If I were to write a film to tell my life story, I know exactly how it’d open:
The air was stale and dry. The walls were cold concrete. Aside from me and my friends, the long, filthy room held nothing but a folding table, a blackboard, rolling chairs and the American flag we’d brought to adorn the space.
One of my friends had signed his name in Sharpie on the wall. Another had a trash can lid on his head and a yardstick in his hand, poised to guard us against any intruders. My geometry teacher bashed her fists against the other side of the barricaded door, fighting to figure out who was beyond it.
We were supposed to graduate the eighth grade in mere hours.
This wasn’t the first time I’d flagrantly disobeyed the rules, nor would it be the last. My mom has always told me I have “trouble with authority.” I see it more as a healthy skepticism towards the powers that be.
On the day of our eighth grade graduation, a few of my friends and I decided that rather than sitting around waiting for the ceremony to start, we’d pay a visit to the underground bomb shelter that sat beneath our middle school. When my geometry teacher finally thrust the shelter door open, she had anger in her eyes but no hint of surprise at who she’d found.
When I break the rules, it’s not for no reason. Sometimes the reason is plain ol’ fun, but that doesn’t mean the risk isn’t calculated.
I was about to graduate public middle school, a land of lawlessness and chaos in which I’d never felt more alive, only to enter Catholic high school, a land of order, structure and guilt. I wasn’t happy about my big move, but I was certain it was going to ensure that I’d walk out of this bomb shelter ordeal completely unscathed.
This sounds like it should be the part where I was punished mercilessly and made to learn from my inappropriate actions. However, I really did walk out of the bomb shelter ordeal completely unscathed, and so did all my friends.
What I learned that day, and what I’ve learned every day since, is that most (obviously not all) rules have a time and a place to be broken. When I was in eighth grade, the rules seemed as simple as where I was allowed to be and when, but as I’ve grown older, they’ve only become more complex.
The word “rules” may first invoke images of courts or judges or laws, but those are not the kinds of rules that I want to discuss. Laws are easy to break, and most college kids break them all the time (I’m talking about jaywalking, obviously). But the implicit rules that govern our society are much harder to recognize and much harder to break.
It’s one thing to break the rules that tell you how to act, but it’s another thing to break the rules that tell you who you are.
In a spur-of-the-moment decision, my friends and I decided to sneak into the bomb shelter. But it wasn’t in a spur-of-the-moment decision that I decided to stop pretending I was heterosexual, or that I felt comfortable wearing dresses and skirts and calling myself a “lady.” Breaking those rules took a lot of time, but in the end, they were rules worth breaking.
When I look around Lehigh, and when I look around the world, I notice a lot of people getting caught up in rules I always thought were silly. Obviously, the only experience I can speak to is my own, but I can’t help but worry some people get so stuck in made-up rules, they forget to figure out who they actually are.
Every group has rules. Sometimes these rules exist to protect us from the worst of the world, but sometimes they exist for basically no reason. My high school, for example, had specific rules about what color socks students could wear. Who am I hurting by wearing purple socks?
If there’s one piece of advice I could offer to the world, it’d be to try and understand what’s really at stake in breaking or following the rules which dominate our lives. I’ve always sought to define myself by the rules I break rather than the ones I follow. Nobody ever accomplished anything extraordinary by doing exactly what was expected of them.
Sometimes the rules are easy to break, and sometimes they’re hard to break. In either case, it’s always worth thinking about what can happen if you try.