A Masked Manifesto

I’m sure everyone on campus has heard quite a bit about the Student Body President over the past few days. Some might say that she shirked responsibilities, that she put forth a false image, or that she was forced into an uncomfortable position by the administration. And while every story has multiple sides, the real conflict seems to delve deeper than a finger pointing game of who-wronged-whom. Maya made mistakes, as did the administration, as did, perhaps, the rest of us. But we must hesitate when situations like this one tempt us to yield on the side of hasty judgment.

If I’ve learned one thing over my years here, it’s that you can’t blame a person for what he or she, as an individual, represents. And Maya certainly does stand for something unique. To me, Maya represents controversiality, confidence, a face for the marginalized. Some might say she represents poise and honesty. Others might say she represents carelessness. So, regardless of how much or how little she deserves the consequences of her actions, we must at least acknowledge her for her fully-realized sense of self.

That said, Maya’s candidacy for Student Body President did carry with it a certain set of implications. That she identified with the school, maybe. That she was prepared to put forth a good face for an institution larger than herself, that she was willing to place her own values aside to be the figurehead of a well-respected organization. She was expected to put on a show, throw her voice—or as Michael Fowlin described, wear a mask. Interesting, though, that Maya’s performance was one of paradoxes more than pretentions. When Maya was elected Student Body President, she was expected to represent the norm; the Other became the Self; the oppressed became the empowered. She was, in a sense, her own adversary.

Maybe, in running for president, Maya should have been more conscious of the responsibilities involved. Being the president of this iron-gated organization means upholding two-hundred-plus years of carefully-constructed tradition. It means differentiating your own values from the needs of the community. And maybe she wasn’t ready to or able to do that, however belatedly she might have realized. So she stepped down, she drew the curtain between Maya Peterson and the President of the Lawrenceville School. Whether for better or for worse, Maya brought to our attention the limits of an individual in assuming an artificial identity and the limits of the community in bridging the gap.

But if Maya is at all incriminated by the events that unfolded this break, then we, and everyone else involved with The Lawrenceville School, should be questioned equally as much. No one can deny that Maya Peterson’s image as uber-diverse Student Body President contributed to Lawrenceville’s reputation as a cutting-edge boarding school. Maya may have stubbornly defied her presidential responsibilities to repress or refine herself, she may have intentionally and exaggeratedly gone against the grain; but Lawrenceville also cherished that very image as a token in its favor. I have witnessed at least one tour where Maya was advertised as a representation of our school’s diversity; I have been in at least one conversation where arguments regarding Lawrenceville’s homogeneity have been settled with the phrase “Well, take a look at the Student Body President.” While we critique Maya for taking advantage of the position of Student Body President, it might be best to ask ourselves if we were the ones exploiting her image for the sake of our own sense of self-importance.

Sometimes, it’s not so easy to categorize antagonists and protagonists; heroes and villains. Sometimes, the martyrs get in the way of themselves, the heroic image only leads us astray from the genuine, and the imagined enemies act with more conviction than anyone else. But across campus, these assumptions of a clean-cut, fairytale outline of events nonetheless manifest themselves in the form of questions. Was Maya wrong to step down? Were we wrong to elect her? Did the administration set a double standard? And I can’t pretend to offer an answer. The debate will no doubt be messy, without a clear beginning or conclusion. I only advise anyone who might be listening to consider Maya’s actions as a critique of our own values, instead of chalking her decisions off as poor judgment. And maybe, also, to allow time and perspective to temper any potentially premature opinions.

While Maya Peterson’s resignation might be the end of a presidential career, it is the beginning of a discussion that will last much longer. Now, no matter what our opinions might be, the controversy forces us to confront a series of questions that resonate throughout our community. What exactly does our school stand for? Just how responsible are we for the implications of our actions? And when, if ever, can we take off our masks and step down from the stage?