I first met Calen when we were both selected for the mythical organization that is Frosh Revue, sparking many tremendous evenings of improv and, subsequently, friendship. I sat down with Calen to catch up about his untraditional, or rather exceedingly traditional, high school, his first forays into tour guiding and more.
Could you talk a bit about where you call home?
Right now, I live in a suburb of Phoenix. I was born in Inglewood and moved when I was six, so it’s kind of a weird dichotomy I live in. I’m black but lived in a mostly white neighborhood, went to mostly white schools, and moving out of Inglewood, which is a heavily black community, was a big change. I grew up with a single mother, and I have two brothers, a baby brother who’s 3 years old and an older brother who’s a senior in college and is actually married.
I think the person in your family all of our friends especially want to meet is your grandmother — she sounds pretty awesome.
My grandma is a legend; she was actually the first black woman to graduate from Baylor University and has been one of those inspirations in my life, [someone] who has definitely saved my family in a lot of ways.
What was the transition to the College like for you?
On a basic level, I mean, Phoenix is hot, and I had to learn very quickly that Williamstown is not so warm. Also coming from a city, this is pretty different even from a suburb. I also had this conception of college that it would be super diverse which would mean that I would finally get out of the really white spaces I was in, and that definitely wasn’t as true as I thought it would be. Definitely, though, having that solidarity with people of color here has been amazing. I underestimated how hard it would be adjusting to college, but I’ve definitely found people and professors here that I wouldn’t trade for anything. In a lot of ways I romanticized college a lot because I was pretty eager to move away from where I was, and then you have a more sober realization.
I heard you went to a very interesting high school.
Yeah. My high school was called Glendale Preparatory Academy. It’s part of a set of schools in Arizona called Great Hearts Schools, and they’ve since moved it to Texas, and, basically, they have this very hardcore liberal arts philosophy in the sense of following a very strict “Great Books” program in the model of Aristotle to Aquinas, this program of great Catholic scholarship. It was pretty rigorous, definitely with a very strict culture there.
Was it like living in a medieval theocratic world?
One of the funny things at my school was that we had a rule where you weren’t allowed to talk about popular culture in class or at all at school. Obviously some teachers who were less strict would let that rule go. I have gotten more than one detention, one time for making a Lady Gaga reference in class, which I thought was clever, but the teacher didn’t think so, and other times for talking about politics, even. It was very choking in ways.
How did your school define pop culture?
There was this weird rumor, a really big topic around school, that we had this 50 year rule where if it was newer than 50 years ago it was pop culture. Well, then the administration put out this official statement that was like, “no, that’s not a rule, we leave it to the ‘discretion of teachers,’” which is obviously insane because it was pretty much up to the discretion of whoever felt like it at the moment.
What was prom like then?
We had required dance lessons for our prom, and we danced five different classical dance styles. It was like a real promenade, so you showed up, there was a cocktail hour, and you had dance cards, and we had all these really horrible and sexist etiquette rules that we had to follow that were taught to us the week before prom. Girls literally couldn’t walk around prom without being escorted — it was kind of horrible. We had dance cards that said the song and what dance it was, and you filed that out during the cocktail hour with the people you wanted to dance with, and then you couldn’t really stray from those official dances. It was pretty Victorian, from a very old era.
You also had a bit of an interesting college application process, yes?
I had a kind of rocky January; I had applied to five schools, and I decided in mid-February that I wanted to apply to Notre Dame, which was a school where I had done a summer program, a school I have a lot of friends at. My friends were like, “see if you can apply late, they might let you in,” and I actually somehow convinced its admissions office to let me in late, and they flew me out for free, and I still ended up not going, but I actually still talk to my admission counselor from there – he’s a good guy, no huge hard feelings; we have each other on Snapchat.
You’ve had a few interesting occurrences as a tour guide, yes?
Giving tours is fun because there’s this solidarity amongst tour guides of funny things that have happened to us; having been thrown into that really early over spring break, I did have a scary tour moment, where I had the bad idea of taking a tour into my own entry. We went up to the entry common room, and one of the things tour guides complain about is that tours love to look at the quote boards, and obviously the quotes aren’t always the most appropriate. I had a quote on the quote board that was pretty much dead in the middle … Anyways, a few people on my tour noticed and they actually had the audacity to ask me about it, which I pretty much just ignored and had a red face for the rest of the tour. I’ve had some nightmares about that.
Did you enjoy Frosh Revue?
Frosh Revue is one of my favorite things about Williams. Frosh Revue is one of those places on campus where people from all different backgrounds and stripes and colors can just be themselves and be weird, and there’s just this amazing support within that group. Most of my friends get tired of me talking about Frosh Revue, I talk about it so much.
What are you going to be doing this summer?
I’ll be on UCLA’s campus taking a film class for six weeks, but I’ll also be working as an advisor for the National Recognition Program from US Presidential Scholars. Since I was a presidential scholar last year, they have former scholars come and basically be RAs for the program.
Did you get to meet President Barack Obama?
I did not. They’d sent us all these ambiguous emails before we’d shown up to D.C., “we can never promise anything, but we really hope you’ll be able to meet some important people.” So we were like, “OK, we’re going to meet the president.” I showed up and they were still being cryptic, and we go to our first event, and they say, “guys, we’re really sorry, we couldn’t get President Obama. He’s still vacationing in Hawaii,” which we knew was false, since we knew he was coming back the next day. So we let that go, and then they said Joe Biden would be coming, and Joe Biden ended up cancelling because he said he had an important speech the next day. It turns out, I looked on CNN five minutes later, it said, “Joe Biden to give speech derailing Trump.” I was like, “how hard can it be to derail Trump, that can’t be that hard.” Anyways, we showed up, and our keynote speaker, though, was Tim Kaine. As a hardcore political buff, I knew he was being considered for VP, and I was really excited, though honestly most people didn’t really know who he was. Then, of course, as we were walking out, President Obama’s motorcade flies right by us.
You’re also involved with SpeakFree, right?
In high school, one of my most influential teachers taught us a poetry class, and you can kind of imagine at my high school poetry class was mostly of the Chaucer and Keats style. Once I started writing, I found this awesome mix where some of the other communities I was a part of, like Black Twitter, led me to some spoken word poets, and I started writing some spoken word pieces. When I got here I joined Speak Free, and that’s a really awesome community of people and huge support.