unexpected intrusions of beauty
This is a question I am sure to be assaulted with often, whether at the hands of my parents, who will supplement their disbelief with disapproving looks screaming of wasted potential, or future employers, who will surely wonder why I would pay a quarter of a million dollars in tuition fees just to study the art of reading and writing. Haven’t you already studied that? they will ask, puzzled. IN KINDERGARTEN???? My parents’ friends will look at me with the bemused expressions of those infinitely more wise (common to immigrant parents everywhere) and wait for me to fail (read: graduate with a starting salary of under 60,000, bonuses included) so they can brag about their children. Sure, they didn’t go to an Ivy League university, but at least they’re going to be a doctor/lawyer/engineer/dictator when they graduate.
Of course, this is nothing that I haven’t dealt with before. I resigned myself to a life of passive-aggressive comments and starving artist jokes from my parents and family friends the second I stepped out of my Biology 121 final and said, “I am definitely not pre-med.” This is, of course, quite a bit worse than they could have imagined (not even sociology? You had to all the way across the practicality spectrum to English, Jennifer?), but there was no way I was fulfilling all of my parents’ hopes for me regardless of what I studied, so I’ll get through their condescension. No, what is most likely to do me in is not the self-righteousness of adults who Know Better Than Me (infinite and unavoidable, regardless of major) — what is going to kill me, if anything, is the judgment from my peers. This would be bad regardless of what school I attended, but will be nearly insufferable at Penn, where the motto governing professional choices seems to be the refrain, “There’s always ibanking,” muttered while chasing Adderall with a Red Bull/vodka cocktail at 3 AM in the morning in a mostly futile effort to absorb mental math techniques through osmosis. Meanwhile, here I am, sitting in hipster coffeeshops and writing personal essays about the boy I failed Biology 121 because of. (And making grand, hyperbolic statements about the boy I didn’t actually fail Biology 121 because of. I did get a B, though. That motherfucker.) “Ibanking!” they shout to me, as if “impractical major” is a giant sinking boat and ibanking is a buoy that can save me if I only manage to hold on. “Ibanking!” they repeat. Their eyes are manic from sleep deprivation and nightmares of one too many insane Management 100 group members. I giggle to myself. They think this is because they have led me to the same grand epiphany that is keeping half of my class afloat (Ibanking!), but that’s not it. Little do they know, I’m giggling because I thought ibanking meant internet banking for over half of freshman year. Sorry, Goldman Sachs.
But I digress. Ibanking was never going to be my career regardless of what I ended up studying. I simply don’t have the work ethic for it. Also, my taste in music is fundamentally incompatible with a career like that. You can’t listen to Explosions in the Sky and The freaking Fray while managing fifty Excel documents for 14 hours a day. You’ll jump out the window of your 50-story, faceless Wall Street building.
But I digress … again. (Another reason why I will never be able to do ibanking.) I’m under no illusions concerning the general societal perception of my course of study. I went through all the phases typical of children who are told that you will never be happy if you do not go to X-ranked school and graduate with a Y-paying job. (Hint: X should be very, very low. In the single digits, if possible. Y should be very, very high.) The first true children’s book I ever read on my own was about Sesame Street. That was also the last true children’s book I ever read. From that age (five-ish) to age 10, I devoured the entire Shrewsbury Public Library children’s section on medicine. We went to the library once a week, and each time we went, I was allowed two or three fiction books (usually Nancy Drew novels) and as many books about being a doctor as my heart desired. I read books about organ transplants and decided to become a surgeon. I read books about Alzheimer’s and decided to become a researcher. I read books about little kids with leukemia who were saved (!!) by doctors and cool giant machines (but mostly cool giant machines) and decided to become a pediatrician, because they saved people — and also because they got to use cool giant machines. I was officially pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-med. And when my parents basically told me to skip second and fifth grade (I was seven and nine, respectively — as if I knew what the fuck was going on) so I could get through all that pesky, unnecessary pre-med-school education more quickly, it seemed pretty rational.
Well, all did not go as planned. At some point I ran out of books in that section of the library to read (we have a small library.) and moved onto the astronomy section. This was also about the same time I moved from Nancy Drew to infinite Meg Cabot novels, which I still blame for my rapid descent into boy craziness. Really, when you think about it, I was just like any other 13-year-old girl lusting over poorly-codenamed boys in math class (examples of codenames: “pizza,” “mushroom,” “James”) and reading Michio Kaku and Brian Greene on the side. I just thought it was so cool. Wormholes, man. Sixteen dimensions. Supernovae. Other words with lots of syllables. My parents were a little shaken by the sudden change in career ambition, and understandably so — just a year earlier, for my 11th birthday, they bought me “Anatomy and Physiology for Dummies!” How could things have changed like this?! — but they adjusted. Physics was a science, so that wasn’t terrible. And besides, NASA scientists probably made a lot of money, and if they didn’t, they could just go into space until the economic situation got better on Earth. No big deal. Not catastrophic. They bought me a giant book (helpfully titled, “Astronomy”) about galaxies and black holes and got started on convincing my brother to be an engineer.
Then junior year happened. There was exactly one positive aspect of my junior year: I turned 15, and, as a result, could listen to Taylor Swift’s “Fifteen” and pen endless angry letters to the boy who tried to get me to send him “racy” pictures. Anyway, junior year came, and with it, AP chemistry and honors physics, and with that, the complete destruction of my dreams of going into any physics-related field at all. Theoretical physics and string theory — that shit was cool and all, but the endless series of math questions needed to get through general chemistry, elementary physics, and mechanics was too much for me. It’s fun to read books about the existence about other universes, but calculating the distance travelled of a rock thrown from a cliff 50 m above the ground while the wind blows 15 km/h in the opposite direction and a helicopter flies diagonally above you firing missiles at said rock? No thanks.
I would say that those career aspirations plummeted faster than the aforementioned rock, but I was never actually able to calculate its velocity, ever. It just never happened. I don’t think I’ve successfully solved a single projectile motion question on a test. There was one on my Math 114 final and I’m pretty sure I got 0 points on it. And so I moved away from physics and into the scary world of Undecided. I was Undecided through senior year, which was okay, because that gave me something to write about in my college application essays (“I want to go to X-ranked school because it’s strong in a variety of fascinating fields. As someone who is interested in subjects across the academic board, X’s focus on interdisciplinary thinking is especially salient,” I wrote on EVERY COLLEGE APPLICATION EVER). I was Undecided through my pre-freshman year summer, which was okay because to my parents, Undecided meant Try Hard Enough and She’ll Be Pre-Med. I was Undecided as I thought about PPE (it’s a little bit of everything! How could you possibly get sick of it?) and I was Undecided as I considered Political Science (how hard it can be to read Rawls in two classes per semester, every semester for the rest of your undergraduate career?) and I was Undecided as I tried fruitlessly to discover my “passion” by totally blowing off sector requirements and taking only the most interesting-looking classes in every subject. Well, freshman year has come and freshman year has gone. I’ve flirted with the idea of pretty much every semi-practical humanities-ish major (other things that I flirted with this past year: failure, obesity, every boy who smirks at me the wrong way ever) and felt passionate about exactly 0 of them.
It has taken me a summer of panic and self-loathing and general emotional catastrophe to realize something that — as cliché as this sounds — I really have known all along. It wasn’t the prospect of being a doctor that thrilled me, it was reading books about all the things doctors did. It wasn’t the intellectual complications and challenges within M-Theory that made me pick up Michio Kakuk’s “Parallel Worlds,” it was the idea of discovering an entirely different universe embedded within the pages of the book itself. I read books because the idea that I could disappear into someone else’s world for a few moments, hours, days — was absolutely enchanting, and if that someone else happened to be a doctor or a theoretical physicist, then fine. When I got older, I started writing because I found something uniquely compelling about making all those intangible, hard-to-describe, abstract feelings something other people could grasp and hold on to when they felt overwhelmed by life’s messiness. Whenever I was mad at my parents for yelling at me (often) or I felt sad about something other people deemed trivial and insignificant (more often) or I wanted to cry because of a boy (perpetual), I ran to a coffeeshop and wrote it out. When I was 10, the idea of one day being old and independent was terrifying, so I read about other people who managed to do it successfully, and I wrote about what adulthood could possibly be for me one day. When I was 13, my life was boring and generally unfulfilling, so I read about and wrote about and escaped into the lives of average people who stumbled into fame, fortune, and unexpected romance with the president’s son (this is actually the plot of a Meg Cabot novel that I read). Now I’m in college. Adulthood is still terrifying, I still fight with my parents over dumb things, and I certainly still don’t understand boys. All the excess emotion has to go somewhere, so I put it down on paper and hope that maybe along the way, it’ll start making a little bit more sense. I’m basically Taylor Swift, except for the small bit where she’s gorgeous, rich, and famous, and I’m none of those things.
This is literally my parents’ worst nightmare — their intelligent, headstrong daughter going to college and finally discovering her passion … only it’s still for English. You’re going to be poor, they tell me, at least once a week. Your house is going to have cockroaches and ants and all of your friends will think you’re a loser and abandon you for wealthier people in higher places. “THAT’S NOT TRUE,” I yell back at them every time, usually through tears, “NOT ALL OF MY FRIENDS WILL ABANDON ME BECAUSE I’M POOR. ONLY THE ONES IN WHARTON.”
My parents think that I’m being foolish by choosing English over a more practical course of study (pre-med) and giving up the chance to have a “valid” career (doctor). What they don’t realize is that there are so many other things that are good about the English major with a creative writing emphasis that I’m pursuing, other than the fact that it allows me to do what I love (at least for the next three years, after which I will have to be a janitor or something because no one will hire me). For example, when you’re a writer, you don’t have to regret things. Just call all of your mistakes “life experiences” and write about them. This works for every day mistakes like kissing the wrong boys and maxing out your credit card, but it’s also applicable to mistakes like drug addiction and brief periods of homelessness. The despair will make you prolific, your unkempt hair and permanent aroma of cigarette smoke will give you street cred as a writer, and your unsentimental, cynical prose will be praised as “gritty” and “realistic.” I adopted this life philosophy (“it’s an experience!”) pretty much as soon as I got to college and started drinking, spending too much money, and thinking frat parties would boost my self-esteem, and I assure you that it’s going great so far. At least, that’s what my therapist tells me.
Another perk of being a writer is that you have an excuse to go to a lot of coffeeshops and eat a lot of food … because it’s not like you can just sit there writing for the entire day and not order anything. In fact, go ahead and order everything. A bonus to this is that your friends will think you’re really cool when they visit you because you tell them you’re going to take them to coffeeshops with names like Lovers & Madmen and Milk & Honey Café. I don’t know why, but hipster coffeeshops seem to really not like the word “and.” Your friends will be even more impressed when these coffeeshops are constantly invaded by loud teenagers with lots of piercings, lose power / wifi a lot, and are never cleaned. “It has character,” you can tell them.
Finally, English is a versatile degree. I was looking at the Career Services website the other day and people graduating with a degree in English have gone on to do all sorts of cool things, like policy and law school and magazine editing and journalism. This is because English teaches you how to read, think, and write, and those skills are needed to do every job ever. My academic advisor and I were just talking earlier today about how, by choosing English, I’m keeping so many doors open. “There’s policy writing,” he said, “Travel writing, scientific writing…”
My academic advisor is overestimating my practicality. I’m into creative writing. I want to write vignettes about cutesy things for a living. My parents think I’m crazy and my friends are going to live in mansions while I’m homeless and no one will want to be friends with me after we get past the requisite “what are you studying?” It’s fine, though. It’s a versatile degree. I can always go into ibanking.