This is the 4th article in my “America” series. This one has got a pretty serious theme. I hope you make it through it 🙂
We were told everyone at Stanford had had straight A’s in high school. That everyone had been a prominent leader at their school. That everyone had won some science or writing competition. That everyone had achieved stellar scores in standardized university entrance tests. That everyone would become an entrepreneur, a political leader, the next Bill Gates or something of that sort. What happens when you throw so many highly decorated (or so it is claimed) high school students into one university?
The competition is frightening, fueled by an unrelenting superiority complex that inevitably creates a superiority pyramid among students. Science and engineering students are better than arts/humanities students; engineering students are better than science students; electrical engineering students are better than civil engineering students; computer science students are better than engineering students; computer science students who are also entrepreneurs are better than all the other students. This is not an invisible superiority pyramid – it’s reinforced in everyday conversation.
So it was that, when I sat down with a diasporan graduate, I was reminded of my place in the pyramid. He asked me why I had chosen civil engineering. Why on earth did you choose civil engineering!!? is what he meant. It was evening and he was a little tipsy, but I judged that he would still understand me. I explained that it had been a difficult choice between civil and mechanical engineering, and that I’d finally settled on civil engineering. That seemed to puzzle him more. “Really!? Why?” he probed. He meant: “Are you insane? Why would you do that?” I told him that I loved working on physically larger projects, stressing the word physically.
With the most self-satisfied smirk I have ever seen, he declared, “Well, I’m a mechanical engineer and I design iPod covers for Apple.” Our table erupted with laughter – they’d been people sitting with us. They thought Mr. iPod Covers had put me in my place. What could be bigger than designing iPod covers for the most valuable company on this earth? Designing foot-bridges over water canals? Ha! I tried to explain that I’d meant physically larger projects; as in, a bridge is much larger than an iPod cover. But the laughter drowned out my voice. Nobody wanted anything to perturbe the popular elite school narrative – that some people are better than others because of what they do.
I will not poke fun at the irony of it all. That here was a young, overworked guy inflating himself because he (was part of a team that) designed iPod covers at Apple. How big!
I knew a girl called Morielle. One day I asked her what she wanted to do after graduation. “I want to teach Physics in high school,” she responded, without so much as a pause. She did not say it in a “I-know-what-you-are-thinking-Go-on-and-say-it” way. She just said it plainly like that. She just had a passion for it and she had the conviction to do it. She wasn’t apologetic about it, as were many Stanford students that I’d heard saying, “…but you’re the cool guy – you do engineering/computer science/physics.” She wanted to be a high school Physics teacher because she had a passion for it. And no aspiring engineer or iPod cover designer would take that away from her.
I learned from her. When a Harvard student laughed at me for wanting to do civil engineering, I wasn’t fazed much. “You’re going to work for BCC,” he had quipped. You see, I knew fully well what he meant by BCC (Bulawayo City Council) because BCC is associated with the ‘garbage people.’ Expectedly, he didn’t give me a chance to respond, but I felt ever more determined to become a civil engineer. He had no clue about my passion, but I did. I do.
And he is not going to take that away from me. And neither is the conceited guy who designs iPod covers for Apple.