Growing up, the one thing people said I was good at was English. Sports? I fell every two seconds. Music? I couldn’t get my fingers to cooperate. Dance? My feet were just like my fingers. But, English? That I could do.
It’s a rather broad statement though, “You’re good at English.” I wondered back then which way I should take it each time someone offered it up like a complement.
Was I good at writing, even though I never felt comfortable with the essays I turned in? Was I good at speaking, even though presentations made my heart beat in my throat and my words have extra syllables? Was I good at communicating, even though I didn’t know how to start a conversation with anyone my own age?
Was I good at English?
I didn’t think so, not then.
But, despite my discomfort and doubts, I was involved quite heavily in what my friends generically titled “English.”
I carried a book everywhere I went and ditched lunch for the library. I reviewed ARCs for Harper Collins, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin. I wrote a blog and built strong friendships in the blogosphere. I did well on writing assignments. I was featured in the yearbook sophomore year for being a reader and reviewer. I was put on the yearbook staff solely because a teacher liked how I wrote copy…and a year later I was editor.
I’m babbling, but I promise there’s a point to this.
There was evidence–public and glaring–that I was a lit kid, that I was thoroughly immersed in the infinity of English. It’s just that, back then, I refused to acknowledge any of it. I did what I did and I blushed, anxious and uncomfortable, when others brought it up. I was someone who did and didn’t see, who was and didn’t know. But, my friends, teachers, and parents saw these parts of my life and labeled me someone who could do English.
When college applications came around, I didn’t know what I wanted to be or do, and my school’s guidance counselors were glorified schedule-changers. I wrote “English major” on every application because, well, I didn’t know what else to write.
After all, how are you supposed to know what your want the rest of your life to be like when you’re not even two decades old?
Thus, as an undergraduate, I fell into being an English major.
It wasn’t so different from how someone might fall into school sports because their parents forced them to do little league for years. English was the thing others recognized me for, the thing I could do passably well in relatively easily, and the thing I enjoyed even when the work was challenging. If you’re good at something, you should do it, right? Apparently it’s not that simple.
Just as quickly as I fell into my major, I fell out of it.
(FYI, this is completely inaccurate.)
I read the news reports that called English a “soft skill.” I heard professors talking about the English program being downsized in favor of “more necessary studies” in science and technology. I talked to my peers and listened as they stated the import of their potential degrees in comparison to the uselessness of mine.
The talk? It got to me, a lot. But, even worse than the talk was the other English majors who were also abandoning ship like the penultimate scene from Titanic (1997). Into the icy waters of indecision we will go!
I changed my major once and then I changed it again. Then, just when I’d finished planning my next ten years, I changed my major again. Call me indecisive why don’t you.
I ignored the regretful twist in my stomach when I registered for classes like “Intro to Computer Programming” and “Accounting 2301.” I said that I picked English by default to begin with, therefore picking something else would be easy. I decided that who I was–who I was only just realizing I was–wasn’t good enough and I desperately tried to shed my skin.
It wasn’t working.
I realized I was at the wrong university and in the wrong degree program. I realized I was making plans that I didn’t want to come to fruition. I realized I couldn’t unzip my skin like a jumpsuit and step out with new interests and skills. I realized that I picked my path long before and I needed to do English with an awareness I didn’t have previously.
I reversed course and went back to the start. In very quick order, I switched to a new university, became an English major, registered for six writing courses, and started blogging and reading again. But, there wasn’t some magic spell that suddenly made everything okay. I still wondered about the practicality of getting an English degree.
I worried that I was just playing at doing English because I hadn’t written ten novels, forty fanfics, and four academic articles by age 19. And, only after months of hitting myself over the head for not being farther ahead did it occurred to me that that’s normal.
When I walked across the stage and officially received my Bachelor of Arts in English, I still questioned whether I’d made a mistake. There were a lot more business majors than English majors after all. But, I also knew that my choice of degree could be defended. Being an English major–doing English–means more than having a stack of old essays and loving libraries. It means:
~Strong communication skills
~Superior critical thinking and analytical abilities
~Deep connections and empathy with other people
~Genuine willingness to work and rework an idea or project
~Focused desire to create something from nothing
~Natural diversification of interests and knowledge
~Inherent fluency in the arts of subtlety and irony
The truth of the matter is that being an English major means having the precise skills and talents that are so in-demand, so necessary to life, that people will take them for granted unless we remind them.
English majors have necessary skills. English majors possess significant knowledge and experience. English majors can fulfill a need in almost any business or work environment in the world because communication is necessary everywhere–we just have to market ourselves as such.
Once we see ourselves, we have to make people see our skills, knowledge, and necessity too. It’s not about proving ourselves to anyone else, it’s about proving the continuing usefulness of English major and putting ourselves into positions where we can do what we love.
We have to shatter the idea of English skills being “soft” and instead showcase that we are masters of what every day, every moment of life requires. We have to wield our words like tools and weapons. We have to work for work, but as long as we are willing to make that effort, we’ll be fine.
Don’t fret too much; we’ll do English, it’s inevitable.
Without a doubt, being an English major is a meaningful pursuit. Holding a bachelor’s degree in English–or master’s or doctorate–in our hands will represent an immense accomplishment. It will be the moment.
And, in that moment, it won’t matter that we aren’t child geniuses with a list of thick novels to each of our names. It won’t matter that we changed ours major three times before committing to the English major. It won’t matter that we cried with worry and fear in our hearts before the graduation ceremony began. No matter what, we will be okay.
There will be doubts along the way to that fancy piece of paper with a college seal. There will be naysayers. There will be instances where we must explain our decisions. And, none of that matters because, once we’ve bypassed those people and breathed through those moments, we will do English and it will be more rewarding than anything else we could have done.
It may take a journey for some of us to come into this major, and it may take hard work to make others see why we stuck to this “foolish” path, but, if it is what we love to do, then we will do English. We will love and we will do and we will be, and it will be a perfectly imperfect existence.
Give the English major a chance and maybe, just maybe, you will end up defending it too.
Go do English.