Can choosing to study literature ever be a pragmatic choice? Does enjoying literature necessitate, or permit one to study it further? These are perhaps the wider question lurking in the background of Sneha Varma’s The Literature Plunge, an honest personal reflection on the moments of anxiety in one’s education journey where one is faced with weighing the opportunity costs of (not) studying literature as a subject at the next level against the tide of expectations surrounding us.
“And congratulations to the graduating class of 2017!” The auditorium erupted in cheers. Yet there seemed to be everything and nothing happening at once. I was acutely aware of the girl who was in tears while the one on my right rejoiced in her liberation.
Me? I was numb.
There was fear and excitement, uncertainty and enthusiasm. My heart was beating out my chest because what I was unsure of. This one place which had made up who we were and what we have done for the past four years was now no longer a constant in our lives. It was truly the best of times and the worst of times. We were presented with furniture to assemble with four different set of instructions but none of them in a language that we could interpret.
Now more than ever the unpredictability of what was to happen was prevalent.
Thump. I walked past what used to be the dreaded school hall that held never ending talks
Thump. Past the now empty classrooms that have kept me company these past four years.
Thump Thump. Past the joys and mishaps that these walls speak of.
Thump Thump Thump Thump. Past what once was the only thing I had to worry about.
Thump. Past knowing what and where I would be the next day.
What’s next? More like what isn’t next. Junior College: the most viable option to those who know nothing of what they want to do for the rest of their lives. Choosing to hide behind the core 4 paths: Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer, Accountant. The only desirable jobs available. Being anything else simply shows that you haven’t worked hard enough. You did not focus enough. You did not have the drive to do well. You did not want to put in the hardwork. Sometimes it’s simply… you didn’t know better. Admitting that is scary and perhaps the reason why ignorance is bliss. Now there is no time left to put off and we have to answer the questions haunting us since our birth and that would haunt us till we die.
Who am I? Who will I be?
Now the basics of that are pretty easily covered, but when it comes down to what really matters I stop short. Even I don’t know who I am. I have heard and read enough about the world to know that this is supposed to be the time for self discovery… but how long is it supposed to last? When is the deadline for us to know what we want to do, when the people flocking on my left and right know exactly which course and what positions they hope to get in their careers? How is it that everyone around me knows the ‘correct’ course to take while I can’t even begin to decide. To me, it wasn’t about what to take; it was about what to drop, to sacrifice, to leave behind. Head over heart; Science over Arts; money over everything else. Now then, who will I be?
It seems like everybody has something to say about my next steps in life. My parents, teachers, peers, even the neighbour whom I met in the lift and talked to for the first time last week. I want to scream back at them: I know this is important! I know that this determines my future and that I can make or break it! However, I just don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Is this where we leave our last ounces of wants behind?
Literature. I distinctly remember being in my first literature lesson in secondary school. To say I was obsessed with books would be putting it lightly, but never did I expect it to blossom to anything more than simply a pastime. The first thing that my teacher taught us was not who was Shakespeare, or why literature is important, but instead she only flashed the words “Mary had a little lamb” on the screen and everyone burst out laughing. We only realised what was the purpose of the slide when she went How many of you think Mary enjoyed her dinner? That was my first introduction to literature and its power to dazzle, question and intrigue.
I fell in love almost instantly. I started seeing so much more in my favourite books than I did before and I felt a much deeper connection to my favourite characters. Before I knew it I made my way to the deeper end of the sea and was always looking forward to the next literature lesson. I encountered Shakespeare and George Orwell and learnt to appreciate what I would have labelled and boring just a few months back. The one subject that I did not mind studying, my oasis in the desert was the chance to connect to characters and learn from them that always grounded me even in the most demanding of situations. However, as school went on, my interest in literature had to pass multiple tests.
The first test came and passed without much thought, the mid-year exams. They generally have a significant impact on the outcome and destination of our grades but is overall of less importance than the finals. I had never scored an A for Literature before, which seemed to be the only way to assess my progress. Though disappointed and filled with envy of those who seemed to be simply better at Literature than me, I knew I was not ready to give up the subject. At that point I knew what I know today, that I do enjoy the subject and look forward to more of it. At that point, that was enough. Enough to make me take the dive into the unknown enough to trust that taking Literature would not be a mistake. I was now able to take both science and arts subjects. At this point I convinced myself that I should be allowed to have one subject of choice. Surely this would be a reward or indulgence that I deserved for picking all my other subjects with purely reason and the ones offering the most promising future, right?
As my final exams approached, my anxiety grew. How would I fare, would I make it to the other end and what would it have to offer? This time the choice may also mean a parting of ways, a segregation that forces you to pick a side… Head over heart; Science over Arts; money over everything else, no one told me what was correct. There was and is no model answer and the possibilities are endless. Maybe there are no correct answers but definitely better answers. But how am I supposed to know what the better option is when both seem equally relevant but there is only one space for me to write my answer down. That this decision will determine the rest of your future has become a chant ever present in my head, yet it seems to mean something different every time I mention it, seemingly unsure what it is supposed to represent.
After much deliberation, one thing was certain I was not going to be taking the arts stream entirely by itself. Once again, the omnipresent voice of reason said something like pick something you have enough help for that has an easier road for improvement that will definitely matter more in life. Do I get a concession this time as well? Could I afford dropping a science subject to replace it with an arts subject? I had once again drawn a multiple choice question which did not offer the option: none of the above.
Choosing Literature would mean an escape from the mad rush for digits and quantifiers, it would mean the chance to appreciate what is around us for a change. It would mean learning about people, places and portrayals. It would be like the brush of wind against my fingertips: strong enough for me to feel its presence but never really close enough to reach, to hold. It would mean holding on to my human side and knowing that regardless of what happens and how badly I score, I will always have a place to call home.
I will never be able to predict my Literature grades like I do my Maths and Physics. I will never be able to memorise facts and statistics and know that I have prepared adequately like English and Chemistry. Literature is still the land of unknown where you never know what could and would happen. You may reach the end of the rainbow to find a pot of gold or encounter a troll but you never know exactly what lies ahead before taking the plunge downwards, headfirst with no escape. The question is: am I ready to take the plunge? The question is: are you?
Having just completed her secondary school, SNEHA VARMA is looking forward to taking up literature in junior college and to what else literature has to offer after presenting her first thesis at the Literature Seminar 2017 organised by MOE. An avid reader, who enjoys 100-year-old classics and queuing up for the latest JK Rowling books, she also likes writing as much as reading. She believes herself equally at ease whether helping specially-abled school kids, or volunteering in international tournaments.
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