Tag Archives: life

My 3 Proudest Moments as a College Student (all of them exceptionally strange)

28 Apr

Like thousands of other twenty-somethings across the country, I’m graduating from college this spring.  In fact, I’m graduating this week.  It still hasn’t quite sunk in yet, though that might be due to the fact that I have 5+ years of grad school ahead of me.  Fun!

Team USA Quidditch at the University of Alabama, preparing to lose to Iceland.

I never went to a football game, stayed up no later than 10 pm on weeknights, and maintained my admittedly bizarre and anachronistic 19th-century teetotaling ethos the entire four years–but even so, I’m still going to miss being an undergraduate at the University of Alabama.  And maybe it is all that 19th century research, but I’m feeling a little sentimental.

In that vein, here is a list of my Top 3 Proudest Moments as a college student–all of them being very, very strange.

1. Reformation! The Musical

When I was in middle school, I was president of the Drama Club and performed in a number of musical productions.  I was so good that, in fifth grade, I was the understudy for the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist.  In eighth grade, I was the understudy for Wendy in Peter Pan.

I was an awesome understudy.

It’s only logical, then, that I got my breakout starring role this year as Martin Luther in “Reformation! The Musical,” a short film I wrote, filmed, edited, and bankrolled myself .  I was amazed that so many of my friends actually agreed to participate.  We were equally amazed at how horrible the movie turned out to be.

Our tagline?  “The worst film in all of … history.”

 

Hey, you can’t say we didn’t have fun.

2. Team USA Quidditch at the World Cup

Way, way back in high school, I spearheaded the creation of a quidditch league at my school.  That’s right, quidditch.  We even got in the county newspaper, which would have been super awesome except that the reporter included the fact that the league was organized by a group of my friends and me passing notes in AP Calculus.  Our teacher was quite gracious about the revelation–maybe because it was already pretty obvious that I was never going to pass that AP exam.  As she told me before the test: “Let’s get this over with so you can use words for the rest of your life.”

They gave me differential equations to solve.  I wrote them palindromes.

Team F*cking USA with an American flag I made out of cardboard and colored paper.

Imagine my delight when an organization at UA hosted a massive quidditch tournament two years ago.  I eagerly got a team together (mostly composed of my Reformation! cast mates).  We lost.  But this year, this year, I was determined that we would win. Well, win one game anyway.  After all, we were Team F*cking USA.

It was a dramatic final five minutes.  The Snitch ran onto the quidditch pitch in a sweat, both Seekers (one of them my precious younger sister) in hot pursuit.  I was playing Beater, but had thrown my last bludger at an enemy player.  The other team’s Seeker was getting closer and closer to the tennis ball dangling from the back of the Snitch’s pants.  My sister, exhausted but still determined, having stripped out of her sweatpants into pink running shorts right on the field, was only a few steps behind.  I shouted to my team’s other Beater: “Aim for the Seeker!”  She had a bludger in her hands and, in one last desperate act, pelted the enemy Seeker in the balls.  He doubled over in pain, and my sister caught the Snitch.

I had never loved her so much as I did that moment, and I doubt I ever shall again.

3. Senior History Honors Thesis

About three weeks ago I defended my senior history Honors thesis, a microhistory of youngest daughter of a white cotton planter and enslaved African American woman in Reconstruction-era Alabama.  I’d give more details, but I think this could turn into a dissertation and I’m terrified of my story getting scooped before I have a chance to publish.  There’s a reason they call academia the School of Hard Knocks.

Don’t they?

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Confessions of a Certified Slytherin

27 Apr

Someone who (at age 21 and a half) has read the Harry Potter books innumerable times and been to every midnight showing since Order of the Phoenix is, probably, a little old to be signing up for a kids’ literary enrichment website.  Most of my peer group are the same way–I can walk into almost any classroom on campus and make a comment about the Muggle civil liberties infringements brought about by the International Statute of Secrecy to general agreement and outrage (seriously, don’t Obliviate spells strike you as incredible invasions of privacy?).

So why did we all sign up for Pottermore?

Two words: Sorting Hat.

For over a decade now, almost an entire generation of readers have been wondering what house they would be placed in, should they have been the lucky recipients of a Hogwarts letter to save them from the trials and tribulations of fifth grade and its mixed fraction computations.  Putting on a magical old hat that reads your mind and tells you about the deepest parts of your personality would be super creepy when you think about it, but way cool.  The closest thing we Muggles have to that sort of insight is psychotherapy, and, I assure you, that may be creepy and unnerving, but it’s definitely not fun.

As the series unrolled, I began to resign myself to the fact that I probably wouldn’t have been a Gryffindor.  Or if I were, I’d be like Neville in the early books (before he got super badass and faced down Voldemort and friggin decapitated Nagini).

Of course, I had the consolation of relative surety that I wouldn’t be a Hufflepuff either.  I mean, no one has ever accused me of being “warm” or “kind.”  Whatever that means.

I expected Ravenclaw.  Because you see, friends, academic elitists aren’t made, they’re born.  And I’ve been correcting people’s grammar since I learned how to read.*

But as you may have guessed from the title, I’m not an eccentric, quirky, non-conforming Ravenclaw.  I’m not a noble, self-sacrificing Gryffindor.  I’m not a cheery, loyal Hufflepuff whose badger mascot is a little less lame now that the honey badger no longer has to give a you-know-what.

I’m in the house of You-Know-Who.  The house of magical racists and dungeons and snakes that turn people to stone.  I’m a Slytherin.  And as good ol’ J.K. says in her video intro to the sorting process–the decision is final.

The thing is, after a moment of stunned silence as I sat in front of my computer, I realized that it makes absolutely perfect sense.  For more than ten years I’ve avoided seeing it because, despite J.K. Rowling’s insistence that Slytherins aren’t all bad, we’ve never actually seen a good one.  Pottermore tells us Merlin was a Slytherin, which is cool, but as an historian, I’ve got to say that it’s doubtful King Arthur, Camelot, and Merlin ever existed.  It’s probably a myth some woebegone Slytherin made up so her housemates would feel better about themselves.

I should have seen the warning signs long ago, but I refused to look the basilisk in the eye.  It’s done now, and my metaphorical magical heart has turned to stone.  Some of you, dear readers, might be like me: fearing to know your true self.  Maybe you’ve been designated a Slytherin; maybe you’re afraid to put on that hat.  The following is for you.

A Guide to Accepting Your Serpentine Heritage

1. Would you describe yourself as cunning?

The first time Harry and Co. hear the Sorting Hat sing its sinister, sibilant song, the part about Slytherin goes like this:

Or perhaps in Slytherin/ You’ll make your true friends,/ Those cunning folks use any means/ To achieve their ends.

You, like me, may prefer to imagine yourself as a frank, open, straightforward person.  Certainly not deceitful in any inherent sense.  But think back to your past: at any point in your academic or workplace life did you do something like this?

A girl I know–I’m not going to give any names, but she writes some second-tier sci-fi/whatever else blog on wordpress–went to a Catholic high school.  She was diligent, hard-working, and hid her contempt for certain classmates with impressive grace and aplomb.  She had almost all of her classes with the same 20 or so girls, all of them smart, all of them hard-working.  But one in particular annoyed this friend of mine.  That girl was pathologically hard-working.  Like, obnoxiously diligent.  And my friend didn’t like being shown up.  One week near the end of their senior year, my friend’s teacher told the class that there were some extra assignments for those who wanted some points to shore up their grades.  Both my friend and the other girl had better-than-perfect grades in the class.  But that other girl said that she’d do the assignments anyway.

My friend, as I said, didn’t like being shown up.  She knew that the other girl, let’s call her Mary, because she was freakin’ perfect, would get all sorts of brownie points for being pathologically diligent.  My friend tried to explain to Mary that there was no reason to do the additional essay or whatever but no, friggin’ Mary was going to do it anyway.  My friend considered doing the extra work too, simply to keep pace.  But then she realized something: this new assignment wasn’t extra credit.  It didn’t go on top of the grade; it just got averaged in.  Which meant that someone whose grade was already an A+ could actually suffer a net loss in points by doing an extra essay that could only get her an A.

My friend encouraged Mary to write the paper.  My friend didn’t.  And my friend got the highest grade in the class.

Oh, and did I mention?  This was religion class.

I realize that that sounds kind of horrible.  But don’t judge my friend too harshly for her “cunning.”  What she did can be seen negatively, but that’s the easy answer.  If you really think about it, while her motives were hardly pure, her reasoning was perfectly sound.  My friend wasn’t going to waste her time with something that couldn’t benefit her.  Mary was so caught up in her single-minded work-work-work attitude that she didn’t actually stop to think about what was in her interest (I’m going to guess that Mary’s a Hufflepuff).  So you see–cunning isn’t evil: it’s about achieving your goals.

And speaking of goals…

2. Do you have any plans to take over the world?

Or at least, your little piece of the world?  You don’t need to build a giant laser on the moon and try to blow up the earth to be ambitious.  And besides, that’s horribly cliché.

From the Sorting Hat’s next song:

And power-hungry Slytherin/ loved those of great ambition.

There’s nothing wrong with a little ambition, you know.  It’s not all throwing money around and waving silver-headed canes in people’s faces like the Malfoys would have us believe.  Ambition takes determination, hard work, intelligence, and long-term planning.  You have to imagine what you want to be in five, or ten, or twenty years and have the discipline to make those dreams come true.  And you know why Slytherins are good at that?  I’ll tell you why: because, unlike the namby-pamby other Houses, we don’t call them “dreams.”

We call them plans.

3. Do you care about people’s bloodlines?

In its final appearance in the books, the Sorting Hat gives us this even less flattering portrait of the serpent House:

Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those/ Whose ancestry is purest.”

Okay… not going to bother with that part.  “Pure-blood” talk gives me the creeps.  Let’s just admit that, as a House, we’ve turned out an unfortunate number of seriously nasty characters and be done with it.

Conclusion

The point is, brother and sister Slytherins, that while we may get a bad rap, we just need to own it.  Not the Death Eater stuff, obviously, but the cunning and ambition.  That’s not a bad thing.  It’s more effective than the abstract intellectualism of the Ravenclaws, and do I really need to insult the Hufflepuffs again?  I mean, their House ghost is the Fat Friar and they live in a cellar next to the kitchens.  What else is there to say?  As for the Gryffindors, well, I’ll just quote a badger friend of mine:

“Gryffindors are like Hufflepuffs, except bro-y.”

Well said, friend.  Well said.

*As a side note, and further evidence that I would make an awesome Ravenclaw, I can still distinctly remember at least two years before I learned how to read and write.  My older sister, 2 years above me, was making my mother cry with her staged readings of “The Giving Tree” (friggin communist altruist hippies).**  Meanwhile, I got my hands on a little pink-and-white notebook wherein I would make scribbles and try, to no great avail, to inscribe them with meaning.  I was so jealous I wanted to papercut my sister with her precious book.***

** I apologize.  I worked a summer at the Ayn Rand Institute.  Sometimes this stuff just comes out.

*** Oh god … I totally am a Slytherin.

Natural Skeptics: Kids and the Santa Myth

5 Dec

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.  And for a lot of people—when it comes to young children—“wonder” is the key word.  Nothing captures the magic of childhood Christmases like memories of waking up in the morning to find that, somehow, while you were sleeping, Santa Claus arrived, ate the cookies and milk you left for him (giving Rudolph the carrots, of course), and filled the room with presents.

(If I wanted to be flippant, I’d say that there’s nothing more wonderful than an overweight man breaking and entering into one’s house through as innocuous a feature as a chimney, but in the spirit of the holidays, I won’t mention such a thing.)

Those memories are tinged with nostalgia for the world-weary adults (and in this case, ‘adult’ can mean eight-year-olds) whose ideals are eventually shattered by the knowledge that Santa Claus is Mom or Dad tiptoeing around downstairs after sprinkling on the sleep with warm milk and soporific poems about sugarplums (what the heck are those?) and mice not stirring in the house (I’d hope so).

But the subsequent disillusionment doesn’t seem to prevent ultimately looking back on those memories with fondness—the carefree days watching cartoons on Saturday mornings and believing in something magical.

And there’s a lot of good in the Santa myth—it’s about joy, justice (being rewarded for meritorious behavior), and good will.  He’s jolly; he enjoys American commerce and gastronomy; and his mode of transportation hardly leaves a carbon footprint.  How could there possibly be a downside?

For one thing, it’s a lie.  Even in the service of magic and childhood wonder, it’s dishonest, and sets a precedent—the lies have to grow.

Kids are natural skeptics: they drive parents crazy with the constant “why?”  I distinctly remember the dreadful time before I learned to read—jealous of my older sister’s lexicographic skills, I would scribble in a notebook and pretend it was my diary, but when I looked back on the pages, I couldn’t remember what my “sentences” were supposed to mean.  And sitting in the backseat of the car, I’d point out every billboard and ask what it meant until both she and my mother stopped answering.  Horrible frustration—I wanted to know.

Most kids are curious—about why the ocean is blue, whether colors looks the same to everyone, what billboards say, or anything they don’t understand.  The world’s a mysterious place when you’re little (shoot, it is when you’re big), and let’s face it, Santa Claus is a mysterious guy.

Eventually, kids become skeptical about his mysterious abilities and begin to ask completely commonsense questions: how does he visit every house in 24 hours? why don’t all reindeer fly? how can a morbidly obese man fit down our chimney? (That one was particularly relevant in my house, which didn’t have a chimney.)

But parents think back to the “magic” of their early days and respond with vague claims about the supernatural.  The process of coming to a reasonable, logical conclusion is forestalled, supposedly for the good of the child in his or her fragile formative years.

That’s just it.  They are formative years.

Deflecting answers or making up far-fetched explanations to fend off questions discourages this completely healthy, completely natural, and almost universal skepticism in children.

And truth be told, attachment to the man in the red suit seems to tilt pretty heavily to the adult side.  Adults don’t want to deny their children the sense of wonder they remember; kids don’t want to be denied answers.  Cross-purposes, friends.  There’s nothing more frustrating than deflection, even now (thank goodness for Wikipedia).

Skepticism is an important thing to learn early—it’s critical thinking, reasoning through problems, learning about how the world works, the scientific method.  And in a media-saturated culture, with politicians and newscasters and advertisers and writers throwing information at us from every direction, it’s more important than even to have a mechanism to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Skeptical thinking isn’t cynicism or disillusionment; and it certainly doesn’t have to mean a Burgermeister-Meisterburger ban on Christmas (or maybe that was Oliver Cromwell…).

Once again, I have to point to Carl Sagan: The Demon-Haunted World is a manifesto for critical thinking, and I agree with every reviewer who commented that it needs to be read by every high school student who can get a copy (buy it, share it, steal it… well, maybe not the last).  He writes:

Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class.  Many of these children are natural-born scientists—although heavy on the wonder side and light on skepticism.  They’re curious, intellectually vigorous.  Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them.  They exhibit enormous enthusiasm.  I’m asked follow-up questions.  They’ve never heard of the notion of a “dumb question.”

And then we get to high school.  We memorize dates and facts, read Albert Camus, flirt with nihilism.  Don’t tell me it’s childhood trauma from that Christmas day the magic died.  It’s because we never learned critical thinking at all.  Just the opposite, in fact—as children, every time we tried, we were discouraged.  Questions are brushed off or patronized (“because the ocean reflects the sky, dear”; “because the reindeer are magic!”).  Memories of Santa Claus bring a lump to our collective throat?  Maybe because we think he holds a monopoly on magic.

There’s just as much excitement in learning how to read, or in finding a solution to a problem all by yourself (don’t kids incessantly insist on doing things on their own?)—maybe more.  In any case, that’s the kind of wonder that lasts.