In January 2017, I published a post by Zachary Wood, then a 21-year-old student at Williams College who hailed from one of Washington’s toughest neighborhoods. Despite significant challenges, he pursued his education at the private Bullis School in Potomac, Md., traveling two hours to get to campus for most of his high school years and finishing at an online high school. With financial help from arts patron Peggy Cooper Cafritz, he attended a Stanford University summer college program and was accepted early decision to the prestigious liberal arts college.
At Williams, Wood became president of Uncomfortable Learning, a speakers program that gives a forum to people espousing highly controversial views. His first book, “Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America,” was recently released.
Here is a new piece from him about how his education at Williams has affected how he views his own life and how confronting pain and speaking openly about traumatic experiences can strengthen “those who mustered the courage to do so.”
By Zachary Wood
My mother wasn’t at my recent graduation from Williams College.
We haven’t been close since the spring of 2010, when a call interrupted an afternoon of shooting hoops at the YMCA.
When I picked up the phone, my mother spoke curtly. “Zachary, Child Protective Services is here. Please come home as soon as you can.”
My heart started pounding and beads of sweat rolled down my cheek. All I could think about was my mother’s rage. I got on my bike and rode home as quickly as I could.
What I thought would be a single interview turned into a full investigation.
After telling CPS that my mom — when her brilliance lost the battle with her schizophrenic delusions — would turn our small house into a minefield, I moved to Washington to live with my father, uncle, grandmother and sister.
It was a place with gaping holes in the kitchen floor, leaks in the roof. But my dad, he was stable. I might have inherited a dilapidated home, but I’d left behind all the ways that schizophrenia steals love and replaces it with pain.
When I came to Williams, none of my classmates knew about my mother’s illness, my family’s poverty. At the time, I thought that if I told someone, they would see me differently, in a light less positive than I desired.
Ashamed of my past, I pretended it didn’t exist.
But after two semesters, something happened. I was taking a course called “Challenges of Knowing,” when my professor explained that his study of the Holocaust, particularly the stories of survivors, had led him to the conclusion that anecdotal evidence serves a unique purpose: It humanizes facts, figures and abstract ideas in ways that allow us to cultivate empathy and compassion.
He said that as a quantitative social scientist, he valued reliable metrics and good data, but that stories about people’s lived experiences often give texture and meaning to the more technical knowledge surrounding complicated issue areas, particularly for those outside of academia. He went on to discuss the power of confronting trauma, and how, in the context of the Holocaust, the stories of brave survivors help many of us to think about that period of history in a more detailed and complex way.
I’d read many novels and memoirs, and I believed as strongly as anyone that literature could be quite powerful. To me, learning about other people’s stories was fascinating and enlightening.
Yet I hadn’t thought much about how confronting pain and speaking openly about traumatic experiences could strengthen those who mustered the courage to do so.
After listening to my professor speak about the power of vulnerability in the context of the Holocaust — whose survivors had endured the unimaginable — I started to think about my past in a different light.
I had never thought that sharing my own story could lead to anything other than shame or anxiety.
I held onto the insight I’d gained from that course. As I explored a broader range of ideas and perspectives on myriad issues, I realized that part of college, for many, was about was developing a voice grounded in one’s identity.
In addition to my professors at Williams, many of the scholars whose work I found most influential thought about the world and the issues they studied in relation to their identity and the uniqueness of their experience.
One of the more salient examples for me was W.E.B. Du Bois. In a class I took on African American literature, we read “The Souls of Black Folk.” During office hours, I talked with the professor for hours about how Du Bois’s experience of race in America influenced his work, and how his experience differed in interesting ways from those of other prominent African American writers. My conversations with this professor helped me begin to see the value in reflecting on how various aspects of my life had informed my worldview.
But it wasn’t just these courses that helped me build the confidence to come to terms with my past. It was also the environment and ethos of Williams, at its best. At this point, I had developed relationships with people from a variety of backgrounds, a number of whom had overcome tremendous obstacles to get to Williams, just as I had.
I learned that people’s lives, even those who are incredibly wealthy, are often messy. As I got to know my friends and professors better, I grew into the belief that belonging to a community means not being ashamed of who you are.
And they taught me that we can choose to overcome the adversity we face. We don’t have to hide it, and we don’t have to let it define us.
Over the last two years, I have begun to rebuild my relationship with my mother. Speaking to her and confronting the past has been extremely difficult for us both. Sometimes, after our conversations, I’ll get off the phone feeling terrible for resenting the one woman on this Earth whom I’m supposed to adore.
But we’re going to keep talking.