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meredyd's picture

When I think about school, and whatever impact it had on my life and the gradual shaping of who I am as a person, I begin by coming up with a big blank. I’ve attempted to wrack my brain, to tease out stories or incidents that bear significance of who I was when I entered college and who I am now, and all that goes along with that, but what comes to me is not a coherent narrative but more specific moments that I am only beginning to piece together and understand.

I don’t have any illusions that high school was in any way a positive experience for me, other than the prestige of my particular institution, with all its AP classes and SAT prep, helping to get me into a good college. I wasn’t popular, but I was liked well-enough, if not noticed. Flying under the radar was my modus operandi, not stepping on anyone’s toes or doing anything particularly extraordinary. I had my group of friends who I ate lunch with in the courtyard and hung out with on weekends, I studied hard enough to just barely excel, not hard enough to live up to the “potential” that everyone talked to me about in such vague terms. Somehow, four years ended, and I was left with no particular, unified idea of who I was as a person, a student, a woman. It was clear who I was on paper - As and Bs, honor student, newspaper editor. But what defined me, my experiences? I kept my opinions, amorphous and uncertain, to myself. Being female and what it meant to me was not an issue I had yet begun to grapple with in any important way. How could I, if I had not yet even defined my own personality?

During this period, I took a lot of my inspiration and learning not from the classroom (which, let’s face it, was the same tedious stuff that everyone learns in high school, and with the exception of maybe art class, there is no interest there), but from my deep, starry-eyed infatuation with fiction. It’s not understatement to say that much of my life, who I am and who I want to become, has been shaped by my relationship with and critical and emotional response to things I’ve read, seen, and heard. It’s my area of greatest interest, and what sets me off on (admittedly, often foolish) tangents of enthusiasm. I was the cliche empty slate, and while my great, teenaged insecurities often forced me to define myself by the people around me in ways that conspired to make me miserable (something I still struggle with), I found comfort and even confidence in the worlds of my escapism. 

It wasn’t until recently that I looked back and became aware of the true strangeness of this situation - the characters and stories I was beginning to use as a form of self-definition and creation were, primarily, male. Of course, this isn’t any great news, but I wasn’t an activist of any kind, wasn’t politically aware and while not entirely naive, definitely dispassionate. I didn’t have the words, or the tools, or even the interest to understand. Maybe, in a way, I didn’t want to - my relative invisibility and ‘just-get-through-it’ attitude rendered, to high-school-me, that kind of thing vague and unimportant. I couldn’t articulate my own thoughts, let alone my sources of oppression. But somewhere along the line, a switch went off in my brain. While recognizing that it was perfectly okay to slide myself out of my unsure femininity and into the comforting masculinity of these fictional avatars, I stopped wanting to. I began to look for women consciously, voraciously, for both heroines and girls on the margins. I chose to major in English at a women’s college for an intersection of these reasons: I’m still, always looking, I’m still, always trying to better articulate. 

I’m a junior now, and if I start tracking the beginnings of my awareness of the boundaries and frontiers of my gender and my sexuality to where it began, I feel like there’s a long rope stretched out behind me, marking my progress. I never saw it before, but it became clearer as I grew up, arrived at college, began to ask myself important questions about myself and my feminisms and my identity - as I was shaped into a real person, who could stand on her own, without forcing the definitions of others onto my own definition of self. I think the most important part of my education has been this, learning to be open, to be receptive, to speak up and point out problems and maybe even cause a few of my own. I feel as if I finally have a chance to do this in a classroom setting using materials about which I’m passionate, instead of the hesitant self-teaching I once gave myself.


Anne Dalke's picture

Hesitant self-teaching

There's a well-known critical literary text by Judith Fetterley, called The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction, which analyzes @ length the phenomenon you describe here: that of women readers identifying with male characters in classic texts. You might find it of interest and use; if you read it, you will certainly find that this situation is less "truly strange," than part of a very general cultural script--which is not to say that it shouldn't be re-read and re-written!

To me, the second interesting dimension of your essay is very closely related to the one I just flagged: that of finding models for self-development in the fictions we read. You say that in college you were "shaped into a real person, who could stand on her own, without forcing the definitions of others onto your own definition of self." Where from do those self-definitions come? What is their source? Are those sources not inevitably cultural scripts? Do you mean that you found alternative, and better, scripts from other sources? (Which ones?) Or do you think that you have a distinct self that was genetically programmed , as Paul was suggesting yesterday? And that is the source of your "real self"? Or....?