While I was walking into town this past Sunday, a young man, around 30 years old, stopped me and asked if he could talk to me for a minute. I noticed the monitor around his ankle. It was broad daylight and I was in a group, so I agreed. He told us he got out of prison two weeks ago, although he didn’t tell us what he was in for. He also told us how he had met his boyfriend in the shelter and that he felt he was at his best. He said he’d been writing poetry to help himself stay on top, and asked if he could share it with us.
I was immediately impressed by his confidence. He spoke without faltering, no shakiness, maintained eye contact the entire time, and stopped to explain when he thought we might not understand something that he mentioned. The poem was beautiful, and when he stopped he thanked us for our time, reiterated that he was trying to be his best self, and asked if we could spare some change. When we apologized for not having any money to spare, he remained as friendly and cheerful as before.
It struck me at that moment that the poem was not for us. It was a performance that required an audience, but was not intended for one. After all, what could we possibly understand about his experience in prison? What could I say when my own experiences seemed so insignificant in comparison? What could we offer besides our ears to hear him? His words we could follow, but of his story, we remained ignorant. I felt less like a recipient of his artwork than a participant in it—the listener was part of the performance despite not fully understanding it. The man was not there to teach us a lesson. Rather, he and his art existed for himself, and our witnessing of it was merely a matter of probability.
So, too, with the city itself: Colorado Springs needs us, but it doesn’t exist for us. People comprise cities, people shape cities, but cities do not grow for the sake of the visitors or even the locals. It struck me that to judge a city is egotistical. I’ve lived here for less than a year, others at this school have lived here close to four years. To suggest that any one of us could understand the place in which we live and to claim to know Colorado Springs, however, would be arrogant and inaccurate. Yet so often at Colorado College, I hear sweeping statements about the people whose families have been here for generations, while we’ve just happened upon it for a short time of our transient lives. Claims like, “they’re conservative, they’re Trump supporters, they’re involved with the military, they’re religious and traditional.” These assumptions may be generally true, but the judgment that follows—that we are better educated, more conscious, more compassionate than most of those living around us—destroys a relationship from which we could learn a lot. Being an older and conservative Christian, a hypothetical stereotype in the Springs, is not a condition that detracts from what they have to say.
By assuming that we know the Springs, we close ourselves off from truly engaging with it. In defining ourselves in opposition to it, we fail to learn from it, and still we do nothing to change it. In Colorado Springs, I’ve seen a man trying to pick himself back up through art. In Colorado Springs, I’ve also been cat-called, I’ve seen addicts, and I’ve run a little faster on my way home when it started to get a bit too dark. I’ve had people nearly run me over and people who stop to let me cross even though they have a green light.
That Sunday performance didn’t necessarily reveal anything to me about Colorado Springs. Rather, it revealed how much CC students will never see of Colorado Springs, or of my home city of Boston, or of the world. Like a poem intended to help one man through his own difficult life, Colorado Springs will be as it is regardless of how we label it. We might as well decide to appreciate it.