or Those Who Mould Us
The gears spat and sputtered, and grinded out of their rusty dormancy. The machines generated a low hum as a light flickered to life overhead, washing the dusty studio with an orange hue. The man at the desk with calloused hands and leathery skin grumbled out of his reclined slumber and got back to work.
Exactly a month ago, I had my first day back in school. Having procured my bachelor’s degree in January of 2021, I’ve been out of the game for almost three years. Coming back for my master’s after a substantial, but not quite paralysing pause I’ve noticed two recurring thoughts cycle through my head: The first relates to the influence people have on us; how they mould us. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about past teachers and how they’ve affected my perception of myself and my capabilities. The second is an appreciation of the pause, and the slow but intentional process of restarting, and becoming the moulder; the act of choosing to shape your actions and your perspective.
Those Who Mould Us
Graduating from my bachelor’s I had the clear and resounding feeling that I was done with academia forever. Even though I loved my study, I had spent the entirety of my formal education convinced that I was not an academically inclined person -a self fulfilling prophecy; I seldom tried until university-. It was ingrained in me that I was not clever, I was difficult to teach, and I was lazy. I largely have my primary school teacher to thank(!) for this sentiment. She was a woman with seemingly no instinct nor desire to nurture young minds. Unless, of course, they adhered to her archaic requirements for neat cursive and neurotypical attention spans -both boxes I left devastatingly unchecked-. She did an excellent job at imposing the idea that the kids sitting on the fringes of the traditional academic framework were lost causes. Or that we were a burden or a chore to teach. She made it evident that she was inconvenienced by us. What's that saying about judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree? You get the gist…
My evident resentment against Ms. Erdoğan [an unfortunate, and entirely coincidental likeness of name] aside, I think there is something to be said about the weight she has carried in my life. The undetected moulding that had occurred. The air bubbles left in the clay, waiting to explode in the kiln. Here I was at 24, a few days before the first day back to school, in my friend's bed at 2am, welling up to her over a person I hadn't seen in over 15 years. The conversation started with the ‘back to school’ section at HEMA and a four pack of green A5 notebooks. I was talking about how I was a disorganised child and how I would always end up with loose A4s crumpled at the bottom of my wheely Winx bag. I felt a sense of shame when thinking about all the deadlines that would pass me by because I forgot about their existence soon after they were uttered. I thought about how I wished I could go to school over again. I wanted to have approached learning as anything other than a burden or chore. [I catch myself now, as I use the same adjectives above, perhaps a parallel to note: We were treated as burdens to teach, so learning became a burden to us]. I wanted to have had my neat green notebooks, each shade dedicated to a different class. I wanted to have learned to love learning before I spent years avoiding it at all costs. I wanted to have foundations without bubbles in the clay.
I served a table at the restaurant the other day. David -a retired History teacher- and Jamie -a “shrink”- were an American couple passing through town. We immediately took a liking to each other and the rest of my shift consisted of making quick and admittedly unthorough rounds and returning to their table to resume our conversation. [I’d like to note that whilst I normally pride myself on my work performance, it had been a long shift and we had a lot to catch up on!]. Something in particular that David said was that I reminded him of one of his favourite students. Not only did Maggie and I apparently look exactly like one another, I also echoed her quick wit and intelligence.
Having been thinking about the moulding legacy of Ms. Erdoğan for the past weeks, there was something deeply healing about hearing this from a teacher. I told them a little bit about Mr. and Mrs. MacDonald, my middle school History and Literature teachers who urged me to write and encouraged me to develop my skills. I realised that I had spent all of this energy resenting someone who did indeed have a negative effect on me. But in doing so I completely neglected thinking about the moulders who worked delicately and with care. The moulders who love the craft. I realised that we have a choice in our hindsight. While some things are truly hurtful and will affect us whether we decide to mull them over or not, we have a choice in what and whom we give space to. I choose, now, to give space to David and Jamie.
To Become the Moulder
We often leave things or take a break from them for a reason. But those reasons may not always make themselves transparent to us. Relationships end, jobs are quit, chapters of life over; rapidly fading in the rear view mirror as memories shrink into obscurity. We find ourselves positioned in a reality that does not match up with our recent past. This positioning may make us second guess our choices. So we end up trying to reconcile this dissonance by justifying to ourselves that “X thing had to end for Y reason”. We end up looking back on things with a foggy set of goggles on. The goggles give us a souring predisposition. We become prone to finger pointing and resentment.
In the three year break I took, I suddenly went from always having been a student to being positioned as someone with no discernible path, I found myself justifying my absence in my own corner with narratives of contempt. I was sour at not being taught in ways that were interesting to me [a seemingly universal sentiment]. I was sour at the DSM-5 for ADHD being based off of prepubescent children socialised as boys [which I am not]. I was [still kind of am…] sour at my primary school teacher for having clear favourites with the smooth-around-the-edges kids in the class. Perhaps I mostly felt sour at myself. I felt that I’d let myself and others down.
It felt to me that I was dormant in those three years. That I was stagnating and stuttering; in many ways, I absolutely was. I stopped studying, I made some strides towards a desired career [21 issues and counting, baby!] but a majority of my time was spent at a standstill. At least that's how it felt at the time. It wasn't until I started to move in ways visible to the eye that I noticed the discreet yet invaluable internal movement inherent to the last couple of years. In the time that I thought I was failing myself, I was also having the experience of being outside of education. Being outside of deadlines; outside of extrinsic motivation. Parameters that, like many others, dictated my life until graduation.
When I deferred my master’s by an extra year to fully decide what I wanted to do, I felt like I was making up more excuses to not do the difficult thing. Perhaps there was an element of truth in this. But I see now that the simple fact of the matter was that I was not yet cooked enough to go back. I hadn’t spent enough time out of it to decide that going back in was the right call. So I worked a full time, dead-end job. Made ends meet. Proved to myself I could do that. Watched as my mental health rapidly declined outside of the externally imposed structure of school; aggravated by the tiring conditions of my job at the time. I hit the rockiest bottom I’ve come to find [knock on wood]. I discovered a lot of old skeletons down there. Many that needed to be sorted out. Because even as you climb your way out of the well, the smell still wafts up unless you do some cleaning while you're down there.
What I thought was a period of stagnation and failure was an inherently transformative time. One that meant I could return to my education with a sense of love and motivation and wide eyed fascination I wouldn’t have felt if I hadn’t had the time away from it. All of this to say: it is alright to leave sometimes. It’s alright to pause, to throw in the towel, or to just know when it is time to walk away. Sometimes these decisions are permanent, hopefully as a result of your discovery that the decision made was the best one for you. However, it is also alright to go back on your decisions sometimes. We needn't maintain stubbornness against ourselves.
There is much to be said about choosing intentionality in these thoughts. We are never immune to negativity or the negative legacies others have on us. But it is always a matter of perspective to decide how we shape our mindscape. In order to mould one's self, one must acknowledge the dirt with the clay. We must make the choice of mindfulness in our actions. We must look critically at where we stand and evaluate our position not with judgement but with the questions: “What do I need from this period in my life? Why am I here and how does it serve me?”. To quote a friend: “Your location can’t discredit your direction”. I took my dormancy at face value and assigned a negative judgement to it. My choice in hindsight instead reveals to me that it was a necessary pause in order to clean the well and to breathe. It was a time without which I would not have the resolve to start back up again.
The old man sat up straight and stretched out his hunched back. His eyes adjusted to the room after hours of delicate, precise work. It was dark outside now. As he fixed the watches left in his capable hands, he had once again lost track of time. He groaned out of his chair and put the kettle on. He would have a cup of tea as he finished up for the day, he decided. Realistically, he would end up tinkering on for another hour or two before he grew tired. He would go to sleep thinking about the watches he will fix tomorrow. The history they carried on the wrists they resided on. He would work to return them to their owners, ticking along as life often did. He slept full and fulfilled, as he did most nights…