I’m taking this week off from continuing my series on Victorian pornography. As much as I love writing about and sharing my research, I found that it was getting a bit heady to feel as though I was becoming defined as ‘that porn guy’. There are all sorts of future blog posts that I have planned to deal with these implications of my field. This week, then, I am going a different direction and sharing something rather personal which, at the risk of oversharing, is something I’ve never put into actual written words before. The story I’m sharing begins with my teenaged self and continues to this day. I hope you will forgive this bit of self-indulgence and -reflection.
One small clarification on the title: I’m not really a spiteful asshole, though by the end of this post you might read the situation in that way. Or maybe I’m a recovering spiteful asshole. Let me explain.
In the course of one of my many conversations via Twitter not too long ago, I posed a question to my fellow higher ed twitterers. I asked if any of them had been terrible students at school like I was and, to my great pleasure I found out that I was not alone in the world of terrible-students-turned-smartfolk. Their stories varied from not being challenged in school to lack of support, among other issues. Well, in my own case, I did poorly in school because not because I was incapable of doing the work or I wasn’t challenged enough, it was because I was an asshole. I’ll take you back to my days as a high school student to show you what I mean.
In my head, I had the reputation of a much cooler person than I actually was. I wasn’t exactly unpopular, but I wasn’t captain of the football team either. I fell into some middle place where I didn’t get picked on but I also didn’t wield much or any power in the rigid hierarchy of high school. I had a car, so that gave me a bit of traction socially with people who needed rides to get cigarettes or alcohol. In any case, I thought my niche lay outside academics since some of the coolest people in schools often have the poorest marks. I skipped and got kicked out of classes, I dropped classes, was apathetic to teachers, barely handed in work, never did homework, and basically dug myself into a hole so deep by the end of grade 11 that there was no way I could dig out by graduation the following year. I had dropped/failed so many classes that it was a mathematical impossibility that I would graduate with my classmates. Whoops.
This is the story about how much I sucked at school, sure, but specifically this is the story of how I came to do a PhD in English. It’s relevant that I mention English because it was the class I repeated most in high school. The other classes I flunked or dropped were largely electives, save math, that I had no business in taking anyhow. I seem to recall doing okay in grade 10 and 11 English — I didn’t do much work but still passed. Grade 12 English is when it all changed for me, however. I didn’t drop it (because you weren’t allowed to) and I didn’t so much fail as not complete. I had the friendliest teacher in the world and she gave me so many chances to hand in the final assignment on The Great Gatsby so I could pass that my refusal to do so became farcical. The last time I remember her offering to allow me to hand in something (anything) so she didn’t have to give me an incomplete mark was at the prom. Yep, I failed but still went to the prom. Asshole? This guy. I’ve seen her since high school and, though we never talked about what a profound jerk I was, I knew she remembered but didn’t judge me for it. I never understood why she wouldn’t judge me but, when I grew up and started teaching students of my own, I realized that you have to let certain ones realize they’re drowning before you can try to save them. In my case, I took a long time to realize that I was drowning. Thus ended my first round in English 12.
By the time I had begun to take English 12 for a second time, I was technically a high school dropout, working full time at my family’s business, and taking night classes to try and make up the credits I was missing. Night classes, for anyone who’s never taken one, are an even stranger mix of people than your average daytime high school class. For one, night classes are open to students of all ages, which was a weird feeling. The night classes I took were usually a mixture of slackers like me, current high school students whose day schedules were so full that they took night classes to make up other courses they couldn’t fit in during the day, slightly older students upgrading for university and/or making up credits needed for graduation, mature students aged 30 and up, and, sometimes, people who are taking the class out of nothing but pure interest. Within these groups there are, of course, any number of smaller subgroups. Trying to make up my lost credits in the evenings turned out to be a fool’s errand for me. I had never worked real full-time before, except in the summers, and I was not prepared for how much work it was going to be to work and do school in the evening, which would cut into serious partying time. I mean, after all, since I was working full-time I also had the full-time paycheque to go along with it. I wasn’t going to let Fahrenheit 451 ruin my weekends. In a cruel bout of deja vu, I slagged off the night class the same way I had done my regular high school English class with the same result. I did the minimal amount of work but did not hand in the final assignment…with the same result: the teacher gave me chance after chance to do it. The last chance was some months after the course had ended when my brother happened to meet her through his work and they got to talking and discovered that they had me as a mutual acquaintance. She asked him to relay the message that, if I handed in an assignment to her (any assignment, regardless of its quality), she could revoke the ‘incomplete’ on my grade. Who was the asshole this time? Yep, me again.
After this episode I gave up on formal schooling for a while. I bought a book about studying for the GED, studied for the GED (barely), and I got a GED. This marked a turning point. As soon as I had completed the GED test (Scantron sheets mostly, except for the parts that required me writing about a memory from my childhood) and picked up my certificate, I felt no sense of accomplishment whatsoever. I wasn’t really a high school graduate; I was ‘equivalent’, which was about as comforting as finding that one has been walking around all day with a leech stuck on his left leg and, even though it didn’t suck all his blood, he had still been walking around with a disgusting gelatinous blood-sucker on his leg precariously close to other parts a la Stand By Me*. I am in no way trying to cast aspersions on the GED or those who seek/have sought it. For me, however, I felt like more of a failure with it than I had without it. The turning point was in the realization this certificate had afforded me: I was smart enough to have been done with high school when I was scheduled to do so, but because I was an asshole I had sabotaged myself. The GED episode had planted the seed in my mind that I was going to get a real high school diploma, if for no other reason than to show that I could.
In the time between the GED and my taking English 12 for the third time, I had decided that I was getting a real diploma and putting it to good use by applying to university with the intention of becoming a teacher. When I put myself back into the context of that time I remember doing all of this because of the sense of failure I felt, but also out of a selfish sense of spite for all the teachers and administrators who hadn’t done more to advocate on my behalf and make sure I wasn’t failing. This was, of course, almost a complete fabrication of my own imagination, though there is one guidance counsellor that I still think failed me profoundly, but the result would have been the same with or without them. Spite, it turned out, was a fantastic motivator for me. It wore off after a while, of course, and before long I was pulling some great marks in my night, distance, and adult high school courses. I took English 12 again at night and had a blast doing it because I had been to that particular rodeo a couple of times before. I’m fairly certain my final essay on Lord of the Flies will be up for auction at Sotheby’s long after I’m dead.
To get right to it, after I had completed all the courses I needed to graduate with a real diploma, I went back to my old high school to pick up that real diploma. I threw it in the trunk of my Jetta and forgot about it. Three months later I began my undergraduate degree. The first class? English, of course. Intro to Poetry, to be exact. I still might have been doing things out of spite a little bit, but for once in my life I felt most comfortable in a classroom. This is not to say that I was a brilliant undergraduate. Not at all. I had to learn the hard way that what cut it in high school was nowhere near good enough for university level writing and thinking. I caught on to the game eventually, however, graduating with honours and then going on to do a teaching degree, working in some great high schools for a while before I foresaw the limitations in that career and deciding to do graduate school. Teaching in high schools and seeing a few kids like me did my head in at first, but I understood it and it made me into a better teacher (from my own point of view anyway). I loved my teaching jobs, though I still longed for something else.
A degree and a half later I have found my academic niche and that is what this blog is largely about. When I began my MA, I wasn’t sure that I would do a PhD; I wasn’t sure I would be able to finish the MA, I was seemingly underprepared for the level of discourse. This kind of uncertainty is, of course, an ongoing battle and one of the subjects of this blog, so allow me to return to the subject of this particular post.
I have shared my story of the poor high school student who made good before, to much shock and laughter. Rightly so, because this is, at its core, a comic tale of a stupid adolescent and his stupid attitudes. I do not share this story to gain any kind of congratulations from anyone who hears it and I definitely don’t want it to be construed as a syrupy feel good story because it is, at its core, not that. I am, at my core, not that. I offer this story, usually, as a kind of cathartic shedding of a self I don’t readily recognize anymore. I don’t do things for spite anymore, but rather for pleasure. I’m doing what it feels best for me to do. It is, ultimately, for selfish reasons that I share this story. It’s indulgent because it gives me pleasure to know that I am at a point in my life where almost everything I do is in the pursuance of my own academic intrigue and I am in the process of creating new knowledge, albeit that process is long and drawn out. Do I sometimes still have the urge to simply not do something that needs doing? All the time and, sometimes, I put off doing things. I am the worst (or best, perhaps?) procrastinator. When it comes down to it, however, and I’m put under pressure, I know I won’t be able to blame others and my own life will just be made that much more difficult and I can usually get things done. If there’s one legacy of my spiteful assholery it’s that I can’t stand missing a deadline or failing to hand something in, so I can get rather caught up in obsessing over handing in something (anything!) by its due date. As a scholar, I am learning that this is not the best approach and, as I become more independent and detached from the world of taking classes with definite due dates, I am learning that doing the best work possible sometimes means taking a little longer than expected, something I found out graduating high school at age 22.
*This also happened to me one time, though not exactly as depicted in the film clip. Too much? Okay, just unread that last sentence.