The Program

My first year at St. John’s College

By Shweta Agarwal

It was my first day in Annapolis, and Mr. L, my high school principal and mentor, was there. It was almost 85F, Mr. L, with all his energy, and I, sticky and jet lagged, had explored half the city on foot and all I could think about was that it felt like Kolkata’s humidity and Delhi’s heat, combined. This is the worst combination of summer possible, and I was so sure that I had made the wrong decision. Just then, while walking through a bookstore looking for the Ancient Greek textbook, I met my first Nepali friend, Sanju, a sophomore at St. John’s, and my first Indian friend, Ritu, the owner of the Indian store on Maryland Avenue, and somehow while remembering the Himalayas together, we all were swept, by a spontaneous invitation to a farewell party for a Rimpoche who had practiced in Sikkim (at Rumtek Monastery) for 10 years! The porch of the beautiful house had prayer flags and a kind faced Rimpoche surrounded by joyful people and momos. Even though I was 7,736 miles away, home had found a way to follow me.

I came to Annapolis to pursue a liberal arts education at St. John’s College. Discussions at Taktse, my high school in the Himalyas, had given me a taste of the education I wanted and after learning that the program here has a strong focus on discourse, reading, and analysis; I decided to apply. All the classes here are seminar style (we sit around a table with tutors who begin with opening questions about texts that we are assigned). We mainly study philosophy, mathematics, language, and science. On Monday and Thursday evenings we have seminars on the most crucial readings central to the Great Books Program. Tutors begin with a question on the reading and we use references to the text to present our theories on what we think it means. As I watch and listen it seems like a dance. When I try it, it seems more like fishing, where you put your hook and bait in and wait. If that doesn’t work, you try angling and usually end up with a spear. I am learning though, transitioning from needing leading questions from someone else, to learning how to find and answer my own questions.

In Chanmari house in Sikkim, we often had discussions about identity. We talked about our struggle belonging to the ethnic groups we were born into, in relation to who we really were. Even though these discussions helped me feel less like an outsider in Sikkim and in India, they were also extremely stressful because I always wanted to say something amazing, something that pleased everyone. And in the end, the thoughts I did have often died without voice because they were never profound or creative enough for me. The need to be perfect for others has taken so much energy and focus that I did not notice it had also paralyzed me. I saw this same nervously quiet Shweta in seminars, desperate to share a thought that would really take the discussion to the next level.

In my first “Don Rag,” a St. John’s feedback mechanism (we don’t have grades), also sometimes referred to as judgement day, my tutors had a conversation about my performance in class while I sat there listening. They said, ‘she is quite courageous in difficult moments in class,’ but also ‘she could take more control during the discussion’. There was such encouragement and truth in their words. Because all classes are seminar style, the tutors are equally a part of the discussion, and I am the only one left telling myself to speak up. I am realizing how different the world is here and that I was—and perhaps still am—like Meno, the student of Socrates, seeking concepts and definitions to memorize for perfect grades and avoiding reasoning.

When I reached America last fall, we took an Uber from the airport in Washington D.C., but instead of the dark tunnel highways on the drive to the airport in Delhi, it was bright blue, airplanes slowly rolling and trailing in the sky. I could see so much more of the sky here. Outside, it was all horizontal like a map rolled out all the way. No mountains or sloping, winding roads. I was in America. My thoughts wandered differently here. Does geography shift mindset? Will I survive?

I have begun to ask my own questions. Perhaps this is a good beginning.

I am not alone

This education that I am enjoying so much would not have been possible without the guidance I have received. I feel very blessed.

Thank you to my first poet friend, Ralph Black, for inspiring me and inviting me into your family.

Thank you to all my tutors at St. John’s for gently cultivating my mind and soul.

Thank you to Taktse for preparing me for a rigorous and joyful life (Ms. Yolmo you were right about needing literature skills for understanding our humanity:)

Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Porter for giving me a most wonderful roommate and for inviting me into your home.

Thank you Mummy, Papa, and Didi for giving me this incredible opportunity.

This Summer

I am very excited to go home to Sikkim and organize seminars with friends and former teachers around readings that I have really enjoyed here (the Republic, Symposium, Meno, etc.). I look forward to sharing my St. John’s education with my community.

The student writing staff of the johnnie chair blog

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