Skip to main content

I Hear Voices

Sanda Balaban '94

I have a confession to make. I hear voices. Sometimes, unexpectedly, perhaps at 2 o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon, I am transported through time and space to a classroom as familiar to me as the beating of my heart. Although I can't always make out the exact words, I can distinguish the excited thrum that underscores the interchange of ideas. The scene is saturated with sunlight, shimmering through the room's wide windows and warming the shoulders of the students, who sit with their desks in a circle, eyes bright and mouths moist from the exertion of articulating thoughts pulled from the most passionate parts of themselves. It is as if these images are emblazoned on the inside of my eyelids; if I close my eyes, I can be whisked back to a moment seared into my subconscious more than a decade ago. Memories of Swarthmore often seem clearer to me than memories of, say, where I left my keys.

I've wondered why these recollections are so powerful. Although I certainly treasured my time at the College, I've also enjoyed the vibrancy of my postcollegiate experiences, few of which are ever evoked in the multisensory Technicolor of that particular Trotter classroom. Perhaps it's because if I hadn't experienced this kind of classroom, I never would have committed myself to trying to make other classrooms transformational sites of teaching and learning. If I hadn't benefited from the brilliant teaching of professors like Abbe Blum-whose responses to our seminar papers were often as long as the papers themselves and who was artfully able to engage with and honor our ideas while pushing us to probe deeper and develop our arguments further-I never would have aspired to become an educator myself.

Swarthmore was catalytic not only in my coming to consciousness but in determining my professional path. Although it's difficult to separate who I am from whom Swarthmore helped make me, I do know that before Swarthmore, none of the possible careers I envisioned for myself related to being a teacher or working in the field of education. The humdrummery of high school never sparked any desire to spend the rest of my life working in such a setting; yet by the time I was a junior at the College, I couldn't imagine wanting to be anywhere else. For at Swarthmore-particularly once I began to participate in seminars-I experienced the zenith of what education could be. This was an entirely different species of intellectual engagement than I had ever encountered, and I was dazzled by its possible implications for public education.

Initially, I went through a period of anger, feeling outraged that my own education at a well-regarded middle-class public high school had been so inadequate and, more disturbingly, realizing how much worse the quality of education is in most other schools across the country, particularly those (under)serving low-income children of color. Because I knew that only a privileged few would ever be able to attend Swarthmore (although thoughts of franchising Swarthmore  la Starbucks did occasionally dance like sugar plum fairies through my head), I was infused with a desire to emulate aspects of the Swarthmore experience and try to bring them to bear in K-12 classrooms. Although Swarthmore's academics certainly prepare one to flourish in any professional field-including those that are the most lucrative and prestigious-it does not surprise me that such a significant proportion of its graduates pursue "humble" careers in education.

My brother, who made the unfortunate choice to bypass Swarthmore in favor of an Ivy League university, once chided me for telling someone that he was hanging out with his college friends a few years after graduation. "That makes me sound like I haven't moved on from college," he complained. Well, perhaps I haven't moved on from college, for I take profound pride in maintaining relationships with respected and beloved friends from Swarthmore and eagerly forge new friendships with folks I didn't know during my four short years on campus. For me, the acquisition of these friendships alone is worth Swarthmore's sticker price. I've actively pursued interactions with alums by taking on responsibilities as class secretary and Connection co-chair in regions where I've lived, and I've been amazed that I almost always feel an intense kinship with Swarthmoreans from across the years. What is it, I've wondered, that can create such consistency in the kinds of people who emerge from the College? Is it that the crackerjack staff in the Admissions Office has an uncanny ability to identify "Swarthmore material"? Or is it that admitted students are akin to human tofu-rich in nutrients and so absorptive of the influence of other ingredients around us that after marinating in Swarthmore for four years, we emerge with a distinctive flavor that transcends eras? Probably a combination of the two. There is clearly a potent culture that characterizes the campus, encouraging us to open our minds and hearts, and cultivating a kind of wide-awakeness to the world that remains long after we graduate.

I still remember coming to the campus for the first time, to be interviewed. I applied to the College-as well as to 15 others, many of which interested me more-at the insistent urging of my mother (which, at the time, certainly didn't work to Swarthmore's advantage). When I agreed to visit Swarthmore, I viewed it merely as an opportunity for a "practice interview" without the high stakes of other, ostensibly more appealing, institutions. Wending my way up Magill Walk toward Parrish, I was struck by the lush beauty of the campus, but it was the beauty of what transpired after entering the building that sold me on the school. After being greeted by a woman whose name eludes me but whose kind smile I can instantly recall, we began to share ideas, impressions, and insights in an exchange that was much less an interview than it was a conversation. I realized that I wanted to continue this kind of conversation for the rest of my days. And I have done so, both literally (rarely does a week go by without some sort of stimulating discussion with an alum) and imaginatively (I conduct internal dialogues with Swarthmore professors and peers quite regularly, and these "conversations" always enrich my thinking).

Among the many things I learned at Swarthmore is the danger of essentializing, but I have found certain commonalities of character among Swarthmoreans: an inquisitiveness and liveliness of mind; a love of language and a desire to use it to express aspects of human experience; an appreciation of complexity; a sense of purpose and ever-unfolding possibility; a willingness to set ambitious, even audacious, goals for ourselves; a conscientiousness and creativity in questioning the realities of the world; and a commitment to taking action to improve it. Swarthmore is imbued with what I think of as intellectual activism-an appreciation of ideas not as abstractions but as applications meant to undergird ethical actions and interactions. One emerges from Swarthmore enlightened but certainly not lightened; understanding entails an obligation of sorts, and Swarthmoreans tend to carry the weight of radical responsibility in a way that many other college graduates do not. This is more of a blessing than a burden, as it enables us to achieve extraordinary things-and to be extraordinary people.

Years ago, I read a quote by Adlai Stevenson that seemed exquisitely applicable to that surreal, so-real time of our lives spent at Swarthmore: 

Your days are short here;
This is the last of your springs. 
And now, in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, 
Touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven. 
You will go away with old, good friends. 
And don't forget, when you leave, why you came. 

I never will.

Sanda Balaban recently became special assistant to the Bronx, N.Y., regional school superintendent, working on educational strategies for that borough.