English and Me: My Origin Story

(A semi-messy article about my thoughts on studying English and why I write)

I’ve always loved learning. From reading my first, hastily stapled required books in kindergarten, to research projects, to writing papers, even to taking tests, I’ve always enjoyed school. And I suppose that’s what I always thought learning was: school. My father got his master’s degree in engineering when I was barely old enough to remember it. My mother got a certificate in accounting and, after having me, stayed at home to take care of us all. No one in my family ever said she wasn’t as educated—she is, in fact, very smart and knowledgeable—but there was this prevailing notion that she wasn’t somehow, just because she hadn’t gotten a four-year degree. I suppose it was a societal notion, and a cultural notion, that because my mother had chosen to stay home and take care of kids, she was somehow less educated. Those notions, and the adamant expressions from both of my parents, “College is important” and “You should go” really stressed the traditional, academic path to learning and knowledge.

As I’ve grown, going to years and years of school, becoming more disillusioned with the school system, I can say with conviction that while school is a good avenue to receiving an education, it is not the only way to become educated. In Lahiri’s piece, she seems to focus on learning and education from books, from reading. She wants “bound and printed evidence of what they’d [her parents] read, what had inspired and shaped their minds” (79). Reading is perhaps, my favorite form of learning, in large part because I believe it really does inspire and shape minds, as Lahiri puts it. And reading includes more than just reading textbooks, it includes reading novels and stories, experiencing other’s perspectives and realities through words. Reading has taught me compassion and empathy, broadened my world view, made me more sensitive to others. What I’m trying to get at is that there are many ways of learning and many more things to learn than just what school teaches us. And reading is one way to do that.

Part of this disillusionment with the school system also involves what is emphasized as the purpose of school. I never minded that testing was emphasized, that school was a kind of “four-year intelligence test,” in the words of Menand (74). I was always able to succeed in that regard. Test taking was fairly easy for me. But now, thinking about this idea of education, Menand’s theory 1, annoys me and grates my nerves. Just because someone doesn’t do well on tests doesn’t mean they’re doomed to failure.

However, younger Jessica thought that tests were fair for all. How could they not be? Looking back at my middle and high school careers, I was very focused on my grades, on those percentages and letters that seemed to define my future. My GPA had to be protected at all costs. It wasn’t so much about what I was learning, as it was about my grade. Thinking about it now, GPAs are more of an indication of how well you can work in a system. It’s not really a definitive marker of how smart or intelligent you are. But I suppose that’s why GPAs are still important for employers. They indicate how well you would be able to work and succeed in a system, in their work system.

And that’s another thing I don’t appreciate about schooling. The obsession with getting the students into jobs, into work, into making money and contributing economically to society. In my own words, I would say that was Menand’s third theory. In his own words, in regard to theory 3, education is “basically a supplier of vocational preparation” (78). Again, like with theory 1, it’s not about what the students are learning. Education, here, is viewed in terms of return investment. How are you going to contribute to the economy? How are you going to make money? Make sure you study something in school that will get you a job, preferably a high paying job, after you graduate.

I haven’t necessarily noticed this emphasis at my time at Utah Valley University (UVU). I’ve loved my college education and I’m so glad UVU is the school I picked. I’ve found a great community here, from professors who have made me excited about learning and reading, excited about being an English major, to my fellow peers in the English department. I’ve made some great friends in workshop groups and have really felt like my writing degree is worth pursuing. My encounters with theory 3 have occurred outside of campus, outside of my educational bubble, when others talk to me and ask me about my education. It’s still hard and unsettling when someone asks me, “What are you studying?” And then, of course, the dreaded follow-up question, “What are you going to do with that?” While I am happy I chose to study English and writing, and while I know there are many avenues I could pursue with my writing degree, it’s not as straight forward as if I was going to school to become a nurse or a dental hygienist. And that fact is manifest in the muted panic in people’s eyes when they ask, “What are you going to do with that?” And I hate that panic. I want to pluck it out of their eyes, throw it on the ground, and stomp on it until it dies.

Before I get too distracted, living out my violent fantasies, I find it important to mention Menand’s second theory as well, in which, “…the only thing that matters is what students actually learn. There is stuff that every adult ought to know, and college is the best delivery system for getting that stuff into people’s heads” (75). I like the idea that what should really matter in education is what you learn. Learning is, in my opinion, the ultimate goal of an education. Or at least, it should be. I wish it was. And even if you’re teaching everyone the same things, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will learn and take away the same things from it. I still want fresh, new perspectives. I want to learn how to think, to think critically about the world around me. That is what I want college to be. That is what I think I’ve been able to get out of college. That is what I hope I’ve been able to get out of college.

No matter my changing opinions about the education system, it is my love of learning and, related, my love of reading, that has led me to where I am today: graduating with a writing degree. Reading through Lahiri’s piece brought back many of my own memories growing up surrounded by books and an environment suited to quenching my thirst for knowledge. The jumping point into these memories started when Lahiri explains that her parents, “did not read to me or tell me stories…” (79). My experience, in this regard, was very different from Lahiri’s.

My mom loved picture books and would always read to me and my younger siblings. (She still collects picture books to this day). She would also take us to the library every two weeks. She would arm each of us, me and my siblings, with our own library bags and set us loose in the rows of books. I would always fill my bag close to bursting. And when school wasn’t in session to keep us busy, Mom would give us reading challenges. Most of the time that meant participating in the library’s summer reading challenges. Every time we signed up, we received free T-shirts. I would wear my summer reading shirts with pride. They became a kind of collection all their own, a symbol of triumph and summer fun. Another time, without the aid of the library, my mom offered us prizes if we read certain books over the course of the summer. My siblings would read, rather begrudgingly at times, just to get their prize. And in fact, I think my sister once got her prize without reaching her goal. I was a little irritated, mostly just because it felt like she had robbed herself of the adventure the book offered. Surely that Littlest Pet Shop toy wasn’t better than a book. At least, in my eyes it certainly wasn’t, and I was offended that someone would think differently. What’s a piece of plastic with painted on doe-eyes to a whole world pressed between the pages?

I suppose a part of the reason I enjoyed reading so much was the feel of escape. And perhaps that’s what playing with toys did for my sister: offer an escape from reality. I preferred my escapes covered in words. And though I definitely wasn’t escaping for all the same reasons Lahiri was, I was still looking for something. A kind of belonging, just not a cultural one, not one to help me cope with the fact that my family and I were “different” (79). I was, in fact, looking for stories about girls who were like me. No one super extraordinary, no one who had to act like a boy “should” to be the hero of her own story. Back then, I didn’t even know that was what I was looking for. But, once I found it, I knew that I wanted to create stories and characters like that.

That revelation came after I read The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale. In the book, the main character, Miri, a young, ordinary girl who lives in the mountains, ultimately saves the day. She’s not made to be like her male counterparts, wielding a sword and besting the villains with brute strength. She uses her smarts and her own unique talents and becomes a hero in her own right, in her own way. And for young Jessica, to see another young girl, a rather ordinary seeming character, triumph over the antagonists using her smarts, saving her friends, saving her entire village, it made me feel like I could do that. It made me feel empowered and important, even as ordinary as I was. I had always loved reading, but after reading this book, I thought, “I want to do this too! I want to be a writer!” for the first time. I wanted to write female characters like Miri, who felt real, who had strengths and weaknesses, who could save the day just by being themselves.

From that moment on, I kept notebook after notebook filled with half-written stories and story ideas. On at least one occasion, I carried a notebook out on the playground with me, jotting down notes. I had decided, already, that I wanted to be a writer, an author. Young me didn’t really know or care about the concept or realities of money. I just wanted to write. I still just want to write. And where Lahiri’s parents’ “reaction to [her] decision was to remain neutral,” my parents actively encouraged me (82).

When I was a tween, I wrote a family newspaper one summer. I invited all to contribute. My younger siblings drew comics and I even created a calendar section, asking my mom about important dates and activities to include. After I printed out the issue, my parents would sit down with it and read it, all the way through. When I moved on to writing my first novel, my dad would poke his head into the computer room and tease me, while I tried to cover the screen telling him not to look because “It’s not finished yet!” And whenever I would finish any writing project, usually for school, I would bring a paper copy for my mom to read before I turned it in. And she always read them with a careful eye and a smile on her face.

Even now, my mother is one of my best proofreaders. My father still asks about what projects I’m working on and tries to sneak peeks, to which I still cover my screen, grinning, and say, “You’ll have to wait until it’s finished.” Never ever in my entire life have my parents made me feel like writing wasn’t something worth pursuing. Never have they made me feel like it wasn’t a “practical or responsible thing to do” (Lahiri 82). They’ve always supported me and been proud of my writing accomplishments. I am so grateful for them, for nurturing my love of reading and for cheering me on as I write.

Works Cited
Lahiri, Jhumpa. “Trading Stories: Notes from an apprenticeship.” The New Yorker, June 13 & 20, 2011. PDF.
Menand, Louis. “Live and Learn: Why we have college.” The New Yorker, June 6, 2011. PDF.

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