Have you ever felt like you’re speaking an entirely different language than those around you? Have you ever read a book and didn’t quite get it, heard something explained and still didn’t quite understand it? Have you ever felt like a stranger in a foreign country, desperately clinging to your traveler’s dictionary?
A month ago, I started graduate classes in the English department at Binghamton University. It was a big fucking deal to my friends, family, and me. I’m the first one in my family with an undergrad degree, let alone to attend graduate school. I’ve had my name in print a few times, another BFD. I was just named a semi-finalist in the Mailer College Poetry competition. How’s that for a BFD?
So with all of these accomplishments behind me, I was excited to mingle with students who actually wanted to study English and Writing, instead of being forced to take them as core requirements. I was excited to share ideas, and dive right into my studies. Until I hit the concrete floor my first day. Yeah, someone drained all the damn water right out of the pool. Could have been when I was changing diapers, potty training, doing laundry or maybe it was dishes. Hell, I’m lucky if I know what day of the week it is, let alone what Derrida said on page one million of his long-winded essay on removing the center of the subject. Even with no water in the pool, I’m still drowning in Modern Theory.
I don’t have time to learn to swim; I’ve been thrown into the deep end and I’m dog-paddling for my life in a pool with no water and a concrete bottom. How’s that for a paradox? (Maybe I could be a theorist! Sarcastic humor there.) So I’m sitting there in my first class thinking, Shit, what the hell just happened? Suddenly, I realized that I don’t speak the language. I need a book to understand the book. The Penguin Anthology of Literary Terms and Criticism has become a permanent attachment to my right hand. It’s got just enough dumb-it-down strategies to qualify for a life raft. In classes, my hands are shoved under the desk, and I furtively look up words my professor and fellow students use in the dictionary I downloaded on my phone. I’m a literary tourist, the one the natives point at and laugh, cruelly telling me to go back to my own country. The temporality of my situation is tenuous… (Again, sarcasm here.)
Graduate school has forced me to yet again reevaluate myself and my capabilities. One thing I’ve always known about myself is that I’m a concrete person who does not grasp the abstract. I never did. Show me the practicality of a subject, or a real life application and I’m all about it. I’m also an extremely busy person who doesn’t have time to dwell in thought for hours at a time. I couldn’t attend famous universities with killer English programs, and spent so much time trying to read all of the authors on the reading list a kind professor gave me in undergrad to prepare me, that I’ve never read Melville, Murakami, Fante, or Freud. I’ve never studied Surrealism, Semiotics, Absurdism, or Realism. The only way I recognize a great book is by the way it makes me feel when I’m done reading it. I’m also a genre fiction junkie, and somehow I’m ashamed to admit that.
Again, I’m the odd man out. I expected that in undergrad classes, maybe even liked it, despite the constant desire to tell the kids I attended school with to suck it up when they whined about homework and no sleep. Before one graduate class, I heard my fellow students complaining about getting carded at the bar: “I’m 23 for God’s sake!” I wanted to slink into a corner and die. I’m certainly not the oldest person in any of my classes by any means. There are a few that rival me for that title. However, I am the only one with little kids. I’m not the only blue-collar person straight off the farm; I’ve admired several pairs of boots from my fellow farm countrymen (women too!), but somehow my expectations of graduate school get skewed when these same people looked at me like I’ve got three heads when I admitted that I don’t have an English degree. My Comm degree somehow offends them, as does my plain and simple language and my penchant for needing concrete examples.
There’s no question that I love literature and writing, and there is no way that I am giving up on something that I want so badly, no matter how out-of-place I feel. But what to do? Do I learn the foreign language, embrace it whole-heartedly? Do I adapt my entire way of thinking until I am no longer Trish, holey jeans, genre fiction, heavy metal loving, curse when you’re angry Trish, but Patricia, khaki pants wearing, five hundred-dollar word using, classic book loving, Patricia? Do I lose the core of me to gain the key to some other element of me? Do I stick it out, gut my way through without changing who I am?
Maybe I should marry the two worlds together in my life until I become bi-lingual. Yes, maybe that’s the way to do this. It could possibly be the only way to do this. I have to relax my prejudice against the natives, adopt a few of their customs without giving up my own core values. I can be true to myself while learning something else, something different but not exactly distasteful. Still, I don’t think I’ll be giving up my dictionary or my tourist visa anytime soon!