Storytime with Sten: The day I realized my true calling

Sten Spinella, a weekly columnist and senior staff writer, discusses the importance of following your passions.   (Fredrik Rubensson/Flickr Creative Commons)    

There comes a time when one must decide what the hell to do with their life. This often happens in college, as students feel the pressure of the “real world” catching up with the pleasure of insulated university life. Downtrodden creatives who love music opt for actuarial science to please their families. English majors switch to bio because reading doesn’t seem viable. Bio majors switch to political science because their heart lies with public policy. Undergraduates look for openings in publishing firms, insurance companies or nonprofits to fulfill what they see as normal milestones – a salary, a home, financial independence.

I always say that I’ve known what I’ve wanted to be since fourth grade when my teacher used a poem I wrote as an example in class: a writer. But it wasn’t until the year before I came to Storrs, as a senior in high school, that I knew what should be my precise occupation, or, rather, natural purpose. I was born to piss people off. In fact, I only wrote this article after I was told another of my pieces would piss too many people off.

It was a fall day when the interim-principle – a real authoritarian, rumored to be J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Mrs. Umbridge – scheduled a meeting with me in the library. I took some time out of class to meet with her. I knew it would be about the student newspaper, which I was the editor-in-chief of at the time. To be honest, our output was paltry, and it wasn’t as if my peers were clamoring for the next edition, but Dolores was always on top of things. She had that going for her.

We had written a story or two that ruffled the dictator’s feathers – why the principal was fired (we had no idea) was probably the most controversial. She treated this like Frank Underwood would negative press. She played at intimidation.

It was all very kindly, at first. She asked me how school was going, blah, blah, blah. And then, she pulled out a thick book, dropping it on our isolated little table toward the back of the library.

“I wanted to meet with you today to discuss a Supreme Court decision.” She opened the book to her earmarked page and pointed to the part that was highlighted. “Tinker V. Des Moines was a landmark decision in determining students’ constitutional rights.” Essentially, as I learned that day, students wore black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War and were suspended. The decision justified school censorship in that officials could discipline students if the administrative action against said students “was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint," meaning schools could censor if what they were censoring caused a public disturbance that "materially and substantially interfere[d] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.”

Dolores was reminding Harry who’s boss.

I sarcastically thanked her for her education, informing her that I disagreed with the court’s decision. But there wasn’t really anything I could do. We published lame student-interest stories, occasionally with small acts of rebellion in the middle or end of articles (since the censurers really only read the headlines). Then I wrote an independent blog post outlining all the autocratic policies of the school administration and circulated it to everyone I could, both online and through physical copies. It received overwhelming support, although there was no real policy change. The one thing I succeeded in was outmaneuvering Dolores.

Our interactions from that day forward were curt, rife with thinly-veiled hatred. After I had graduated, I sat behind her at a basketball game.

“This isn’t exactly where you’d want to sit, is it Sten? But really, I’m not so bad,” she said, smiling and chuckling for those who surrounded us.

“I wish I were as far away from you as possible,” was my deadpan response. We haven’t spoken since then.

Sometimes, I admit, I piss off the wrong people. I let my passion for pissing people off get in the way of friendships, family and my professional life. Yet, more often than not, I am doing what I was born to do – pissing off racists, people who misuse their power, conservatives who stand in the way of progress – all the Harry Potter villains of the world.

I encourage all students, no matter their major, to see their life’s purpose as just that, rather than a position in a company. Perhaps that’s where your purpose leads you, but never sacrifice your destiny because some Dolores lookalike told you it wasn’t likely to succeed, or it was unconstitutional.

Author’s note: I am not suggesting you be as abrasive as the person who penned this piece. It doesn’t work for everyone, and hardly works for me.


Sten Spinella is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu. He tweets @SSpinella927.