There and Back Again
Deflating the Kenyon Bubble
By Jon Green
When classes began last fall I was nowhere to be found. I had left Kenyon to work on the Obama campaign in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia as a field organizer, in line with the plan I had kept in the back of my mind since my senior year of high school when I was an intern on the 2008 campaign.
The funny thing about campaigns is that, no matter how organized they look, they are all a chaotic jumble of moving parts and changing plans. On August 29th, I received a phone call asking me to become one of those moving parts by taking a small promotion and moving to Hampton, Virginia to become that area’s deputy regional field director. Had President Obama not been holding a rally in my turf the next day, I would have been in the car the following morning. In light of the circumstances, I waited until September 1st.
I should have felt considerably less-than-prepared to live up to the standards that I would be held to by those both above and below me. Being the first of only three deputy regional field directors in the state (for perspective, the campaign divided Virginia into twenty-one regions), I had no set job description other than, “this area is a mess — go fix it.” As I found out, that meant training and managing staffers who were in the position I had held the day before. Entering data, calling volunteers and registering voters immediately became scrutinizing spreadsheets, running offices and soothing local party leaders. But, with no spare time and no learning curve, things were moving too fast for me to realize that I should have been freaking out. As it turned out, I was able to swim in the pool I had been proverbially thrown into, and you know the rest.
But this story actually begins much earlier, in the summer following my freshman year. I spent that summer tramping through the deepest parts of central Virginia looking to find votes for then-Congressman Tom Perriello. Tom was an underdog fighting for underdogs, the kind of politician everyone says they want. It would have been hard to do the same work for anyone else, but I felt like I needed to do it for him. So when my summer fellowship turned into a job offer, I won an argument with my parents and told the Dean’s office that I wouldn’t be back for the fall.
Those four months were more work than I knew was possible. Friday nights were reserved for data entry; Saturday mornings were for training canvassers. Evenings were spent on the phone; lunch was spent hunched over a computer reviewing lists. When we didn’t have the time to go out and buy food our volunteers took pity and cooked for us. Sleep deprivation turned into laughter and stress turned into adrenaline. The first poll we saw had us down by twenty-six percent; we lost by three. If it hadn’t been worth it, we wouldn’t have cried.
Returning to Kenyon was welcome and fun, but awkward. Having dropped off the face of the earth as far as Kenyon’s tight-knit social network was concerned, the traditional “Hey” on Middle Path was instead an “Oh my God, I thought you transferred!” Having taken a semester off, I wasn’t quite a sophomore but definitely didn’t feel like a freshman. Either way, it always took me a minute or two to explain when I’d be graduating.
The most notable difference, though, was the change of pace. Talking and writing on the campaign happened in short bursts, moving sentence by sentence; communicating at Kenyon required more deliberation but came with less pressure, thereby flowing paragraph by paragraph. Quick and concise responses to hot-button issues which became robotic after their third use gave way to the acceptance, even expectation, of error and spontaneity in seminar. One-pagers that packed volumes of policy into a series of bullet points were replaced by papers longer than the documents they cited. On the campaign, I was expected to think on my feet; at Kenyon, I was expected to think for myself.
But after dropping everything for my congressman in 2010, taking another semester off for the Obama campaign was a no-brainer. I gave the Dean’s office, and my friends, a little extra advance notice and returned home last May expecting to re-live my experience from two years before.
One of my biggest observations from my time away from Kenyon has been how silly it is to consider myself “ready” for anything. Two campaigns have left me with three separate groups of friends, memories and experiences, each wholly independent of both themselves and my life here at Kenyon. What ties them together, aside from being in Democratic politics, is that I felt equally underprepared with each step I took. No matter how qualified we are and no matter how “ready” we rightfully should be, every new thing we do is, well, new. Like most Kenyon students, I came to college feeling totally unprepared and without a path forward set in stone. I should not have been surprised that leaving brought a similar set of circumstances.
At Kenyon, you can score points in a conversation by talking about “the bubble” and how far removed we are from wherever we go next. We find it healthy to check our egos against our naïveté and to remind ourselves that life at Kenyon is phony and easy compared to the so-called “real world.” But each of my experiences away from Kenyon, in this “real world,” were bubbles in and of themselves, none of which left me confident for my “graduation” into each new role.
Sooner or later we are all going to leave Kenyon and dive headfirst into a job we don’t know how to do. While Kenyon doesn’t prepare you for that experience, neither does an employer. My time away from Kenyon on campaigns has taught me many things, but most importantly it has taught me to be ready to not be ready.