Monday, November 14, 2011
I'm grateful for Slaughter House Five
I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. It was spawned by Beth Revis’ books you’re grateful for. And here’s where I go all serious. If this is the first time you’ve been to my blog, I ought to warn you, I’m usually not this, well, uh, serious.
The book that I might actually be the most grateful for is Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I think this book and I got along more out of timing and circumstance than anything else. When I went to college (undergrad) I had made this choice that I was going to put all the silly, childish things in my life away and focus on my dreams.
I wanted to be an astronaut (I know, it’s so cute, right?), but I wasn’t that cute little kid who just wants to be an astronaut. I set the curve in my high school physics class because no one was going to have that top spot. It was mine, and no one this side of Newton’s apple was going to be better at it than I was.
Then I got to college.
I grew up in a town with 856 people in it. My first class sat 880. It was a bit of a shock. Being the best in a small town is easy. Even the really smart people just don’t want the same things, so they don’t try as hard. In college, they all want the same thing. They might as well have stuck me in a tiny little school full of other students who just wanted to be set the physics curve, but unlike the writing community where everyone is nice and tries to help everyone else out, they were more like ballerinas at a competition, pouring powdered glass into the other girl’s toe shoes.
Except those super competitive people were everywhere, in every class, not just the physics. I struggled. I’d never had so many options, and I hated my math classes (no, I don’t think I said that right: I HATED MY MATH CLASSES!!!!). It’s not like I lacked the talent or the skill. What I lacked was the ability to sift through the horrible accents and actually pay attention in a 200 person class that was clearly designed to bore my brain cells into a gelatinous ooze.
College didn’t go the way I’d planned.
And worse, I’d given up—wholesale!—nearly every fun thing I’d ever enjoyed. I’d been pretty good in band, good enough to get into just about any music program I wanted to, but all I did in college was the jazz band. I didn’t take any of the classes I really wanted to (Why didn’t I take surfing when I had the chance? Or Sailing? Why was I so dumb when I was so damned smart?). My first semester was chosen to maximize my requirements to credit hour ratio.
In fact, the only fun thing I did was to take a fencing class (loads of fun, everyone should try it at some point). In high school, I’d been in plays, the choir, band, the soccer team, the swim team: I did stuff that had nothing to do with school. I had a great costume every Halloween. I rode horses in competition, raised (and sheared!) sheep. I did a ton of stuff that had nothing to do with my academic prowess. I read books. I *wrote* books. But in college, I was going to buckle down and get to the business of growing up.
For anyone who’s ever been in this position, it should be pretty obvious that this sort of obsessive drive to succeed isn’t healthy, but I thought I was on the path. I’d started on the long journey to my dreams.
And then I didn’t succeed. In the first semester at college, despite giving up everything I’d ever loved to chase one dream (a dream I had better odds at winning the lottery than succeeding at), I got my first ever non-passing grade (a C-, how cruel is that, they give you credit but they won’t let you take the next class). It was the worst grade I’d ever taken home. Ever. I was a failure.
But I’m stubborn, and I decided that the answer was to buckle down even more. I couldn’t take any more physics and math classes (they went in order at the beginning), so I took Russian (the better to talk to my Russian comrades should I ever make the astronaut corps). I guess I must have thought there would be a place on the astronaut application form where I could write down my grades for participation and effort. I definitely got an E there. Well, let’s just say that learning a whole new language thing doesn’t help much when all your other classes are ridiculously hard as well. By the third semester of this sort of self induced torture, I had so much homework that all I ever did was school work. I ate with my math homework in front of me. I got the take out lunches so I could sneak them into the library. I was crazed, driven, obsessed, and still failing.
I didn’t read any books for fun. Not one. By my third year of this, well, let’s just say my grades weren’t great. I was more determined than ever, but I was still a complete failure. I was in debt, I hadn’t come up for air in forever, and I had a solid loathing of my peers. We had nothing in common. They were all like “See how easy this shit is for me?” “Aren’t I awesome?” “Are you even good enough to be in our study group?” “Why would anyone ever read a work of *fiction*? It’s not even real! How stupid can you be?”
Right, how stupid could I be?
I quite jazz band so I could work in a lab in the physics department. I figured that if I could actually do these things then I could really make it in physics. Working more in physics didn’t really help me out. And I had confirmation of my general inability. When I went to ask for help on my homework in this one class, I was told by the professor that “If you are having trouble with this, then you should consider a new major.” That asshole made me so mad and embarrassed that I never asked for help in that class again. I passed, but not well. I should have realized that just passing those classes was a huge hurdle: in five classes of physics they whittled the engineering students from 500 to 40. It wasn’t an easy series. I busted my ass, and I still got bad grades. And who wants a grad student who can’t do better than a C in basic physics? Who wants an astronaut who could only manage a C? It seems like they’d want the A+ people. I needed to get my grades up before I flunked myself out of any chance of making my dreams.
I caved. I took two classes that didn’t fulfill ten requirements at once. I only took them because, well, I needed a breather. I was dying, and a little art studio wouldn’t kill anyone. And a little music appreciation wouldn’t hurt either. Besides, it filled a requirement I wasn’t likely to get anywhere else, and I’d already taken music composition in high school, I was pretty certain I could rock that class (and I desperately needed an A on my transcripts).
I was still a failure (as far as I was concerned) and I was starting to get the feeling that there would be no grad school for me (a Ph. D. is required to get into the astronaut corps on the science side; thousands of jet flight hours is what you need for the military side, I thought the science path would be easier). Art studio meant more money on non books than I’d spent in a long time. I’ve bought $100 paperbacks in the name of physics, so forty bucks to buy paper and pencils seemed pretty cheap. So cheap in fact that I let my eyes cast about in the book store. There was a little display of books right on the edge of the art section. It was three books by Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughter House Five, Breakfast of Champions, and The Cat’s Cradle.
One of my friends had told me about the protagonist who says “So it goes.” Considering that I was failing at my life dream—had sunk to taking art classes to raise my GPA!—I figured I might have something in common with this Billy Pilgrim fellow.
I bought the book.
I read the book during my music appreciation class (it wasn’t a really important class, they were talking about the fantasy section of a symphony, and I could have given the lecture), and then I read it through my next class: math. It was Green’s function (read: important crap that I should have been paying attention to and ultimately lead to my worst ever grade, an actual honest-to-Galileo F). After class I made it the ten steps to a wooden bench around a planter and kept reading.
At the time I bought that book, I had never felt sorrier for myself (before or since). By the time I finished that book, I knew I was being a fool in just about every aspect of my life.
I knew then that no matter what, I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by staying in a place where I hated everyone, and they all seemed to hate me (they didn’t, I was just the only girl in any of their classes and they didn’t know how to handle the rare female scientist in her natural habitat). The next semester, I changed degrees, found people who were like me (and they even read books that were a complete waste of time featuring fake people doing fake stuff, sometimes on fake worlds! Crazy!).
I’m not going to lie. It wasn’t easy, and it added a year to my time in college, but that one book caused me to reevaluate my life. I am so thankful for it. So thankful, that I went back and bought the other two books. Then I found the nearest used book store and started back into books with a vengeance. I still get a little too into my grown up work and stop reading (like right now because I have 29 days before I defend my dissertation), but one look at that book on my shelf and I remember that place where I was so miserable. The worst part about that place was the only person who had any control over how miserable I was, was me! It was Billy Pilgrim’s lack of control that made me see all my problems like the tiny things they really were. Literally, I was just a few sheets of paperwork away from happy the whole time. How dumb could I get? Physics wasn’t the only answer. There were a number of other sciences that could cut the grade.
And really, would it kill anyone if I got to be happy while chasing my dreams?
That is how Kurt Vonnegut convinced me to leave physics and find a science I actually liked.
Thank you Mr. Vonnegut.