Although the Duchess (who’s seen me through many, many weepy outbursts) will tell you otherwise, I’m pretty good at hiding my existential terror from most people. If I don’t live with you, chances are, you think I’m completely okay. If I know you from around college, and you’ve asked me what my plans for next year are, I guarantee you I’ve given you some form of the following: “Well, I’d like to go into academia, but I need to earn some money to pay my way through postgraduate degrees, so I’m taking a year out to work in Oxford–I’ve signed a lease on a house with four friends–and I’ll apply for an M.St. next January.”
I almost certainly have not mentioned to you the following things:
a) I’ve already applied for that M.St., this past January. I didn’t get in. So, yeah, I need some cash, but I don’t really have a choice about it either. And, yeah, that makes me feel like a pretty big failure.
b) I’m terrified about the implications of that failure. The course I applied for is one of the most oversubscribed around (English lit 1550-1700), but what if that’s not the major reason? What if I actually cannot do the thing that I have spent my whole life believing I will do, the only thing that I have ever felt in any way good at or qualified for? And what if, when I apply again next year (to more than one university this time), it still doesn’t work? I mean, when might it be time to give up?
c) I’m terrified about next year. It’s not because I fear the world of work: I’ve worked before, all through high school and the summer after first year at Exeter, at the bookshop. But I got that job when I was fifteen, and my dad had been such a loyal customer there, how the hell could they not have hired me? (He bought me a book every Friday after I turned two. Every Friday. At primary school we had to do a counting worksheet where we counted things like how many stairs there were in our house, but also how many books we had. I don’t know if we were meant to count our own personal libraries or our parents’ books, but I did the former, and I had something like one hundred and thirty-five. You want to know why I did an English degree, that’s why. Thanks, Dad!) I mean, I turned out to be good at the job, but I don’t seriously believe that I actually got it because of my innate competence.
I’m terrified about next year because seriously what if I can’t find a job. I’ve already given up on doing anything “career-enhancing”: first of all, what does that even mean when you want a career in academia? Most people don’t use research assistants these days (thanks, Internet) and I’m pretty sure the ones who do don’t exactly pay them a living wage. And secondly, there don’t appear to be any “real” jobs in Oxford for someone who’s just finished a B.A. The closest thing I could find was a graduate traineeship in Jesus College library, which fell through (whatever, as if I wanted to be picking up the phone and going “Hello, this is Jesus” twelve times a day. Except I did. I totally did! Wouldn’t you?)
So I’ve been submitting my CV to cafes and trying to think things like: “This is fine, I can get a job or two waitressing somewhere, make some money through tips, and have a little time to focus on writing poetry, articles, maybe getting them published, doing some general reading–all the stuff I haven’t been able to do for three years.”
Which is a good mental strategy but only gets you so far. Because there’s that back corner of my brain that isn’t as tiny as I’d like it to be, and it keeps saying things like this: “So, what, you got a degree from Oxford? What’s that degree doing for you at the moment? You think you’re smart? Oh, okay. You must just be misunderstood, I guess. Especially by the graduate selection committee. What a shame.”
That corner of my brain is an asshole. I know this. Unfortunately, it’s a rhetorically gifted asshole. It is a modern-day Cicero, if you will. It is frequently very convincing.
Anyway, I don’t have a tidy moral lesson or a particularly happy ending for this post, I’m afraid. Fundamentally, of course, I have faith that things will turn out all right. In a way not quite religious but somewhat uncanny, I have been thinking, right from the moment of rejection, that this was meant to happen. Something out there–circumstance, if you don’t believe in anything else–wants me to have a year to explore my own life, before I go back to the rhythms of studying. But I am still really scared. I’m afraid that I won’t get a job, but I’m also afraid that if I do, this one year off will turn into two, then three, then a lifetime. That I’m signing up for a life of anxious mediocrity.
I think maybe it’s useful to let other people know that you can be scared. I keep feeling like a failure–as a Finalist, as a student, as an adult human being–for not having the thrilled anticipation that everyone else seems to have about the rest of their lives. There must be other people who feel the same trepidation. To you, fellow worriers, I have this to say: we are not failures. We will not be failures. We will be okay. It is all going to turn out right.
(But try not to drink alone too much. Really, that is too sad.)