Much has changed; much remains the same

As the 2021-22 academic year starts in the Northern hemisphere, much has changed, and much remains the same.

For students applying to university for the first time, they are navigating changing admission requirements, and wondering what their school year might look like.

One of the things that students I work with who are applying to the US often find strange, is the idea of a personal essay. This type of autobiographical writing that encourages them to reveal who they are, is in many cases alien to what they have experienced or encountered. Some take to it like a duck to water. Others struggle with the idea of revealing aspects of their character rather than just listing their accomplishments or educational achievements.

This is NOT meant as a model answer for US type ‘Common App’ essay, but is my attempt to tell you more about myself, in a more US style!

No matter which way I tried it, I couldn’t figure it out. The sentence didn’t make sense. I was in the queue to read aloud to the teacher and despite practising, I didn’t understand.

My turn. 
Nervously and quickly, I stumbled over the word or rather sense of what troubled me: “Now-here…”

Quietly, the teacher interjected: 

No-where NOT now-here. — Words could be made up of different length syllables. It was a revelation. At some point in my primary school, there was the realisation that words were magic. With ‘nowhere’, it was as if someone had said ‘Open Sesame.’

I began to devour books.

Another memory a few years later..

A party at a friend’s house and I kept being knocked out of the games, whether pass the parcel, or whatever it was, I would be watching from the side-lines. I sat down next to a bookshelf. Idly, I picked up a book that caught my eye. When I got knocked out (again!) from musical chairs, I didn’t mind. I had a book to turn to. I had to be torn away from it to return to the here and now of ‘having fun at the party.’

Books and words have allowed me to travel to places and times I’ve never visited. I could be a pirate or a slave, a man or a woman. Books gave me insight into the human soul. Reading Dracula or Frankenstein I could wonder what the limit of humanity was. What does it mean to act with kindness? Reaching a culmination in Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, I wondered how one finds strength and dignity and ultimately, what would I do if faced with the same challenges.

My reading has remained eclectic. Fiction, non-fiction, classic, pulp. It’s not that the genre doesn’t matter to me, it’s that each will give me something.

Sometimes, I just want to escape the here and now and have the cosy blanket of an old favourite. ‘Anne of Green Gables’ wraps me in the sassy adventures of a red-head, and suddenly, I’m brave too. I can dream of visiting Prince Edward Island to see it through my eyes as well as those of the author Lucy Maud Montgomery.

More recently, it is Roman Krznaric’s ‘The Good Ancestor’ that has captured my imagination. The philosopher argues that we fail to consider time as we can’t imagine that ‘far’ into the future. Words and argument continue to take me to places that I didn’t know existed. What is the short-term or long-term? How should we act if we are to have a future on this planet?

It may be years past since that first ‘ah ha’ moment of figuring out that words have power and meaning, but that doesn’t mean to say the thrill of figuring out a word I don’t know hasn’t gone. This week I came across “pulchritudinous” in a sentence. Just as I had stopped years ago with ‘nowhere’, here I was faced with something I didn’t (at first) recognise. Only, in whatever lockdown it was I started with Duolingo Latin, a language I didn’t have the opportunity to study at school. ‘Pulchra’ means beautiful. This time I could figure out the meaning of the sentence that was troubling me.

Books and words continue to cast their spell over me. They open the door to me seeing the world through other eyes and learning just that bit more every single day.