BY ANNA CATARINA GRAGERT
Curated by Sophie Elizabeth Moss
When we’re young, we can say things like, "I want to be an astronaut and a rock star" or "I want to be president one day, but also a princess." And we can get away with it. We can get away with these extravagant ambitions because, starting out on our journey, we are encouraged to explore, to be curious, and to be everything that we can be.
Then, we enter school, where we are not only encouraged to be everything, but where we are required to do so as well. Growing up in the educational system, we must be scientists, mathematicians, historians, writers, linguists, artists, and athletes…Did I forget anything?
Our future depends on our ability to juggle it all, to master each and every subject that is to appear on our transcripts. We are told that in order to be successful, we can reach for no less than a high grade, an A+ that is to be branded upon us with permanent red pen.
"The world is a competitive place" is the motto that follows us as we are pushed to proceed, flawlessly, from grade to grade. Comparing ourselves to our peers becomes essential because these are the people who could potentially take our spot in college or, later down the road, in a high-paying job.
In other words, not only must we "become everything," we must fight for our rightful spot as the best at becoming everything.
Young women are especially encouraged to do so. As young women, with hormones coursing through our bodies, we are reminded of our ancestors and how they had to fight to be where we are today. "Prove that you can beat the boys," we are urged. "But don’t be too intimidating because boys don’t like that" is the implication.
Young women must figure out where they stand in the midst of feminism, modernism, relationships, sexuality, motherhood, education, equality, and all other head-spinning subjects that probe our brains. BUT, we must do so while remaining non-threatening and feminine (because how else will we get dates?). In other words, we must be able to master everything.
And then, BAM! All of that changes.
"Alright, now it’s time for you to pick a college major. So, what do you want to do for the rest of your life?" says your guidance counselor, innocently, before your 17-year-old self.
In a flash, your audience’s cheers change. They go from "Be everything that you can be!" to "Pick one thing and pick it well because this is going to be your life now!"
Not only must we peer into the future and figure out who we are meant to be (at the mere age of 17), we must pick something that is socially acceptable, something that will earn us the big bucks.
We can no longer juggle all of the multi-colored balls of our youth. Instead, we must pick the blandest--but shiniest--of the balls and throw that up and down for the rest of our lives. Up and down. Up and down.
Sylvia Plath once remarked,
"I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life. And I am horribly limited."
The first time I read this quote (there have been many times since then), I had a panic attack. I felt sad, angry, understood, misunderstood, and vulnerable all at once.
I felt this way because every vein in my body pulsed knowingly. I felt this way because I had spent my entire life learning to be the best at everything. My entire life’s work led up to me graduating as the salutatorian of my class, having mastered putting my schoolwork before everything else (including my sanity). And then…then nothing.
All of my hard work to be everything became a funnel, a funnel that was only big enough to fit one thing: one picture perfect label stamped with "Society Approved."
Not only did I feel all of these emotions within, I felt them (mostly anger) toward society. How could we let our educational system do this to its students? How could we force young people, who barely know who they are, to choose? And not only to choose, but to choose from the approved list of professions? What’s the harm in letting people do what they love? Or, all that they love?
Society creates a bubble of anxiety and expectation around its citizens, who were born and bred to be everything, but now must choose, simply, to be one thing. One thing to define them for eternity. One thing that will allow them to live, securely, in the future.
And we wonder why mental illness is an issue.
To put it simply, this is a problem. Not only that, but it’s a problem that many people don’t face. Instead, people just go along with it all, stepping in to the educational assembly line and then stepping out as if they’re getting off an escalator at the mall. Why? Because it’s what we are supposed to do.
We ignore the fact that students kill themselves over a bad grade. We ignore the fact that students think they’re worth nothing because they aren’t the best at it all (even though they are scheduled to pick only one subject in a few years time). Most importantly, we ignore subjects such as creativity, empathy, and inner passion in favor of structure, expectation, and competition.
An education is a powerful tool. It always has been, is now, and always will be. But, what happens when the emphasis is taken off of education, learning, exploring, and growing? What happens when the emphasis is, instead, put on becoming a singular, stable version of the multifaceted, curious sponge that you used to be?
I’m about to throw another quote at you, so get ready.
Mark Twain proclaimed, "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."
I hope Mr. Twain is right. I hope that we continue to explore outside of the classroom’s four walls. I hope that we never forget that there is more out there, that we cannot be pigeonholed. I hope we never forget that there is always light to be found and that we are greater than a sole label.
It is my hope that we never forget that we can be anything--and everything--that we want to be, no matter what anyone else says.
When Anna Gragert isn’t trying to create a groundbreaking third-person bio for herself, she’s writing, taking photographs, blogging, catering to her little black cat, or putting the finishing touches on her Audrey Hepburn shrine. Some of her many writings and/or photographs have been featured with: HelloGiggles, The Indie Chicks, tiny buddha, Pea River Journal, RiverLit, White Ash Literary Magazine, You & Me Medical Magazine, The Horror Writers Association, Listicle, and Thought Catalog. Follow Anna on Twitter to keep up with her adventures in all things human/creative.
Sophie Elizabeth Moss is a misanthrope, dark witch and literary madame. She is currently studying at the Cardiff school of Journalism, a faculty of Cardiff University. When not searching for the perfect leather jacket, she can be found writing poetry and working on her first full-length work of dystopian fiction. Disillusioned with societal expectations of the ‘modern woman’, she is a sex positive, pro-choice advocate and is haunted by the ghost of Simone de Beauvoir. @Sophiedelays