Friday, 10 September 2010

Nostalgia (But not really). Part 1.

I've been invited by my alma mater, Wilfrid Laurier University, to come and speak about how my Religion and Culture degree has helped me forge my path.  As part of my speaker engagement, I had to provide a biography outlining three things: What brought me to WLU, what I loved about it, and how I've used the learning.

Obviously, a religion and culture degree has proved very helpful in both storytelling and writing.  I learned enough myths, mythic structures, archetypes, cultural differences and textual intricacies to fuel another few hundred books.  So how it's proved useful was the easy part to write.  The before and during parts, however, were more difficult.

I mean, do you remember choosing your degree and university?  I do, sort of.  It's actually the time in my life I most used my diary, which means I have two entries on it (I have about twenty entries in all detailing my life.  I'm a terrible diary writer).  Last night, I popped open that shiny pink diary given to me by my godmother when I was maybe ten years old, to remind myself.  And wow, angsty.  You hate to look back and think you were an angsty teenager, but I really was.  I remember not being in a good place, and definitely wanting an "out," which was why I'd convinced my second high school (we moved after tenth grade) that it was okay for me to take grade 12 courses instead of grade 11.  I'm still not sure how I convinced them, but it worked, and although it accounted for lower marks, I still left home a year earlier than anticipated.

And I remember I wanted to go far.  Geographically far. Everyone else in my school was going to the University of Ottawa, since it's the only French (or at least bilingual) university in Ontario.  How dull was that!  And, I must say, at the time at least, options for French high school graduates in Ontario were very limited.  Quebec didn't make their universities accessible to us, and the only other bilingual university was Moncton.  And I didn't want to go there, either.

So my acceptance papers came in, including a full scholarship from the University of Ottawa.  I even rented a room from some nuns in Ottawa, ready or rather resigned to begin there in the Fall.  Then I changed my mind.  Wilfrid Laurier University offered me no money. It was a day's travel away.  And it was an English only school.  I'd been accepted in Archaeology (I later switched to Religion and Culture).

The two entries in my diary don't cover my actual decision.  I don't know if I felt I needed a fresh start, though I'd already had many of those in my day (at least five grade schools and two high schools).  I don't remember if I was mad at something or someone and decided to go further away.  Well, I was a teenager, so technically I WAS mad at everything and everyone, but I don't recall a specific event or reason.  But that's where I turned up, three days before the opening of the student dorms, in the town of Waterloo.

I remember my first class.  I had no idea what they were talking about.  Seriously no clue.  It was shingles, I later learned.  Roof shingles.  I think.  That's when I realized my conversational English wasn't good enough for university level classes.  The worst feeling in the world is taking a chance and feeling right away like the most basic of skills are going to undo you immediately.  I didn't know how to write an essay.  No clue.  I knew a dissertation, in French, but arguments are presented differently in an essay.  I was already on the verge of flunking, and I'd never foreseen this. I was the "smart" kid in high school.  I scored high marks without trying, even after skipping an entire grade. 

And yet here I was, unable to do the simplest of tasks, or understand the world around me.

It was scary, I'll admit.  And ya, I almost gave up.  I wasn't going to go home after Thanksgiving.  I took the train down, crying most of the way.  My family was proud of me for going to university.   They did what they could to support my goals, even if financial help was impossible.  I couldn't stand the thought of letting them down, and I felt sick to my stomach just thinking about it.

My bro. Who wouldn't trust that man?
I admitted it to my older brother.  Growing up, it was mostly just him, my mom and me, so we were close.  We moved a lot, and we didn't bother making too many friends.  It wasn't worth the effort, really.  And I loved my brother.  He never received his high school diploma, but he was working in what he loved: programming.  He was an inspiration to me, and still is.

So I didn't argue when my big brother looked me in the eyes, put his hands on my shoulders and said: "You're going back to university.  You're finishing your term. If you don't want to go back when you come down for Christmas, then we'll figure it out.  But right now, you're going back."  (I think he was actually that eloquent, too.  Rare occasion, really...)

I packed my bags, boarded the train with a lump in my throat, watched my brother's figure become so very small on the horizon as we rode away, and I was ready to at least give it another six or so weeks of battle.  But I didn't believe I'd stay.  I really didn't.  I wanted home.  I wanted people who had no personal space.  I needed to be able to perform simple transactions in my language.  And to be understood when I made jokes. Heck, I wanted to feel smart again.  It's amazing how much you lose when you can't communicate in your first language.

And I didn't want to lose those things again, even if only for a few weeks.  But I had promised my brother to stay until the end of term.

I did, and everything changed.  That's the stuff I couldn't put in my biography for the university.  Because what changed for me wasn't the learning or the teaching, though some teachers and the Writing Centre made a world of difference. 

What changed for me were the people.  With the simple act of commenting on a shirt and sitting in a middle seat, I met the people who saw me through the rest of university, whether knowingly or not.

But what made me stay at university is worthy of a whole other blog post.  Next Friday's rambling, I suppose!