Why is my college awesome? Why is my degree important? Why is the English field important? Heck, why are the arts important? And why should we fund them? I find myself struggling with the answers to these questions. Sure, I know the canned responses. Writing is a popular skill these days; companies want a person on their staff who can write well. Arts people are good communicators. They get people and they know how to get through to them. They can take complex ideas and process them in a well-articulated way. They are artists, editors, keepers of history and providers of the written word.
But do I fit into any of those categories? I’m not really one who fits in a box, at least not anymore. And that is what Parkside has done for me. It isn’t just some tiny nothing school in the middle of the woods. (And I know I’m not supposed to say that, but I’m trying to prove a point.) Parkside has amazing students and activities, and the College of the Arts and Humanities is especially amazing. The professors know their stuff and are able to convey lessons that are applicable both inside and out of the classroom. I have taken things away from every single class I’ve had. I have not only learned about the literature canon and the history of more authors than I have time to mention, but I have learned about myself in the process.
In my life before college, I was taught that it was wrong to think for myself. My thoughts weren’t my own, and I let my idea wither away into nothing. These messages came from everywhere in my life, and this conditioning made school very difficult for me in the beginning. I didn’t know how to speak up; I had a very difficult time if I wasn’t absolutely positive I had the correct answer. The thing about being in a creative field is that there really isn’t one correct answer. There’s not really a wrong answer either. An opinion, a thought on a text, cannot be wrong. There’s only what you think.
Our college has what is referred to as a gateway course to the English major: Literary Analysis. As I dove into the work at the start of the course, it became apparent that I was supposed to read the assignments and have my own thoughts about them. It was then I thought I wasn’t cut out for the land of English. There wasn’t one correct answer. By the time we got to Lacan around the fourth week of the course, it completely blew my brain. I read the words and I understood them, but my head was stuck on figuring out what the right answers were. I couldn’t let this idea go. So I asked the professor for help. I distinctly remember the conversation we had while I was standing in her office that day. I told her that I didn’t get it, but 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?”
It was my worst nightmare; I was stuck. I wanted the right answer. I didn’t want to think. I didn’t want to be wrong. As I tried to articulate what I thought Lacan might have been trying to illustrate, the only thing running through my head was that she would think badly of me if I was wrong. But as it turned out, she didn’t think badly of me at all. She said I “sounded smart.” I took that to mean I was going in the right direction. After that, my thinking started to change. I offered more opinions in class. I was learning how to be my own person. It was never purely academic for me. It applied to my outside life as well.
The ultimate challenge 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 would have to share them. I would have to let myself be exposed.
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 was terrified the day of the presentation. 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. I could live outside of the box and be okay.
It taught me how to be proud of myself. This program literally saved me. And while I owe my professors so, so much, from the lessons they have taught me, I’ve been able to change myself.
So go ahead. Ask me again. Why is Parkside awesome? Why is the English department amazing? Why do the arts deserve more funding? Why? Because I am standing in front of a group of people speaking today when this never would have been possible in the past. Because I can speak now, because I can share these words with you and not be afraid. Because I am not the only one. There are more people out there who are like me. There are more people who need to find themselves, as I found myself. I have found a place where my people are, where I fit in. Where I can be a good student and have the answers even if they aren’t necessarily right. Where I can show up every day, good or bad, and be accepted just the way I am. By being at Parkside and working my butt off for my degree, I have found a purpose in my life where I previously thought I had none. Being a writer is who I am. Other people deserve the same opportunity that I have had to find themselves.
If you’re looking for an arts program to fund, it should be ours. More money buys more professors who know their stuff and helps to keep the dedicated professors we already have in our department. More money funds more events that draw more people. Our facilities are top-notch, the best in the area, and we need to fill them with more people. We need to come up with ways to introduce people to the arts in a way that makes them fall in love again.
More money helps more students like me become the people they are supposed to be. To find the words. So help us. Help us to grow; help us to spread the word, to spread the arts. Help us to become an even better undergrad program than we already are.