One of my favorite things about teaching college freshman is knowing that they come to me from their respective high schools and hometowns, made from those things they’ve loved and connected to most in their 18 years. They’ve begun to form a canon of self, have been molded by the art and media they’ve consumed up to this moment. The books they’ve read, the songs they’ve played over and over and over, the movies that taught them about themselves. And at the beginning of their first semester, they’re on the precipice of that person they’ve become and whoever it is they’re going to be. Their canon is small. And for that reason, the few things that have informed their being carry much weight. I remember this. I remember falling in love with books. Authors. Poems. Songs. Bands. Movies. This is how generations are made. Generations that are exposed to common texts that they carry with them. But college retains the possibility of exposing them to literature and art and film beyond their imagination.
I recently began writing my lesson plans in an old notebook because I ran out of space in the last notebook I used and didn’t want to spend money on something new when I found so many unused pages bound in a variety of journals around my apartment. I choose the biggest one, for logistical reasons, but the first few pages were already occupied. I had not returned to these pages in a very long time. I wrote them this same month, my first full month of my freshman year of college, nine years ago.
I always avoided returning to these pages because I wrote them two weeks before my first love broke my heart, and I knew they’d be filled with a kind of naiveté that scared me to consider a part of my own mind, even with nine years distance. I don’t want to ever have been that young, that uninformed, that vulnerable, that inexperienced. It makes me cringe to remember myself discovering the world, to remember what I didn’t know in light of what I know now. But what strikes me most about these pages is how often I relate myself to an author that was part of my 18-year-old canon. It is so clear to me who my influences were then, how they informed my way of navigating everything.
At the time I wrote this, I was reading Dreaming in Cuban, and identified strongly with the main character who was trying to find some kind of community in isolation. I missed my boyfriend so much, it physically pained me, and I tried to write my way through that pain by attempting to convince myself that he was in pain, too, and in that way, we were together. I have always been someone who has believed that the right combination of words, either arranged by me or someone else, can act as a key or a cipher, a trigger or a release.
I wrote about longing. And fear. But mostly, I wrote through my canon. Right now I am Annie Dillard, I say, watching the folding twisting stretching of a dirty worm on the dirty ground. I want to be Michael Ondaatje, I say, with his Sri Lanka and heat and family relations and come and bare feet and sense of quiet and interior spaces. What would Carl Jung say about me? I ask. Unfortunately everything good is painful. But I suppose it has to be, has to reflect its full form.
This last line, as I read it to myself it in the back of the classroom full of freshman I currently teach as they sat in their Culture & Values lecture and learned about Plato, became a line spanning nine years that instantly connected my written moment in 2006 to my moment of reading in 2015. I grounded myself in Plato back then. I found comfort in the idea that there was an ideal form of everything, that purity existed, that wholeness was existed. I’d read very little, and I drank it all in. I watched these students drinking in Plato, Sophocles and I remembered what it was like to form a self around new ideas for the first time. At this point, as a 27 year old adult nearly 10 years into higher education, I’m so used to this that I don’t really question it. I am always absorbing, reabsorbing, configuring, reconfiguring myself around the beauty and intelligence I find in literature.
My canon is ever expanding. I am more careful about what that canon includes now. I make efforts to build something in myself that is outside the canon that forms the tradition of my field of study. But as I read this short, single journal entry in a notebook now filled with lesson plans for teaching kids who are currently the age I was when I wrote this lamentation, I was reminded that I have not always been the person I am today. My new, ever changing canon has deepened my repertoire and curiosity in ways I am grateful for and likely even unaware of. Dillard and Ondaatje are still a part of me, but Plato’s been evicted. As has Jung. Bolaño’s been added. Butler [Octavia & Judith]. I could go on and on and on. But one thing hasn’t changed. I am still always lamenting that I can’t seem to experience joy without pain. I still often find that when I love something or someone, it is not enough to be next to it. I want to be inside of it. I want to be it.
How do you love a person? I asked in 2006. Very carefully, I answered.
My handwriting is changing again.
Who am I lying to? I ask, at the very end of a journal entry I never returned to until now.
Yesterday nine years ago, I had my heart broken for the first time. I was a college freshman. I thought the world was ending. Yesterday fourteen years ago, I experienced my first death. I have been, at this point, what feels like nearly an infinite number of people, but I have also always been this same person that I am in these pages: ever emotive, ever distrusting of my own actions and intentions and intelligence, ever skeptical of my lyrical indulgences in reflecting on my own past and my own feelings. These blog posts are no different to me than my journal entry from September 9, 2006.
I’m writing this post from the back of that same classroom filled with my students, the classroom where they learned about Plato while I rediscovered my former self. They’re watching the film version of King Lear and, if they’re lucky, they’re connecting to some portion of that play that will help them see themselves more clearly. I look at them and I think about all the people they will become, and I envy that they sit here, absorbing, forming, at the beginning of everything.
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