While on a summer symposium in high school, I had a very upsetting and memorable experience. See, we had a presentation-turned-almost-meeting one day with a man who had done highly valued things with his life so far, – it was a world youth leadership symposium – and he started off the presentation by asking us as a group, ‘Who are you?’ I was near the back of the room, and that was how the trouble occurred for me.
The first kids answered by the standard social behavior of giving his name, etc. I instantly commented mentally that he hadn’t answered the question. The man had asked who he was, not what his name was or where he lived. The talking went along, one by one, around the seats in the room, heading back towards me. Occasionally, the man repeated his question, asking who people were, but not always. No one strayed from the name-giving routine. I grew anxious about how to answer. Was the man being the way so many people seemed to be, unaware of the actual words he was using, really only want to know our names and ages, and a bit of our backgrounds? Or did he mean what he was asking? Was he genuinely asking who we each were?
Considering how everyone else had responded and reacted to his question, I was leaning toward the former. Taking into account that my mother and I were not exactly normal, and that we would have meant what we’d asked with such a question, I leaned even more towards the former. I determined that I would answer his question, should he ask it to me directly. ‘Who are you?’ he would ask, and I would reply nervously with an honest, ‘I don’t know.’
My turn arrived. I waited a few moments before speaking, waiting for his question. But it didn’t come. Thrown, I faltered and defaulted, stumblingly, to my name. However, I was very specific with my words. Rather than everyone else’s phrase of, “I’m [insert name here],” I said, “My name is Hannah.” No, it was not an answer to the original question, but it seemed to be the expectation. And I had answered honestly and consciously. I was not carelessly declaring that my name was who I was, but consciously stating that my name was, in fact, my name. I didn’t want to be any more isolated than I had already felt in the group of the symposium, by giving an odd answer. And especially when the person asking the question hadn’t wanted such an answer.
I never liked my answer, nonetheless.
After we finished going around the room with the lame (in my opinion) introductions, the man took up speaking again. He stated how it was interesting that he as asked us ‘who we are,’ but everyone had automatically answered with their names, as though he had asked their names – we had all unconsciously answered a question that wasn’t even asked, but assumed, instead of answering the question asked.
I still feel a huge sob within me, whenever I think about it, actually. I was simultaneously inwardly mortified and furious. I had made the incorrect assessment of the situation for one thing, and my conscious care of words had gone seemingly unnoticed. I felt scolded, and angry, and I just wanted to spit at his assumption and leave. And I still respected him and his work. I just hated how he had tied me to being unconscious. I’m not sure I have ever been unconscious about such things…
The things that stick with us…