February 21, 2016
Some superstitious folk speak of carrying horseshoes around for luck. They also speak either fondly or spitefully, depending on their heritage, of the luck of the Irish. I’m one of these superstitious folk—it’s a stipulation for loving baseball as deeply as I do. And though I’ve never owned a horseshoe, my blood is Irish.
Most people who will read this post know that I spent last January through May studying and living in Ireland. The time I spent there transformed me in ways I’ve written about before—ways that terrified me about my future and made me cripplingly vulnerable.
I’ve never needed anything as much as I needed that fear and vulnerability.
I remember telling Mrs. Albertson in third grade that I would be both a Cardinals player and a writer. I had no doubts; nine-year-olds never do, nor should they. My two loves were baseball and books, and it didn’t make sense to do anything else with my life. So for the next three or four years, I assumed that plan would be my reality. And then puberty and peer pressure happened.
In seventh and eighth grade, I stopped reading so much. Few of my friends liked to read, and I felt uncomfortable admitting my love of books. I looked like an ostrich in those years—puberty and buzzcuts are a cruel combination—so of course I felt that I must prove something to my new classmates. Being a nerd who buried his oversized nose in books? Not a chance. Thus started my unconscious need to conform and please.
It grew more pronounced when I got to high school, although I wouldn’t understand as much until I made my way back to my natural course some time in the past two months. In American high schools and colleges, the science, technology, engineering, and math fields—STEM—dominate. Teachers push the brightest students toward the pursuits of medicine, research, engineering, and the like. Scholarships are given based on which students demonstrate the most potential to make a difference in the STEM fields. Decisions are made based on which college offers the best STEM opportunities.
STEM fields are great and necessary. But they’re not the only way to make a difference in this world. For six and a half years, I thought they were.
Last night, I sat with Mr. Steve Missey, my former English teacher and Prep News moderator at SLUH, at the SLU-Fordham basketball game. Conversation spanned school and plans and sports, and as good conversation so often does, it sparked an epiphany. As SLUH continues emphasizing STEM opportunities, I voiced to Mr. Missey that I believe that acronym, STEM, was the heart of my uncertainties over my life, uncertainties that I only cleared a few weeks ago. I felt this need to pursue a STEM career if I were to impact others. But Ireland, certain friends, and a reminder from several books of the power that words carry all combined to help me shed that STEM expectation. I went off track years ago. Somehow I needed to recourse. These factors made me do it.
Until my experience abroad stripped me of all the comfort I’ve known, I had no chance at recognizing my own dispassion for anything STEM-related. I sat through essentially two and a half years, on and off, of science classes I hated. I saw passion in the room, but I never recognized it because I’d forgotten what real passion looked like, having not experienced it for years. I didn’t experience my own passion until my creative writing class this semester. Even in Ireland, disinterest bound me. But the vulnerability that living in the land of luck forced me to feel set me up to be remolded—not by social expectations, but my own dreams.
Not so long ago, I dreaded graduating. I thought I’d be at a job I would hate, living for the weekends I’d end up being disappointed by. But here I am, a year and a half away, and though I’m far from ready to leave my home at SLU, the prospect excites me far more than it frightens me. I used to think life would cease to be new and rewarding when I left this place. But then I realized that that’s when life begins, as long as you let it. And letting it do so involves risking it all to chase what you love. Not to settle for the expectations around you.
Finally embracing my passion feels like I’ve found the feeling that the late Marina Keegan wrote about upon graduating from Yale (http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2012/05/27/keegan-the-opposite-of-loneliness/). She calls the feeling “the opposite of loneliness.” STEM was lonely for me. Writing feels like the exact opposite.
I took a horseshoe-shaped track to end up back where I was for most of my life before high school. Ireland and the months since forced me to branch away from the STEM fields that for the past half-decade or so have been the root of my uncertainties and anxieties.
I carry no horseshoe, but Ireland has stuck.
“The wire was about pain too: it would always be there, jutting into his feet, the weight of the bar, the dryness at his throat, the throb of his arms, but the joy was losing the pain so that it no longer mattered.”
– Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, page 241