After four years at Commonwealth School (and a one global pandemic), Jocelyn Olum '20 remembers the "philosophical discussions" that defined her experience.
Before coronavirus, I might have been tempted to wax sentimental here; I can go on with the best of them about how time flies, how nostalgic I am for my underclassman days, how only yesterday I was applying to Commonwealth in the first place.
I think these last few months have given me some perspective, however—it’s been quite a few yesterdays since I was even in the school building, and those early days of application season and freshman year now seem artifacts of a distant and hardly credible past. Nevertheless, I recall that eighth-grade girl well enough. I agonized over every question on my Commonwealth application; I turned it in right before the deadline. In responding to an application question about which three adjectives best describe me, my mother said all should have been “indecisive.”
I was nervous about going downtown for my interview. I accidentally went in the wrong door, and I wore something atrociously floral. But mostly what I remember about the process was that I came up with a whole interview schtick. After some thought, I told everyone in the admissions office that I engaged in “philosophical discussions,” the words coming off my tongue very smoothly because I had practiced them until they ceased to mean anything at all. “Philosophical discussions” was a catchphrase, really, a codeword by which I hoped to convey to the school some deep sense of who I was. To be honest I had never done any philosophy, and I wasn’t completely sure what it even entailed. But I knew it was serious and intellectual. “Philosophical discussions” carried a complexity and a depth of understanding that fit some piece of how I saw myself, the part that knew all about hard questions and long conversations and deep answers. So that’s what I told the interviewers, and they nodded without commentating. In retrospect I think I’m lucky they didn’t ask me any follow-up questions.
Then, once I started at Commonwealth, I discovered the actual meaning of “philosophy.” There was a student philosophy club, and I went to it—twice. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember being surprised and vaguely disappointed. Philosophy was complicated, and had a lot of history tied up in it that didn’t quite interest me. I gave it up for lost and moved on to other things.
So freshman year was not about philosophy. It was about Daryll’s cooking, about riding the train like a real commuter every morning, about Hancock and the freshman cubby area, and our counterrotating circles of who was dating whom. High school turned out to require a lot of adjusting and a fair bit of work, and in that scramble to get my feet under me I let my search for that unnamed deepness fall by the wayside.
My parents and I had always had substantive conversations, so in some sense this wasn't totally out of the ordinary, but there was one important difference: in this particular conversation, I could hold my own.
It came back to me in time for my first midterm. Studying was one of those things I had to learn how to do in high school, so a week or so before the test I gathered up my notes and annotations and sources and attempted to make sense of everything I was supposed to learn. Ms. Budding had suggested that we try to tell the stories of the history we were studying, so one evening I sat my dad down by the fire and proceeded to regale him with something like a thousand years of ancient history. He really listened, I think, or at least he listened some of the time, and every so often he would stop me to ask a question or debate a particular point.
We got sidetracked when I started talking about the history of the Hebrews. My dad was raised Jewish, and after I had walked him through what we’d talked about in class, he told me some things he’d learned as a child in Hebrew school, and we talked for a little while about where those two stories diverged and why. My parents and I had always had substantive conversations, so in some sense this wasn't totally out of the ordinary, but there was one important difference: in this particular conversation, I could hold my own. Ancient History class had given me a piece of solid intellectual ground to stand on, and I could correct my father as often as he corrected me. It was a glorious conversation, an educated intelligent adult conversation, and when I went to sleep (late) that night it occurred to me that this was exactly the intensity that I had been looking for. This was a truer “philosophical discussion” than any I had ever had before.
In the years that followed it certainly wasn’t the only one. I found my philosophy in Shakespeare, in poems from English class, in a particularly fascinating piece of mathematics or a gnarly bit of socioeconomics. This was something I had tasted in middle school, but as I came into my own as a student and a scholar it burst slowly into fruition. I still don’t much enjoy philosophy as a subject in its own right, but now I know what I was looking for under that label, and I am grateful to have spent four years in a place where I could find it and revel in it.
So like 2020 seniors everywhere, I’m sorry to have lost my last few months in the school building and all those goodbyes that I won’t get to say in person. I had been looking forward to spring Hancock and graduation and the parties that we might have had after the end of school. But the gift I have been given is bigger than that, stronger than that, and not so easily destroyed: Commonwealth has given me the best conversations—philosophical discussions—that I could have dreamed of, and not even a global pandemic can take that away.
Jocelyn Olum is a member of the Commonwealth School Class of 2020. She will soon be heading to Reed College in Oregon, punctuating her time at the San Diego Circus Center in the summers. She hopes to one day perform with Cirque Du Soleil—then give it all up to live in a quiet place where she can write and do talk therapy or something.