause to question the real value of education. Sure we can get better jobs if we go to college or raise our social status and standard of living. But all these things tend to shield us from other sides of life. My privilege has helped me escape some of the ills, wiles and dangers that Raheem has to face on his way to school each day.

Raheem helped me to understand his plight. Often we tend to make assumptions or blame the victims for their shortcomings or their bad situations. But we don't try to understand that society influences fate and the destinies of many individuals.

After speaking with Raheem about his life and interactions with other people in the shelter, I had the opportunity to talk with the director who revealed stories about kids who ended up worse off after leaving the youth shelter. Some led lives of crime, some became drug addicts and others ended up dead. Again, I had to appreciate my opportunities even though they have allowed me to escape such realities.

We ought to be thankful for having the opportunity to attend a place like Johns Hopkins. We ought to be thankful for shelter. We ought to be thankful for food. We ought to be thankful for safety. But, we must not allow ourselves to become victims of the idea that the rest of the world is just like Johns Hopkins.

I returned to Baltimore after another two-hour train ride. This time I asked the cab driver to drop me off on Greenmount Avenue--just a few blocks away from Homewood campus. To see the despair, the hopelessness, the environment and the people who just seemed to be wandering through life made me feel as if I was in another world.

I was happy to return to the safe haven of the campus. However, I could not forget that all those people on Greenmount Avenue could not escape their realities. While I lived it for about 15 minutes, they live it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months a year. It is ironic that those people live in a world filled with deferred dreams, and just a block or so away, we students are constantly surrounded by dreams in the making.

To actually step outside the perimeter of the Homewood campus and enter a different world reminded me of just how blessed I am. Naivete can give one a false sense about the real world. Johns Hopkins is not the real world but rather a small aspect of it--the book world of educated people. People have often reiterated that "experience is the best teacher." Books, classrooms, libraries, laboratories, statistics and theories are all resources to help us develop our analytical skills. But real learning is achieved through experience. So I'm learning.

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