I have no right to feel guilty when I tell a rocket scientist or a pre-med I’m an English major. And yet I can’t seem to ditch that ball-and-chain question that follows me everywhere I go: why am I doing this? Who will I be helping? I know the generic answers, the ones that bespatter college applications: I really enjoy writing (true), I want my writing to have an impact on the world (good luck with that), I like to read (also true), my favorite author either went here or teaches here (though I cannot possibly live up to her). When I look at what my major has taught me thus far, I see infinite possibility – which is synonymous with impossibility. I can’t attack every book in a canon, let alone canons of canons, though I exert a valiant effort both in class and on my own.
So now I’ll go ahead and state the obvious: you don’t need to be an English major to take command of the language when you need it most. Why is that? Because knowledge is different from wisdom. You probably expect me to elaborate on the difference between the two, but I’ll have to disappoint you. If you haven’t picked up on this already, the tone I’m going for is more conversational than didactic. So sit back, relax, and enjoy a story instead of an explanation.
You are walking home to a little-known place called 122 McGraw. It is dark out and has been snowing all day. You know the tips of your fingers are slightly deepening in color even though you cannot see them. From behind a bush a shy burst of wind licks your hair gently enough to send a single strand into your already watery eyes. At this moment there is nothing you want more than to warm up. To get home as quickly as possible you walk along a deer trail trampled to ice, slide down a small but nearly vertical knoll, cross a road, and follow the sidewalk past a fraternity. You get so far you see your building, before you notice something unexpected.
There is a figure sitting on the side of the curb. Although the lighting is very poor you are just able to discern your friend’s hat, and you start to worry. This friend has been going through some difficulties lately. You say hello. No response. Without ever taking a poetry class you instinctively know to value the space between words in addition to the words themselves. You say nothing. You just brush the snow off the curb beside her and sit down.
Half an hour later you try again. Your friend is not ready to talk. You wait. By now a whole hour has gone by. You look at her closely, though you can’t see too well in the poor lighting. She is holding her head up fine. Nothing seems to be the matter physically. You decide to keep waiting and lose track of time.
A while later someone walks down the sidewalk in your direction slowly, but you don’t notice until she is almost next to you. “Why hello there,” says your friend, hatless, “do you like my snowgirl?” You leap up so suddenly you almost slip, and the words you had so eloquently not been using fail you. A rare smile passes over her face as you explain the situation. “You spent two whole hours sitting next to a pile of snow for me? I love you!”
“I love you” – that’s a hyperbole. Or is it? You do not need to be an English major to recognize double meanings, and to appreciate them. Neither do you need to be an English major to take note of the second person (the use of a character named “you” who is probably not you). If you have taken any creative writing classes you have probably been warned against the second person on account of the problematic sense of universality it tacks onto a story. But I’ll go out on a limb here and say that whoever you are, you have probably met a snowgirl or a snowboy. I sincerely hope you were duped, no offence, and chose to sit beside her or him because if you did you probably already know the difference between knowledge and wisdom.
The first time I ever saw a snowgirl I did not realize something was wrong. I passed by her, oblivious to the difficulty she was going through. When I came back in the morning she was a barely recognizable ripple of slush. Then I melted too.
No number of literature or writing classes can tell you how to express yourself when you melt, reform, watch others melt, watch them reform. If they even can reform completely. If you can. Even if you are one of the lucky ones, you will never get your naiveté back. Nor will you want it, if you are the type of person willing to brave a cold night on the curb.
Sylvia Onorato is a junior English major in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Header image courtesy of Alicia Wang.