“Eh, write something leh,” prodded a junior yesterday, “I need something to read during my political science lectures.”
This is the second week of the semester. In theory, I should be absolutely free to blog and air my opinions here. After all, this is what happened last semester. Right? In theory, yes, but I suppose having crossed a certain threshold I have become more wary and circumspect about why I write. But several thoughts have been sprouting, and I’ve let them germinate happily in the fecund darkness of my mind. The posts are forthcoming in the next few days.
But I thought I’d start with a quick scribble (yes, I always promise a quick scribble/short reflection – that’s how it always works in my head at the start, anyway). This is an entry to my juniors.
No, before you panic/roll your eyes/brace yourselves/grab your pitchforks/write a disgruntled amateur poem, I want to say that the tone of this entry is intended to be quite positive. It’s written in response to things which have been drifting around in my brain-sea for the past few days, after conversations with several juniors. So here is the product. I’ll try (that’s the key term here) to avoid utter condescension.
Context (is Important)
As a undergrad historian, I’ve grown increasingly particular about context. So indulge me here a little, since you’ve already clicked this link, o loyal reader.
I suppose that in many ways, I am incredibly lucky. Studying in the university can be a lonely experience, if you have lived through it. Unlike the conventional school system, where everybody is forced into a classroom and you have to learn to live with your assigned class for several semesters (bit like a family), the university system is a system of clouds: you can drift and fade into any number of configurations you like. If only we had an atlas of clouds, so we would know where to go…
In university, all you need to do is get the grade – and while that may mean being present at some tutorials, it’s a place which allows you a large degree of autonomy to vanish. Sick of CCAs? No need to go la, unless you
are too afraid to break out from the illusory safety of the herd like having “the best campus life”. Don’t like to make awkward small talk with your tutorial mates? Heck, you only need to see them once every fortnight! Just pretend the floor is more interesting , and be selfish and not say anything until class is over! I’ve gone entire semesters without learning the names of anyone in my tutorial group.
This sort of explains why there are so many weepy ‘confessions’ in NUSWhispers from “evergreen” boys and girls who have never learnt how to talk to members of the opposite sex (don’t you think that says something about how atomised our society has become/is becoming? People stealing each other’s pet turtles? Or having anal tears?)
University can be incredibly lonely. And despite a recent lament that expressed how aloof and apart I had grown in the USP community, I have nonetheless been blessed with good friends whom I can still sit and talk to for hours and hours. What makes me feel even more privileged is that these friends cut across the years. I have deep, old friends who are year-juniors of mine too. Whether it’s a great love for
gossip stories, or intellectual chemistry, or jadedness about life, something clicks, somewhere.
Three events precipitated this post. The first was a dinner with a junior, and her lamenting how “intellectually, I don’t feel like i belong in the USP, eh”, after we had spent several hours talking about a sheer array of things, on top of the standard sprinkling of local gossip. The second was a Welcome Tea for second-intake USP freshmen, which I was asked to chair yesterday. The third was a bored political science major, of course.
Listening to freshmen talk about their dreams and hopes is always a very enervating experience. I mean this with no irony. It is always a timely reminder of what had once similarly fuelled you; what you had once sought early in your long voyage in university. These freshmen spoke about why they had decided to jump into the USP. They saw the USP as a place with “very interesting classes”, many of which they would never have encountered otherwise in their home faculties. Some of them spoke about wanting an exciting residence life, and making new friends from different disciplines. About learning new things from these new friends.
And although I was tempted to roll my eyes, these aspirations threw up memories of a younger, less crusty me. One who was more uncertain, but also more audacious, offensive – but more hopeful as well. As we grow up, life makes us trade certain things for others. We sometimes spend a while coming to terms with loving the new things we get in exchange for the lithe, supple and glowing radiances of youth; sometimes they are boxes of darkness.
The third trigger for this post was, of course, the junior who had poked me and wanted something to read in her political science lectures. Because I sympathise with my friends in the political science department, and how boring their lectures can perhaps occasionally be, this entry is thus partly written for them too…I’m joking. Please don’t type out a long rebuttal in your lecture.
The Point(s) of the Spear
The preamble has been very long. But context is important. Context sometimes is the argument, the meat of the crux. The crux is simply the tip of the spear. So this ‘letter to juniors’ aspires to be as simple as possible. It is addressed to incoming freshmen, intimidated by these (seemingly) hallowed halls, whether of academia or of the USP.
I know it sounds pretty presumptuous of someone who has only spent a few more semesters than you to be addressing you like this, but these are meant as words of reassurance. I write them for the reader as I write them to a younger self, so unsure and uncertain and unworthy.
My two points here are: (1) Despite what you think of yourself, you are worthy and unique. You have skills nobody else has. (2) Maya Angelou was correct.
You’re Unique! (Just Like Everyone Else)
My junior, whom I’d struck up a fast friendship with in my first year as a Writing Assistant at the Writing Centre, is a Chemistry major. To my astonishment that evening, she told me that she wondered sometimes why she was in the USP.
“I don’t feel like I belong here. Everyone seems so smart. I’m permanently scarred!”
A little more context is needed. Several semesters ago, this junior had been ripped up online for her use of the phrase “boyfriend/girlfriend duties” in a Valentine’s Day publicity effort on the USP page (how dare she!!). A group of seniors thought they could Save the World and Champion Equal Rights by using big words and taking apart a hapless Year 2 because she offended their delicate social justice sensibilities. As much as I’m all for critical thought and trying a little unkindness, I have also lived through a time when USP Life was rabid with self-indulgent comment-essays that pretended to champion Social Causes. The more accurate term is perhaps online bullying. Despite my acerbic online persona, this event had always struck me as particularly distasteful.
I have thus tried my best to avoid becoming that kind of rude, condescending senior (although those who know me only by my online shell may think otherwise). You know what I mean. The verbose snots who think they know so much better because they learnt Big Words in their Big Lectures (whoa panopticon siol; Orientalism wor; post-materialist Weberian societies that are Kafkaesque in nature… don’t step la. If you can’t explain it in simple English you don’t understand anything. You’re hiding behind your polysyllabic words. #rant).
Although unsuccessful, I have always sought to listen. Listening is important. And I was rather astonished to hear my junior say that she felt stupid being here.I reflected how sad that statement was. Someone who was nearly three years into a course on university-level Chemistry was telling me she felt stupid here! In the USP! I haven’t looked at a carbon atom diagram since secondary four!
“Level” Playing Fields
This is the problem with standardised grades. Or at least, one of them. It tries to put everyone – historians, chemists, mathematicians, engineers, lawyers, nurses, all – on an illusory flat surface. It misleads us. It makes us measure our self-worth by a set of numbers. But these numbers hide so much. They hide the years of experience a biologist may have had in understanding evolutionary genetics. They obscure the near-intuitive grasp a Literature major may have for the nuances in a text, any text. These numbers make us think we are ‘stupid’ or ‘not good enough’ because our CAP isn’t as high as that of someone in a completely different discipline, from a completely different social, educational, intellectual, personal, ethnic, cultural, political, national context. (Context is always important)
Heck, I don’t know how many years I would have to study to catch up with this junior’s supposed “stupidity” in her discipline. As trite as it sounds, the truth is that we are all unique. A professor asked in our class that day – “What is this class about?”
And before we could reply hesitantly, he yelled out
“This class is about YOU!
I WANT TO KNOW WHAT YOU SEE, WHAT YOU THINK, HOW YOU RESPOND!”
And I think that should be what the businessmen crudely call our “value proposition”. It’s difficult to understand that we are all unique, because too often the bases for comparison in bland Singapore with its materialist obsessions centre on seemingly countable things. Numbers. I don’t believe in numbers anymore. Numbers are even more untrustworthy than words. At least with words you can read around, or tease out nuance. Numbers lie. And the worst thing is that they lie persuasively.
So, I would like to tell my younger self. I know what the system wants you to believe. Our economic and societal and cultural frameworks have DISSATISFACTION built into them. I know your thoughts follow in the same pattern. It is normal to be dissatisfied and discouraged at yourself. It is normal to feel insufficient and inadequate. Heck, as I write this, I’m wondering if this post is insufficient and inadequate.
But you must trust yourself. You are unique. Only you have this set of perspectives. Only you have this set of experiences – growing up, eating these things, feeling sad at the sunset in an unexplainable way, thinking these strange thoughts, feeling these bizarre emotions, imagining these horizons, having these grand ambitions.
You must trust that these things have value, if not to the world, then at least to yourself. You can count on no judgment other than your own, whatever the world may tell you otherwise, because only you have walked this jagged, mottled road that is your life so far; only you have talked to your own demons. So only you can know what’s best, even if you cannot explain it using logic and reason. You cannot explain the glow inside your soul. (Context is important)
Maya Angelou was Correct
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” | Maya Angelou
Some smart alec is going to come along and tell me this isn’t actually a quote by Maya Angelou. Yeah, I got that too when I got this quote from Google. What difference does it make, in this context? We can discourse on the veracity of evidence, what is evidence, what counts; but that’s a topic for somewhere else.
The point here is about legacy. How will people remember me/you?
Again, who the hell cares what a “senior” in the USP thinks? In the grander scheme of things, ascribing a word like ‘legacy’ to me is like getting a six-year-old kid to make a valedictory speech at his kindergarten ‘graduation’…
But I did give it a think. I thought about all the things I remembered about the people I admired or disliked, hated or loved. And I realised that it always came down to the strong emotion I associated with them. I could barely remember the things they did or said, unless they excited some sort of emotion in me. It’s a similar reason to why I study histories, and why I remain so curious about the world around me. Stories, different narratives make me feel different things, and see things differently.
What do you want to make people feel?
Consider: nobody is going to remember what you said or did in a class a year from now. Not even if it was a brilliant insight. Do you remember anything the class smartypants said in lecture, although he later went on to win some scholarship or other? Well, I don’t, anyway.
But I remember times when friends stood up for me, or did not. I remember that one time when the auntie greeted me when I was having a bad day. I remember the shaft of sunlight on a painful morning after a break-up, and how it gave me some solace from my sorrow. I only vaguely remember the details of the Vietnamese history class I attended three years ago. But I always remember the professor who took time out to sit with me, who listened patiently to the silly questions of a curious undergraduate. We need our technocrats -but we love our leaders.
I think compassion is by far more important. After seeing a clique of Year 4 Literature and Sociology seniors tear into a Year2 online because she used the term “boyfriend duties”, I decided for myself that empathy and compassion were far more admirable traits to have than apparent intelligence. What do I care for how ‘smart’ people think I am? What does that win me, besides perhaps a few pats on the head, and (if I’m lucky) a Scooby snack?
Much more important and rewarding to be remembered, methinks, for the humbler things. The things you can share. A paper, a word, a post-it. A moment. For having listened. For having helped and offered a hand, an eye, an ear, a word, in a time of need.
It’s unavoidable. I know I’m only 24 years young. But by certain measures I am already a fossil, past my expiry date. I don’t care for suppers and orientation games and “campus life” anymore. And so I think of weird things like legacy, and how I will be remembered and talked about by those I leave in my wake. It’s arrogant and presumptuous, perhaps. But it’s also a good way to think about the ways in which we inevitably distort the realities of those we live with, simply by existing.
In the words of the country singer Brandi Carlile: “Do i make myself a blessing, to everyone I meet?” It’s an important question to keep in mind, as we keep swimming along.
So here is an overlong letter to my juniors. I hope it has lasted you through your boring lecture, or worse still, through an exciting one.You’re smart and unique, because context is important. But intelligence is overrated. As I have learnt many times myself, being a douche is counterproductive. What will breathe more colour, vigour and joy into this brief adventure is how we all help each other along on this long and winding road.
Okay, now I want my Scooby snack.