It was a beautiful summer morning. The sun was rising, the birds were chirping; yet inside the 6th story of my Edmonton apartment complex, I was suffering. A war was raging. It was 5 AM and I hadn’t slept a wink. All night I was tossing and turning, frantically worrying. A few times I was close to falling asleep, only to again be made aware of the galloping of my heart, or the buzzing of the air conditioner. Perhaps I needed a more comfortable environment. I stacked the pillows along my bed like sand bags in a trench. For this night, and many other nights this summer, this was ritual. I was studying for what may be the most important exam of my life. A seven-hour psychological rite-of-passage that included topics from biology, physics, and, believe it or not, critical essay analysis. Critical essay analysis? This is supposed to be a science exam. I am a scientist. I deal with reduction and quantity, not metaphor and allegory. That’s the reason I pursued my Kinesiology degree – I didn’t want to try understanding classical books anymore. In high school I could get by just making stuff up with the rest of the class. The teacher wants us to not look at this as a literal wheelbarrow, but a complex symbol representing the struggle of the American soldier during the Vietnam War. Well, sure, if that passes me it can be anything you want Mrs. Vermillion. Like it or not, I couldn’t get by just bluffing anymore, and I had a test date approaching. I needed to read good, and fast.
Months pass. Through the humanities and social sciences my summer was becoming inhumane and anti-social. Day after day I would wake up exhausted and make my journey to the empty basement of the university for another day of testing. Each morning I would pass by the same patch of wildflowers, and in the afternoon when I returned, their heads would be rising up towards the warm sun; mine now hanging like a chilled flower. I was given some variety in my reading routine – an author could be writing about the many types of art found in 16th century Florence. Another would contest the Mexican government’s current economic policies. Whatever the argument, I despised it. Despite this, I would try my best to understand it. As the black coffee in my thermos shrank throughout the day, the light of my reason would grow. Some answers would be stated right in the text – this was just my memory failing. Others would be looking for the author’s main point, and this I learned to derive from their written keywords. Although I was getting some correct, learning occurred like water eroding rock; every question I might only improve one-hundredth of a percent more. It was more of a calculated guess than comprehension. I’d say my attempts could best be described as falling down a flight of stairs and occasionally landing on my feet. But over time, it was like falling down a flight of stairs and more often landing on my feet.
The process didn’t matter. I was improving. I might even say I was beginning to enjoy it, and as my appreciation grew, my scores did too. The day before the exam, I did whatever small amount of practice would provide satiety and performed the final night of ritual. In the early morning, I heard a final good luck from my fowl friends and headed towards the test center, no longer cold and wilted, but inspired and ready to read.
So how did my test go? Well, I don’t exactly know yet. As is tradition, all inspiring academics must go through hazing in every step of the process. It will be a one month wait before the results show up. In the meantime, I’ll be sitting down and enjoying a new book, John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” (1952). I heard about it through a passage I read. According to online sources, like avid reader “Editor Eric”, it’s about “how difficult it is for us to be anything other than what we are shaped to be”, but in the end we are “surprised at the sudden turns in other directions”. Rather fitting, don’t you think? I find Steinbeck said it best, “Men do change, and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass”. Little did I know the joy that literature could provide – it just took a lot of practice and a few wildflowers.