My dance professor stresses the importance of body movement as a form of non-verbal communication, and having spent half a semester examining and performing various forms of motion, I’m inclined to agree that sometimes our bodies do speak for us. Taking the class has made me pay more attention to the ways we communicate with each other, and what’s struck me the most is the extent to which everyone on the Wesleyan campus believes in the open exchange and expression of ideas in all shapes and forms. Political science defines transparency as a social context that promotes openness, communication, and accountability. Although tacitly at times, it seems that Wesleyan has taken this ethos to heart.
In some cases, this discussion stems from institutions actively seeking out feedback. Bon Apetit, the Wesleyan dining company, conducts open Q&A sessions on its practices and how they may be made more environmentally friendly. Questionnaires are distributed to understand how students feel about the course selection system: are there ways in which it can be improved? Are there any types of classes you wish were offered?
Simply between students, however, the level of open dialog is amazing. Whether through political – or anti-political, in the case of many of my classmates involved in the Occupy movement – activism, environmental lobbying, poetry, music, or chalking (a theoretically banned campus practice of expression through sidewalk chalk), the entire campus seeks to engage in a discussion of what it means be young and alive in the 21st century. Jumping into this conversation is one of the hardest parts of being a freshman.
The hubbub of orientation has long since subsided. Time has led to closer relationships with peers and professors, but it’s sometimes hard to express yourself in a way that you know will really convey your message. I think this is what drew me to slam poetry.
In mid-September last year’s Wesleyan slam team – which placed 7th in the country – showcased their work and held meetings to acquaint newcomers with the community and how the team is assembled. 3 preliminary slams are held as qualifiers: 12 poets compete in the first round, and the top 8 move on to the second round. The top 4 cumulative scorers – from both the 1st and 2nd rounds – then qualify for the grand slam to be held at the end of the semester, which determines who will be on this year’s competition team. Judges are random people from the crowd who cannot be related to, really want to hook up with, have hooked up with, vehemently hate, or be in any way connected to the poets. Scores range from 1 to 10, although audiences are encouraged to boo the judges if they believe the scores are unfair. Everyone has a voice, and in this context I was encouraged to find my own. After two months, countless revisions, tireless workshopping, and a best friend who had heard my poem so many times she could nearly recite it from memory as if it were her own, I stood in front of a room of quasi-familiar faces, ready to spill my guts in 3 minutes and 10 seconds.
My hands shook as I gripped the microphone, speaking of experiences of New York in the summer and the process by which I came to be “boring holes into paper not strong enough to withstand the frenzied dance of my pen across blurred blue lines”. The thing that scared me the most was not that I was performing in front of a crowd of people, but the words themselves, and the fact that I was being open and honest enough to bare a piece of my soul in linguistic terms. I had to engage my audience, I had to engage my facilities, but above all I had to engage myself in a dialog about what it was I wanted to communicate, and how I became 1 of the 3,000+ voices on campus clamoring away about everything and nothing at all. Finally finding a way to express my voice was an experience better than anything that can be judged on a scale of 1 to 10.
Penina Yaffa Kessler is a freshman at Wesleyan University. She enjoys being barefoot, fresh fruit, live music, and all the other important things in life. Her column, Fresh Off the Block, appears here on alternating Saturdays.