- Illustration by Daniel Baxter
Despite having spent countless hours on the Internet, there is only one Google search I distinctly remember making. One day, when I lived at home in Ireland, I was so utterly and completely fed up with school that I typed “summer abroad” into Google and pressed Enter. I was hoping that a beautiful montage of interesting language programs and exotic backpacking destinations would flood my computer screen, transporting me, if only momentarily, away from the gloomy Irish day and my debilitating boredom into a world of beautiful colors and accented whispers. No such montage materialized.
Instead, something quite different appeared as the first search result. I clicked it. I read. I thought about what I read. The program described sounded good. I applied. I went. I loved it. I returned home, grew more maddened by the Irish educational system, decided to leave it, and left. And, in leaving, changed the entire trajectory of my life.
The link I clicked that fateful day directed me to Harvard Summer School’s Secondary School Program website. I clicked it toward the end of my sophomore year of high school—called “Transition Year” in Ireland, designed to allow students to take some time off from the humdrum curriculum in order to “personally develop.” In my school, this “personal development” came only in very specific, structured packages, neatly wrapped and presented to us in the form of starting our own mini-companies, performing at an annual show, taking random classes in self-defense, drama, and first aid, selling charity badges to strangers on the streets of Dublin, and very little else that I can remember.
The general idea of the Year is for students to escape from the overly exam-focused system: in Ireland, our entire pre-collegiate education boils down to the preparation for, and results of, two sets of examinations—the first, when you’re about 14, the second, at the very end of senior year. The results of the second set are the only criteria for college admissions. Everything else is just a test run; your whole secondary-school education comes down to two weeks of exams at the very end. No essays, no extracurriculars, no school transcripts, no recommendations—just making State Examination grades. The End is all that matters. You are merely an examination number, with no face and no background, just a set of results; labeled test tubes in a clinical, sterile “learning” lab.
Transition Year is meant to set you free from this learning lobotomy. But, because all your new “explorative” classes are taught by the same teachers who teach toward state exams, the learning rubric does not change. The freedom we received was only technical—we were given computers with which to occupy the majority of our days. Classes mostly consisted of free time: free packaged presents. But really, the time was unfree: you couldn’t be present in it at all, because you had to stay in class, aimlessly “researching” things on your computer, or mindlessly watching “educational” films. We had to stick with the constrained curriculum, in which the present never really lived—it only passed past us until the school bell rang, shrilly signaling the end of yet another regimented segment of time.
Because preparation for our judgment-day exams had been paused, motivation was generally lacking, or at least slacking, before we all hit junior year. This was hardly surprising: without the structure of preparing for our state exams, our education system has very little to fall back on—in fact, it means nothing at all. So, we were instructed to “personally grow” in a period that was structured into carefully partitioned “free time” that was constantly filled. We were given “freedom” that was both meaningless and endless.
To me, the whole notion seemed forced. Even so, Transition Year was obligatory: I was forced to be unfreely free. So, I took my freedom, at my expense, and made it pay, my way. And pay my way it did, for one of the most useful of all my personal developments in Transition year took place in my bank account. I worked double the number of hours I had worked since I started working when I was 12. And by the time I grew frustrated with the stagnation of all “developments” during the Year, I had saved enough money to leave transitioning, and Ireland. So that’s exactly what I did. I made the most documented, and undocumented, of all Irish moves: I moved away.
I arrived at Harvard for summer school with no knowledge of what to expect. I didn’t know anything about the American college system, didn’t know what liberal arts meant, had no notion of applying to schools here, and no family or friends in America to explain anything to me. All I had was the names of my two classes, a mind full of a deficit of interest, freshly harvested from Transition Year, and a bank account that was almost empty of four years of my time. Luckily, my post-transitioned mind was in the perfect state to be filled, and the bottled-up time I had been saving was perfectly spilled right back into my head—just like water raining back down into a mirroring sea. Classes, instead of being full of answers, were full of questions. And, for the first time, I discovered that I suited questions a lot better than I suited answers. My time, in being reflectively spent, was set free—in and of itself.
I returned home filled with difference—with different ways of thinking and different types of friends, with different words for different worlds. But this time, I had a weapon to fend off the straitjacketed system. I had knowledge that, somewhere, I could find an education of questions—a place where ceilings are only made of sky. This place wasn’t Harvard, or America, even though Harvard was the first place I really found it. Instead, it’s a state of mind—the only state in which I think any of us can be truly free, where legitimacy, because it lives in questions themselves, is unquestionable and, as such, is the most definite form of legitimacy there can be. It just clicked for me, and has been clicking ever since.
Now, as a rising junior, I’m a proctor for Harvard Summer School. I’m the primary question-answering resource for 13 rising high-school seniors. Each of them is older than I was when I first came here, one Transition Year old and completely clueless about all things American. They’re full of questions—mostly about where classes are and what Harvard life is like. They all seem a lot harder working, and immensely less shy, than I was when I was where they are. They know a lot more about the college application process than I do, and seem a lot surer about what they want. I can answer some of their questions, though, and can show them where some things are and how some things work.
My favorite question I’ve been asked so far was asked of me on one of the very first days of the Summer School term. My co-proctor and I walked some students from our hall to dinner in Annenberg, where we sat together after navigating the still-confused crowd in the servery. I can’t remember many details of the table conversation. But, I do remember looking down at my glass of water and seeing the reflection of the vaulted ceiling dancing across the liquid’s surface. I looked up as one of my students, holding his own empty glass in his hand, excitedly asked, “Do we get free refills?”
“Yes,” I answered. “The refills are most definitely free.”