The perks of giving a snowflake

Photo: Liz Mak
Liz Mak

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Everyone around me wants to further their education - college, grad school, circus training school (these are real people). Granted, I'm planning on going abroad to study Chinese after graduation; but anything formal? Can't even fathom the thought of it.

When I was 18, going to college seemed to be the turning point of my life. I focused on "personality" in my college applications, because I barely had the grades or the ambitious high school record. I had the extracurriculars, the 10-year tenure as Girl Scout top cookie seller, the role as co-founder of Marlborough School's esteemed Film Club. Really though, my mom sold the cookies on my behalf and we never got club sweatshirts, as promised.

But for some schools it worked, and my acceptances cemented in my mind the idea: Getting into university was a precursor for the personality contest that is the rest of your life. Life at that time looked to me like this: If you were able to communicate your earnest desire to do something, someone would see that vulnerability and bank on it. I guess the way I understood it, others would always be taking their chances on you.

The first month at UC Berkeley proved antithetical to that belief. There were group socials - you'll never have to be alone - and mandatory dorm meetings, most of which I skipped out on. Everyone tried too hard, I felt, opening their mouths too wide when they said hello, their voices punctuated with an unconvincing enthusiasm. My social anxiety made me shy away. But as a friend told me, you're going to have to reach out to other people, or no one will reach out to you.

I'd grown up thinking myself the odd man out, always having felt an affinity with the kid in the corner; too shy to socialize, too slow to relax. And I was her: If you had seen me at a party or dance in high school, Pimps n' Hos (a product of all girls' school, a place of neglected libidos and very few outlets) or our middle-school dance ("Lightning: The Kind that Shocks You"), it was always me next to the speaker system, wearing too many clothes.

And college started that way, with too many clothes, and too many corners in which to take refuge. For the first couple of weeks of school, I learned to break the ice with a practiced spontaneity: "I really like your shoes."

There was a boy who sat in front of me at my freshman extension class: ("Fall Extension: For those who get into Berkeley through the back door," I was told), someone I immediately deemed a nerd. I gave him a snowflake in class, one I'd fashioned in my boredom from the leftover remains of a notebook. It was a peace offering, in search of good-faith assurance: I will try a limited form of socializing, and you will validate my efforts. And it took a significant effort, handing over that snowflake. Such a move was representative of many types of things I wanted to do if only I were brave enough, if not for the fear that someone would give me a look I knew (by then) so well: a glare, a mumbled "whatever." When he took the snowflake, he shrugged.

It's the minutes, after your creation's unsatisfactory debut, that tend to linger in your discomfort. Was I too open? Did I say too much? Did he not like my snowflake? The obsessions only get more condemning: Why am I a social failure? And: Damn that nerd.

The boy gave me a snowflake too, that day. He'd passed it back after a while, having put in much more effort and care than I had in mine. His had intricate zigzags and finely carved angles.

It was a small thing, that flimsy design, but one that helped contextualize my semester. For all the times you place yourself at the mercy of others - the real, nerdy you - for every other person who looks at you in disbelief, there will always be one other nerd who validates your efforts.

Going to a large public university, I've gotten used to the threat of anonymity that looms overhead. But I think it was moments like these, snowflake moments, when I was able to break through my own self-imposed isolation.They taught me that while the anonymity Berkeley offers can be overwhelming, it frames a larger message of self reliance.

I left school after sophomore year. Escaping to Thailand provided a welcome - and unexpected - relief, one that would last for more than three semesters' worth of academic hiatus. It was great but hard, inspiring me with a new-found excitement and new friends to boot. But I've always traced my experience abroad back to that sophomore year, to my heady and rash decision to leave.

It was really Berkeley that offered me with the opportunity to go. I don't mean for this "anonymity" crap to make you think that Berkeley is a terrible place - though it can be trying and daunting at times. For me, it will always be somewhere where I was encouraged (or forced) to make up my mind, to decide to live life on my own terms. That's been the most valuable part of it all, learning that I could dictate my future, and be trusted with enough responsibility to do so that I was even able to leave.

I'm back at school now. You probably guessed. I always left with the intention of coming back - it's because I was able to leave that I did.


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