I’ve read more a couple of books over the years about how people who are trained in advanced mathematics and computer science have been able to increasingly quantify human beings. What I mean is that people become this amalgam of credit card transactions and GPS pings and ad-clicks. It’s an interesting enough subject, I guess, though I doubt I’ll read any more books on it (the second one I only read because my mother sent it to me).
But sometimes when we normal people feel upset or unsettled about being quantified one way, we ignore the fact that we do it to ourselves in other ways, and teach our kids how essential it is for them to do the same. What I’m talking about here are resumes and college applications. I’m finishing up my University of California application right now, and I realize maybe it’s a little deeper and a little weirder for me, being a transfer student as well as someone who took 5+ years off school to be in the military. But anyway, college applications want grades and test scores, the numerical representations of how good you are academically. They want to know about clubs and volunteer experiences and things, though I can’t say I have confidence that they look a lot at these things; and if they do, I don’t pretend to know what they want to see. Anyway, even that stuff gets broken down into years and weeks and hours. Did you have a leadership role? How many people? How often? How long? And what about awards? My entire life is broken down into lists… and it’s strange because when I think about what I’ve done, because I know how busy I’ve been and how hard I’ve worked, I feel like I’m doing okay. Not as accomplished as Mozart or Fermat or some other genius, but I don’t think I’ve just been sitting on my hands ever since the 9th grade either (which is as far back as the college application asks you to go).
But when I’m writing everything I can think of down… I wonder how inactive I appear to whoever looks at these applications. I can’t even write down my volunteer experiences because, although I have volunteered here and there my whole life, I’ve really never stuck in one role with one organization before. As for clubs and extracurricular activities, the truth is that I did the best I could in high school– but my family was poor, and I really didn’t have the option to do a lot of things. Poverty didn’t just affect me outside of school, but inside too. I remember physics class in high school. My main difficulty had nothing at all to do with the concepts or even math. My main difficulty was that we had assigned seats, and so I couldn’t choose to sit in the front so that I could see. I was stuck in a seat where I couldn’t see the board, so I couldn’t take very good notes. I couldn’t afford glasses, and I was too embarrassed to say anything to anyone. No one seemed to care anyway. They probably just thought I was lazy or stupid — not poor and blind. I couldn’t try to copy someone else’s notes later on either, because none of my classmates lived in my neighborhood, and I had no way to travel to their homes.
I’m not crying for myself. I’m just saying that I feel I’ve done quite a bit to overcome those old disadvantages. But I can’t escape the way those years look on paper. What can I say? Write a personal statement on my excuses for not being a straight A student in high school as well as a track star and the newspaper editor? I think that sort of statement would come off as nothing but excuses– and truth be told, I prefer to focus on the positive things anyway. But anyway, I sort of resent the application for the way it demands that I describe my life accomplishments so far. It’s so incomplete.