On being …2 things (or more)
A bit of a wanky title, but I think it gets across my point.
So-named is the fairly lefty Facebook group pointing out that while the powers that be seem intent on putting everyone into labelled boxes, actually you can be two things. This obviously relates to much bigger societal issues surrounding gender, sexuality and race. But not existing at any of these intersections I’m under-qualified to try and be definitive about those topics. The only topic I can claim to be any kind of expert in is myself, so the rest of this article may come across as pretty self-indulgent. Apologies in advance. Consider this your primer on ‘Why is Rose like this?’
The first label I remember being assigned was that of being a non-sporty kid. At my prep school you were either a sport 5 year old, or non-sporty one. How they decided who was who I have know idea. The problem was that being born pretty prematurely I always walked on my tiptoes as a child. I spent quite a lot of time in hospitals, and with my legs in plaster. Basically making me a miniature Forrest Gump with a massive fringe, before he learned to run. An unsporty kid. This label stuck with me through most of my school days, there was no turning back. Even after I had long since had my feet fixed, and had started competing for the school athletics team at a county level I could never be considered sporty. The label I was assigned instead, probably due to my love of puzzles, playing the piano and using long words incorrectly, was a geeky one.
This label stuck with me for quite a while; I moved up a year in Year 3, partly because I was pretty clever, and partly because I was being horribly bullied by another girl in my year, most likely because of my papier maché legs. I worked hard all the way through secondary school, intent on getting into my mother and grandfather’s alma mater, the University of Cambridge. I had other interests, sure, but none of them could take priority over this ultimate goal. My secondary school didn’t think I should apply, and told me that I wouldn’t get in. In 2014 though I received an offer, and headed off to start my life at university, aged 17, a perfectionist to the point of tears, and unable to drink. Before I left one of my teachers, who had supported me with my application, suggested that I might want to reconsider the whole ‘not being ok with anything less than 100%’ thing.
This advice was easy to follow. On arriving at Cambridge I was no longer a medium-to-large fish in a small pond, I was now basically plankton in a big blue ocean. My supervision group contained some of the best and brightest in my year, and after my first supervision it dawned on me that perhaps I wasn’t that clever after all. What had been my identity for years disappeared in one afternoon.
For the rest of my first year I struggled to find a new identity. I joined a choir, started playing squash for the university, and joined my college’s university challenge team. I thought that if I could prove myself in one of these areas perhaps I could find some new pre-assigned goals which fit the new me, whoever she might be. None of these turned out to be ideal. I wasn’t that good at squash, formerly unsporty me had played for my school, but I wasn’t prepared for all these women who could be good at two things (!) (shock horror). I carried on with University Challenge, although we didn’t make it to the live rounds. Choir seemed to be an OK fit, the source of much of my social life and eventually one of my first relationships.
Pretty soon, once I’d turned 18 and was able to take full advantage of Cambridge’s stunning and wide-ranging nightlife /sarcasm, I was assigned a new identity. I was the girl who turned up to lectures and supervisions hungover, or still drunk from the night before. I was the prey for third year ‘sharks’ who picked on vulnerable first year girls. Basically I was the messy one, my new freewheeling identity even spawned a catchphrase ‘That’s so Rose!’ (said when I’d make a mistake, or break something). I was never going to do well in my degree, or at least that’s what my Director of Studies, my friends and my Supervisors let me know. I resigned myself to this new role of class clown, with my lack of control being a running joke.
Having scraped a 2:1 in my first year exams, on the first Sunday of my second year at university this all came to a head. My boyfriend, having returned from a night out with our friends, assaulted me in my room in college. He stayed the night and left in the morning ‘to think’. A few days later my grandma died, and the day after that he dumped me without warning. I probably should have dumped me after he violated me, a crowning injustice. But at this point my self esteem was so low that I felt like his destructive presence in my life was a gift. My friends continued to invite him over to our shared house, expecting me to ‘get over it’, and continue to accept the presence of this man in my life.
After a term and a bit of this torture I moved college, and was forced to start again, and to carve out a new identity for myself. I got involved in theatre, something I’d always loved at school, and tried to make that my new identity. I came to late really though, and although I met many lovely people the friendship groups were long formed and I was slightly out in the cold. A few months later, one sunny afternoon in April 2016, I announced to 1300 of my nearest and dearest friends that I was a survivor of sexual assault.
This was one of the most empowering decisions I’d ever made. It allowed me to take back the control I’d long ago lost, and to have a say in how people saw me. For the first time really I assigned myself a label. There’s been ups and downs since then, but that decision produced a net positive impact on my life. I’ve worked harder, spoken out about issues I feel passionate about, and I think that people started to see me as more than a formerly fun girl who cried a lot.
This upwards trend sort of brings me up to today. Basically I’d begun to see myself as everything but academic. I took up bouldering, played squash a bit but not more than I wanted to. I joined a new choir, free from ex-boyfriend, and toured with them to wonderful places singing wonderful music. I made theatre I’m proud of, and decided on it as a career path. I founded an online database of sexual consent content warnings to help survivors like myself. While I achieved all of these things I separated myself from the anxious perfectionist girl I’d once been, who so wanted to impress people with her brain. I pretty much saw that as impossible, just intent on graduating with a degree. I saw this as a pretty informed decision; I’d been reminded since I started that I was not the sharpest knife in the Linguistic faculty, in fact i was probably one of the bluntest, I baby knife if you will.
A few weeks ago I’d sent my new Director of Studies a practice essay, written at pace in an attempt to find out whether I was on completely the wrong track or not (a common occurrence). Today when I heard back from her I was expecting the Microsoft Word comment equivalent of a ‘See Me.’
Instead I was pleasantly surprised. In fact that’s a bit of an understatement, I was so surprised that I audibly gasped in the middle of Starbucks, and then started weeping. The other customers must have been pretty confused.
All of this because when I opened my essay this is what I saw:
‘This is just OUTSTANDING: perfectly structured, impressively clearly presented with very well chosen examples, and your eye always perfectly trained on detail and the big picture it occurs in.
Class I*: 83'
The highest mark I’d ever achieved (I’d never gotten a first on a non-exam essay before). And I hope that this doesn’t come across as boasting.
For me today was a bit of a turning point. I learned that other people’s opinions or labels don’t define or constrain my ability. Just because a continuous flow of old white men and confident peers told me a could never regain the part of my identity that I thought I’d lost didn’t mean that was true. I could have fun sometimes, and make mistakes, and have different interests and recover from one of the worst events of my life, and still retain some attachment to how I’d defined myself for so many years.
But I also learnt that defining and labelling myself wasn’t important anymore. I could be torn down and start again time and time again without losing who I was. Because people are not one thing, we’re all the product of all of our experiences and are all multifaceted in unique ways.
So after this long self-involved spiel I’m going to end on two quotes:
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One by my absolutely favourite poet rupi kaur
people say things
meant to rip you in half
but you hold the power to not
turn their words into a knife
and cut yourself
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The second, the pseudo ironic title of this article.
‘you can b … 2 thing’ (or more, or everything)