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My Education

Karina's picture


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This image is, to me, a good representation of my relationship with the English language and the study of English; a sense of freedom and burning, almost consuming generative energy, but coming out of the groundwork for a dangerous, potentially unhealthy execution of I had for a long perceived as the process of education itself.
When I was younger, I saw my education as dual process: a fusion of my parents’ efforts and the efforts of my school. Although as time passed my parents’ influence began to diminish, perhaps to make room for my own expectations, the one word that can be used to appropriately pin down my venturing in education is “obedience.” I learned (that is not to say that I can actually remember it being taught to me) from a young age that obedience was a necessary precursor to success which was always synonymous with discipline-induced perfection.
            I believe that this first and foremost was a product of the culture in which I happened to be raised for the first ten years of my life. Growing up in freshly post-Communist Uzbekistan was, in all likelihood, hardly any different than growing up in the heyday of Communism. From the very first day of school, a relentless stream of rules and expectations was being hammered into our seven-year-old brains and it was made abundantly clear that these should not ever have to be repeated. We were to stand up uniformly when the teacher walked into class; we were going to be graded on penmanship just as much as on the actual content of our writing; not handing in homework was not an option; a single spelling error was all that was required to lower an essay grade from an A to a B.
            More than that, there were rules that spoke directly to the boy/girl divide. Boys were expected to hold open doors for girls as well as yield their seats at a lunch table if there were none left. Girls were expected to be cleaner, neater, quieter, better dressed and behaved, and smarter than boys. If these expectations were only loudly implicit in school, they were certainly made explicit by my parents. Neatness, cleanliness, timeliness, good manners, etc. were expected of me precisely because I was a girl. Good grades were especially stressed, though athletics, the arts or any other extracurricular activities never even entered the picture. I was also expected to help my mother around the house with cooking, cleaning, and laundry, again, explicitly because I was a girl, a daughter.
            When I came to the States, things changed drastically in a number of ways, of course, but I found something interesting had happened in terms of my relationship with education. Excellency by route of obedience (as well as going above and beyond) became a demand from well within myself, rather than without. As someone whose parents happened to speak insufficient English, I felt furiously driven to excel in English above all other subjects. This drive essentially translated itself into catering to my educators on an almost masochistic level. If a paper was to be at least three to four pages long, I had to write five. If an assignment was due by Friday, I had to finish it by Thursday. If I was taking an in-class test, I had to be one of the first three to finish, and if it was an in-class essay, I had to write as many pages as possible, to make up for the possibility of being a slower writer than others. At times when I felt stuck during an in-class essay the ticking of the clock alone proved to be a cruel reminder of my failure not only to produce what I was expected to produce, but also a failure to do so on time, and was enough to drive me to embarrassed, helpless tears. I would cry over a B+, fearing my parents’ disappointment and reproach. They felt that if they were paying all that money for a private school, the least I could do is produce the expected level of performance – grades – in return.
For a long time I resented this line of reasoning, but as of late (perhaps for the worse) I’d found myself to have actually come around to it. It cost and continues to cost a preposterous amount of money to send me to school, the intention behind it being that I am given the very best – doesn’t it follow that at the very least I owe it to them to become that very best? It is as recently as in the past two years that I became fully aware of the fact that a skewed, but perhaps not-unreasonable, concept of debt (and indebtedness) has become embedded in my understanding of education. Getting a grade that isn’t a personal best seems wasteful more than anything else.
Now, it’s important to note here that after high school, my parameters of “best-ness” have been blessedly redefined. I learned fairly quickly that although, with enough effort, I am capable of turning in work in the math and sciences that will earn me the grade, I am, by and large, made bored and unhappy by it. It is precisely because I found that English analysis and composition (especially on the subject of gender and sexuality) makes me practically itch and vibrate with energy that I find it somehow unacceptable to turn in anything that is not unquestionably honest in its efforts as far as “best-ness” is concerned.
Interestingly enough, now in the course of this very paper, I find that the distinction I make between my favored English and Gen/Sex classes and the rest of the classes I am obligated to take somehow approaches the distinction between the terms “learning” and “education.” I feel as if in these favorite classes of mine, as much as I may slave over them, I constantly in the mindset that I am actively learning something, that there is room for me, for an “I” in the classroom, and that I am not afraid to make that room for myself; whereas the other classes instill in me a passive mindset, one in which I am being educated, as if some sort of an experimental procedure is being performed on me, to me and I am constantly struggling to recover that “me” and turn it into and “I” – a borderline obsessive-compulsive, potentially masochistic “I,” but nevertheless an “I.”


Anne Dalke's picture

The bride's on fire!

the contrast you draw between the humanities and social science classes, which make room "for an 'I' in the classroom," and those in math and science, which do not, was certainly challenged yesterday by Paul's description of all good work in science as being subjective, as acknowledging an "I." I take it, though, that the story he told does not jive with your experience? How might the data embedded in your tale serve to re-write his?

I'm curious to know, too, how you might locate your experiences within the trajectory that McIntosh traces: you tell such a painful story of an obsession with being "best," of not "wasting" the (expensive) opportunities that have been offered you. She tells a counter story, of both the personal and the very large social costs of such climbs to the top. Hers is a very different economic calculus than yours. How do you see your educational ideals contributing to (or challenging?) the structure of education, and the larger world, that we all inhabit?

I'd also like to talk more w/ you about the very striking image you used to begin your paper. It seems to image the destruction of a very conventional gender performance. To me, it looks as though a bride is on fire; I can't understand why she isn't writhing in pain. The image reminds me strongly of something McIntosh said in a visit to Bryn Mawr several years ago: "The spectre of excellence hovered over Bryn Mawr. But the bridegroom never arrived to make good on the marriage contract."