The greatest life lessons I learn come from school.
In my life before school, I learned that I was not supposed to think for myself. My thoughts were not my own. I let my ideas whither away into nothing. I was not supposed to have my own opinions. I was supposed to go along with the crowd; I couldn’t be my own person. It wasn’t okay to have a wrong answer. These messages came from everywhere around me, and this conditioned philosophy made school very difficult for me. I didn’t know how to speak up; I had a very difficult time if I was not certain that there was a correct answer. I was always the first to raise my hand if I was certain I was correct. The thing about being in a creative field is that there really isn’t one, correct, answer. There’s no wrong answers either. There’s just what you think. Of all of the things I’ve learned in school, this was the hardest concept that I had to grasp.
Last semester, I took the first course that posed any sort of a challenge for me academically. It was a course in literary analysis, the gateway course to my degree. As I started tackling the readings and the beginning coursework, I got it in my head that I was perhaps not cut out to be an English major. We were supposed to read and interpret and have our own ideas about what we were reading…and there was no correct answer. I tried though, valiantly. And then we got to Lacan and his psychoanalytic theories, and it blew my brain. I read the words that he had written about the mirror stage, and the phallus, and I got them on a basic level. But in my head I was stuck on the idea that I had to please this professor, that I had to figure out what she wanted and what the right answers were—and THAT was WAY too hard, because, like I said…no right answers. I was drowning. So I asked her for help.
I distinctly remember the conversation we had standing in her office, just two weeks or so into the class. I essentially told her that I didn’t get it. And really, I did. I had my thoughts and ideas. But I wanted to be successful, I wanted her to tell me what to think. Her response? “Well, what do you think?” I couldn’t get over the idea that there was no wrong answer. As I tried to articulate what I thought Lacan was saying, the only thing running through my head was that she would think badly of me if I was wrong.
As it turned out, she didn’t think badly of me at all. She thought I had a firm grasp on things. She said I “sounded smart.” I took that to mean I was going in the right direction. I went off on my own and finished that day’s assignment.
My thinking started to change. After that, I started raising my hand more. I started trying to say how I really felt about things. This isn’t to say I didn’t still freak out about it upon occasion; learning to how to be my own person was one of the hardest things I had ever done. It wasn’t just academic for me. It applied to my outside life as well. I was mending all of the mental and emotional processes that had previously been broken.
As happens with all upswings, there is always a downswing. Mine came in the form of our final class presentations. I was not only expected to form an argument that was completely my own, but I was expected to articulate that argument in front of a group of professors and my peers and alumni…that was a lot to take in. Of course, it was for a grade. I couldn’t just not do it. I never in my life wanted to take an F more than I wanted to take that one, even though I had never had an F before. I completely panicked. There would be people. Looking at me. Judging me. Judging my paper. Judging my thoughts. And those people were allowed (and encouraged) to ask questions, which I would have to answer on the spot. My paper, which was an extension of me, was going to be up for debate. Because I was so close to the work, to the ideas, I knew that it would feel personal. They were my thoughts. And I had to share them.
That was a rough one for me considering that the whole idea of having my own thoughts was a completely new concept. There were multiple emails exchanged between myself and this professor. She did her best to reassure me. My advisor worked with me on how to answer questions if people posed them to me—she told me to just get up there and do what I had to do and get my A. She told me to believe in myself. But I was still completely freaked out. Believing in myself was not a solid concept at that point in my life.
I dressed up the day of my presentation. It’s a thing that I do, when I’m scared out of my mind. I put on nice clothes. I think my logic behind it is that if I look pretty and appear like I can handle myself, I will be able to handle myself. So I wore leggings, and an old dress, and I took the advice of my advisor and did what I had to do. I believed in myself. I believed in my thoughts. As I started talking, I kept my hands below the podium edge so people wouldn’t see them shaking. I played with my feet behind the podium, stepping in and out of my shoes. I followed the words on the page with a pen. (I still do that, and I’ve now given several of these presentations.) But as I was speaking, it started to come easier. No one was outright screaming that my argument was invalid. No one was laughing at me. I don’t remember all of the nightmarish things I thought might happen, but none of them did.
I gave that presentation, and it was awesome. I fielded all of the questions that were asked of me, even the curveball question from my professor herself. I learned something about myself that day, and not in the academic sense. I learned that it’s okay to speak up. It’s okay to be my own person. It’s okay to have my own thoughts, and to say what I want to say. I learned that I was still strong and very, very capable, despite the things I had previously learned. Giving that presentation broke all of the previous conditioning that I had experienced.
The presentation assignment was given to us to give us experience in sharing papers in the event that we were ever asked to share our work at a conference. But it was so much more than that for me. It showed me that I was still a person. I had things to contribute to life, both academic and not.
It taught me how to be proud of myself.
Who knew that it was possible to draw major, life changing lessons from an English course?