At the moment, and on the surface, our society wants to cast aside anyone who’s ever made a mistake. It occurs to me that mistakes happen when people try to fully live. The first time you take something on, you handle it like a child. You have never experienced it before, so you don’t know how to handle it. So you make mistakes, you learn from them, you grow from them, and you hopefully don’t make the same mistake over and over again. The following document depicts mistakes and the journey to overcome them.
The Eagle and Child is a hole in the wall tavern along St. Giles street in Oxford, England. Its low roof, wood paneled walls, and cask poured beers calls up a simpler time. I walked in, giddy to experience this literary gem, and stood before the bar, eyeing all of the little figurines placed around the tavern. Unlike most taverns, these figurines and eclectic bar decor was not the typical sports paraphernalia, but rather toys, letters, paintings, and drawings from JRR Tolkein’s Middle Earth. The reason for this is that Tolkein’s writing club, the Inklings, along with CS Lewis and others, frequented this tavern every Tuesday at 10am for years until Lewis’s death in 1963.
A small booth off to the side of the bar sat next to a pot-belly stove. Above it is a sign that says “the conversations that have taken place here have profoundly influenced the development of 20th century English literature”. As I turned from the bar, the booth opened up. Naturally, I had to sit there. I smiled as if I was meeting a date for the first time, sat with my back against the wall, and giggled as I took my first sip of room-temperature English beer. For me, it was one of the few times of life where I was genuinely overcome with deep, moving emotions. I held back tears because of the road I took to get to study at Exeter College at Oxford University for the summer of 2018. It was also the proving ground for what my future could hold.
You see, for the majority of my academic life, I was par at best, and usually subpar. In 2003, I graduated high school with a 2.2 gpa, no future goals, and went to the only college that accepted me, the University of Northern Colorado. ASU had turned me down, ironically enough. Directionless, I wadded through at least 5 different majors including criminal justice, communications, journalism, political science, and history twice (eventually graduating with a history degree because that was the most credits I had built up). I had no future plans. As I watched my friends go off to their careers, law school, or medical school, I simply shrugged my shoulders at what I could do for my life. So, without any direction, I looked for the road less travelled as my graduation from college came closer. Again, I was a less than stellar undergrad, with a 2.5 gpa. Graduate school at that time, even if I knew what I would do, was out of the question.
I had always dreamed of being like an Indiana Jones/Robert Langdon type of career, but it only seemed to be a pipe-dream. I wanted to explore and go through temples, but I didn’t know my why. As I finished my degree, I looked for “expeditions” I could possibly apply for and attach myself to, much like Edward Malone in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which I love, sent out a press release for an “expedition” without including any real details. So I applied. The mystery intrigued me. After a series of interviews that are reminiscent of something for the Real World or something like that, I eventually got asked to join the expedition. Still relatively in the dark as to what we were doing, I happily accepted. It was an opportunity to be a part of an expedition, and that’s all I needed to know. Turns out, it was for an upcoming exhibit called Expedition Health. It was a health sciences exhibit about how the body reacts to the climate in Colorado. There were twelve people selected of varying ages, and we went to the museum and the mountains every weekend for three months to film and have various experiments placed on us.
As the expedition came to a close, we were coming back from a mountain trip. Everyone except myself and the senior citizen of the bunch, Ted, was napping along the way back. Ted was telling me about all of the National Geographic tours him and his wife had been on throughout their years, and that he’d been to a lot of countries.
“What was your favorite place you visited?” I asked, leaning over the seat of the 15-person passenger van.
He thought for a moment, smiled, and said, “New Zealand. New Zealand by far. The people are kind, patient, happy… It’s a great place to go to.”
This small exchange with Ted started my mind working. It was 2008, I had no plans for anything as my degree was wrapping up, nothing keeping me in Denver: no dog, no girlfriend, no house, no job, etc. Travelling seemed like the perfect route for me to go. I thought I’d “find myself” (I literally laughed while I typed that), and I did, relatively. I packed up and moved from Denver to Dunedin, New Zealand, in August of that year.
Going 10,000 miles away from home, alone, for a year, creates a level of isolation that’s difficult to find in any other circumstance. It also sent me away from all normal distractions… TV, video games, etc. And made me start looking for other things I like to do to sometimes simply pass the time. One day, as I was returning from my work at a local bar in Dunedin, I stopped by a book store and picked up Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.
I read it in a day.
All I could do was read it as soon as I picked it up. I wondered why books like this weren’t shown to me before. Instead, I was given books like Scarlet Letter, which ruined my interest reading while I was in high school. Fight Club undid that damage. Palahniuk gave me a window into a new world. So I looked for what inspired him, taking me to Albert Calmus and Kurt Vonnegut. Then it took me to who inspired/influenced them. I was going down the proverbial rabbit hole of literature. Eventually, I was brought all the way down to the works of Homer. So I decided to work my way back up into what they influenced. I started to see how people have always been connected and literature proved it. It proved that we haven’t really changed in thousands of years. Maybe the material things we want have changed, but the core things we want: happiness, power, influence, love, etc. those things never really change. My world was profoundly changed.
I returned home in 2009 with a better sense of myself and the world. I found myself, relatively speaking, still didn’t know what I would do for work, but I knew what I enjoyed in life. I started working in real estate as I figured out that next piece. I hated my job but eventually started coaching rugby on the side. It kept me sane and happy. As I built relationships with my student athletes, and used the wisdom I had learned from the books I had been reading, I started to fall in love with spreading life-wisdom and knowledge to others. When I gained that realization, I quit my job the day after I was accepted into the teaching program and Metropolitan State University of Denver. I saw a counselor and they said finding a social studies job was going to be difficult and that I should pair it with something else to make me a more attractive candidate. It was an easy choice, and I picked up my second field of study in English, along with my license to teach English, and finished the program in 2012.
As I taught for the next couple of years, I wanted more. I wanted a new intellectual challenge, and I wanted to prove that I was no longer the slacker I once was. And I also wanted to prove that I wasn’t dumb to anyone who had thought that in my past, based on my non-existent academic excellence. But, I knew I was at a point where I could prove it if given the opportunity. A colleague of mine introduced me to the summer school at Oxford through their continuing education program. I applied and wrote my personal statement on the grounds of reinventing myself as a student eager to learn. I was admitted. I took two courses: Anglo-Saxon and Victorian Literature.
Dr. David Grylls of Kellogg College, Oxford, was the Victorian Literature professor, and one of the people behind the continuing education program. He told me at our end-of-session banquet that this sort of program was set up for people like me who were late bloomers, but passionate, in the world of academics and literature. After receiving the British equivalent of high Bs and low As, I knew I belonged in the academic world beyond just the high school and middle school classroom. Oxford became the piece of education I needed to allow me to pursue graduate level work. It opened doors that would’ve otherwise been closed to me.
This is how I was brought to the ASU Online English Masters. I wanted my masters in English, I needed to do it online or in the evenings, as I needed to work, and I wanted it to be a respectable school. The day I got accepted was the work of the prior 10-years finally paying off. Eager was an understatement.
As I began this program, the primary goal was to open up professional paths, including increased pay and better school employment opportunities. However, as I went through the program, my intellectual cup began to fill, but then was replaced by a bigger cup. I wanted more of this world, and ultimately the dream of finding a space like those of Indiana Jones and Robert Langdon came back to me. It is with these hopes that I now look for future arenas to pursue this dream.
Life throws us choices and challenges. I applied for an elite PhD program and did not get in. I didn’t expect to. But the rejection opened up the door for me to be asking myself, “what next?” I don’t believe I want to be a high school English teacher the rest of my life. I’d be fine if that’s how it went, but I have always had that dream of being a writer. Maybe now, as my masters is winding down, I can start shifting my work time from the program to actually writing and giving myself the opportunity to rework on that craft.
Graduate school has not been without its challenges. When I wrote the papers for the Oxford courses, it was my first time writing a real academic paper in almost a decade. My writing in those early papers was not great. It was good enough to get me through the courses, but not good enough to excel. Throughout the program, I struggled to find my voice. Sometimes I would edit myself based on the rules that we often teach high school students. I didn’t use my knowledge of literature and writing to make my writing better. It wasn’t until after reading a Malcolm Gladwell book, looking at it through the lens of a writer, that made me question what academic writing actually was, and it made my writing better. I allowed my voice to first come out when I wrote a paper using Shakespeare characters as mirrors to mental health issues currently happening in our society. I linked Othello and Macbeth to people who had committed atrocities in our society, as well as Henry V as the opposite. It was a bold, creative paper topic, and I wrote it in my own voice, both of which led to my highest scored paper to that point. This may be the most important thing I had learned throughout this degree program, to apply our gained knowledge of writing and literature to my own work.
My biggest struggle, however, was my annotated bibliography for Gothic literature. That was the only C on an assignment I received through the graduate courses. I had never been taught how to do one in the past. So my first attempt was a graduate level assignment for a task that I was essentially self-taught in. The areas I struggled in were definitely the nuances within that assignment. But in that process, I did learn that sometimes I have to take steps back to figure out how to better move forward. Failure, or at least disappointment, can be a great teacher. I have learned so much from my mistakes that I pretty much don’t fear it any more. Each course I went into, I figured that one assignment poorly graded (relatively) was going to be the greatest teacher for the coursework itself. It gave me answers to the questions of what the professor wanted in terms of both content, style, and structure. Some professors preferred standard formulaic style and structure, while others encouraged a little more creativity. It is here that I found that professors were significantly inconsistent with other professors. This was collectively frustrating and challenging, but also insightful and forced me to be adaptable to my audience.
It is no secret that 2020 and the start of 2021 has been a challenge. It was not insurmountable. Prior to COVID striking, I had already began to learn that life is a lot easier, manageable, and generally happier if discipline and patience are two values placed high on the priority list. These values, paired with my ability to adapt to a given situation, allowed me to succeed throughout my graduate studies and during the pandemic. The pandemic forced those values to task, as discipline became a lot harder to achieve and patience was forced upon us. I found that setting a quality routine and not giving into increased temptations during the vast amount of free-time provided by the pandemic quarantine allowed me to be able to succeed. I avoided whining about the situation we were all in and focused on the positives that could come out of it. With that being the case, I proved to myself that the values I thought might be most important to my individual person were in fact the correct values. It solidified my academic curiosity and allowed me to begin developing the questions that may hold my future career direction.
Courses such as Technologies in Writing and YA Lit, as well as the papers I wrote that related classic literature to issues of today encourage me that there is an audience intrigued by connecting the old to the new. I believe there is a way to bring the novels and narratives we all love and love to analyze to the general population and not just to literary buffs. It is in this arena that I hope to start pushing towards a career in researching meaningful fields that encourage knowledge, the scientific method, and, as Tolkein put it “if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Maybe through narratives, our civilization can find some much needed peace and understanding with one another.
My academic journey has been the story of my life. I was directionless with little to hope for, but I found the right book for me. It is because of Chuck Palahniuk and Kurt Vonnegut, and satire as a whole, that I found myself in the world of academics. Without those books, I certainly would not have ended up on the road I’m on. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a line that applies to everyone, and therefore, everyone should be aware of it. With “Don’t Panic” scrawled across the cover of the actual guide, more people should take those simple words as gospel, especially in a world where everyone is so angry all of the time. It is because of those words that I am writing this now. So I’ll leave you with them again, as they are what has driven me through the difficulties of academic life. Don’t panic.