I can. I will.

As my first semester at college comes to an end, I once again find myself facing an obnoxiously bright screen in a dimly lit room, contemplating how I will conquer the challenge of self reflection. I use the word challenge because unlike in my first self reflection piece titled, Conformity and Creativity, I simply called out my high school for the role it played in shaping my pessimistic narrative towards writing in an academic setting. I now must be truthful in the steps I have taken to break free of the avoidant habits I have developed when writing thus far. 

Before entering college I did not anticipate that I would be majoring in English. The confines of my high school education led me to believe that I was a fiercely passionate history lover and I originally expected to go into college majoring in political science. Now don’t get me wrong, I do still enjoy a good history lesson paired with a heated discussion and if I was ever to pursue a career in teaching I would easily choose to teach history. Nevertheless, as I reflect, I realize it wasn’t so much the history content that I enjoyed, it was the opportunities within the history classes to voice my moral and political opinions that were enticing. History gave me the safe welcoming outlet to be a free thinker that I truly craved, an outlet that I failed to find elsewhere. This pains me to say now because even though I am only one semester into my college education, I have been presented with a surplus of opportunities to voice my opinions, especially in writing intensive courses based in nonfiction literature. 

When I entered INTD 105, a general education communications course, I was presented with and asked to reflect on Toni Morrison’s epigraph for her novel Song of Solomon. The epigraph, which is given at the beginning of a novel to establish an overarching theme, stated, “You can’t just fly on off and leave a body”. At a fundamental level, I believed the epigraph meant that it is important to take accountability for your actions. If you were to literally leave a body behind, there would inevitably be a price to pay whether that be guilt, jail time, or becoming a societal outcast, etc. So when I was asked how the quote, “You can’t just fly on off and leave a body,” related to me, my mind was blank. In my eyes there was nothing to take accountability for. I did what I had to do in high school to secure my place at college, I made my family proud, I had not hurt anybody or left anyone/thing behind. How could Toni Morrison’s epigraph relate to me? 

At the time I did not need a definite answer for how the epigraph related to me, but in the following course lessons I was presented with a few more words to ponder. These words were, “harm, care, and growth.” Once again, I took everything literally pushing the words and what they could possibly mean to the back of my mind. It was not until I submitted my first self reflection essay, Creativity and Conformity, that the epigraph and words we had been repeating in class started to make sense. The reason I could not find a connection between the epigraph and myself was because I was looking at how the epigraph applied to external factors in my life such as my parents, family, friends, and high school.  I came to realize that I needed to apply the epigraph and the words, “harm, care, and growth,” in how I treated myself thus far. What was the overarching theme in my life? 

Now that I had a new understanding of how I should interact with the course epigraph, I started looking at the common trend in my writing intensive courses. I was newly self aware of the impacts high school had on my attitude towards academic writing and deep down I wanted to do better for myself. I wanted to write even when I felt I couldn’t, find ways to include my voice in my work and break the habit of abandoning written works that I felt took too much out of me. I wanted to embrace the struggle that came with producing well written papers. I wanted to stay focused. I wanted to tend to the body. I was tired of flying off. So why did I keep on flying? 

My struggle to buckle down and push through writing in academic environments creeped its way into all of my writing courses. I had stopped attending my INTD 105 course, almost completely losing the opportunity to self reflect. If it was not for a caring Professor McCoy who anchored me back to the course, I probably would not be writing this piece today. In my poetics class, which covered philosophy and poetry, I was always engaged up until I faced an essay I lacked confidence in. I slowly began to skip classes because I was not caught up with the essay that remained overdue for a very long time. Finally, my creative writing class. This class tested me on creative skills I had little to no practice in and my lack of confidence mixed with my satisfaction with doing the bare minimum in that course left me feeling like I had gained nothing from the course.

Up until this point, I did not realize it was never that I could not handle the course work given to me, it was the lack of confidence that prevented me from reaching my full potential. In high school I denied myself the opportunity to practice well written papers, and was denied constructive creative writing opportunities. This mixed with the fact that I was more comfortable articulating my ideas verbally rather than on paper started to lead to intrusive thoughts such as, “this is too much work, I can’t do this, I’ll finish this later,” that became so familiar that I was unable to recognize I was holding myself back. 

By acknowledging the power I allowed my intrusive thoughts to have over me, I was able to return back to the words,“harm, care, and growth.” For me, harm looked like doubting myself instead of trying. This meant telling myself I could not meet the standard of what a professor was asking for. I wanted to be a perfectionist so instead of trying to do my best,  I sometimes didn’t  try at all. Even when I did try, I allowed myself to feel like the work I produced was not good enough. This repetitive cycle of perfectionism and self doubt played into me missing due dates and classes which only perpetuated the cycle of self doubt. However, it was not all bad. Even in the moments where I wanted to quit, abandon an assignment, I still cared. I showed my care through responding when professors reached out to me asking if I was okay and why I did not show up to class. I did this by taking initiative and reaching out to schedule office hours to get feedback on my work. I sought out clarity and reassurance on my assignments, and when I did attend these office hours I got what I came looking for. I was told the only thing stopping me from succeeding was me. 

The reassurance I got from my professors helped and I am one thousand percent grateful for all the care they have given me. By showing care for myself in attending office hours and asking for help, I was able to publish my first work online. It felt amazing to receive love from my mother, father, and friends who all read the work I created. I was also able to score a 94 on the essay I was nervous about and a 91 on the finals. As for my creative writing class, I still did end up submitting work not of the highest quality, but I left knowing that I could and should have done better by taking more initiative.

Before I go, I would like to include a scene from Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon that I found interesting. In the novel characters Milkman and Guitar Banes, who were once best friends, randomly stumble upon a peacock. After realizing the peacock escaped from the zoo, Milkman and Guitar decide to capture the peacock because, why not? But before rushing off to capture the escaped bird, Milkman asks, “How come it can’t fly no better than a chicken?” Guitar then responds, “Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” (Chapter 8, “Song of Solomon.”) Throughout my process of self reflection I have come to realize that like the peacock, I have weighed myself down by allowing my defeatist attitude to control my work ethic. Moving forward I will use more words of affirmation to remind myself that I can succeed in anything as long as I put in the effort and keep myself motivated. I know there will be times I fall short of my goals and may want to give up, but I refuse to continue allowing myself to tell myself I can’t. I can. I will. 

Conformity and creativity

In order to understand my goals, I feel that it is imperative to state my values. Yet, to understand my values you must understand where I’ve come from, been, and plan to go. Therefore, before diving into my goals I would first like to share with you some of the experiences that have shaped my mindset today.  

Where I Am From: 

Coming from a majority Black charter school that was and is still deep rooted in conformity, I have always felt restricted in the way I thought. My first conscious experience with conformity was the strict uniform policies: light blue shirt neatly tucked in, navy blue slacks neatly ironed, all black shoes with no trace of color. No outside hoodies, and you must wear a sweater or tie as a “third piece” or you will receive a “demerit”. Enough demerits would result in being sent to the dean’s office or if you’re lucky, lunch detention.

The merit and demerit system is a behavioral correction system that as I got older, has become more transparent to me. The merit and demerit system (MDS), is presented as an aid to steer kids on a well behaved path by rewarding “good” behavior with “credits” and punishing “bad” behavior with “deductions”.  Students are able to “earn” credits by: participating in class/group discussion, supporting classmates, remaining focused, and consistently working in class. On the other hand, students would “earn” deductions for: missing a writing utensil, tardiness to school/class, turning in late homework, and uniform infractions. 

I remember going to the mall with my mother to get a pair of “all black” sneakers that suited the school’s policies. After going to three stores and being told that all the black vapor max were sold out, I had to settle for the all black shoe with a silver instead of black Nike check mark. The following day, I walked into school and somehow the Nike symbol, which quite literally took up a few centimeters of the shoe, was somehow spotted by the hawk eyes of one of my teachers. Despite my efforts to explain why I had to purchase a shoe that slightly did not meet the requirements, I was told the shoes were an issue and received detention whenever I wore them. I did not have any other options and had to wait until my mother could purchase me a pair of slip-on Vans which were not of as good quality, but were affordable at the moment. After a few months of active wear, my new shoes began falling apart. 

Where I Have Been:

I’ve included information about the merit-demerit system and my experience with the uniform policies in hopes that you can begin to imagine the behavioral environment I was raised in. However, the conformity was not only limited to behavioral correction but was also very apparent in academic settings. 

During my reading of Song of Solomon, I discovered my attitude towards my education is similar to Corinthians Dead’s experience with her family. Corinthians who was the, “daughter of a wealthy property owner and the elegant Ruth Foster, granddaughter of the magnificent and worshipped Dr. Foster”, constantly felt the pressures of her family’s elevated titles which often left her struggling to maintain an image that was not hers to keep. Due to these familial pressures, Corinthians remains guarded by her experience and it takes other characters to verbalize the experiences of Corinthians. When Magdalene Dead, Corinthians sister, opens about her and Corinthians experience growing up she says, “I was the one who started making artificial roses. Not Mama. Not Corinthians. Me. I loved to do it. It kept me quiet. That’s why they make those people in the asylum weave baskets and make rag rugs. It keeps them quiet.” Unlike Magdalene who was content with making the roses to pass time, “Corinthians continued to make roses, but she hated that stupid hobby and gave Lena any excuse to avoid it. They spoke to her of death.”

Similar to the Corinthians, I found myself sacrificing parts of myself to satisfy others. Corinthians was forced to sacrifice her youth in order to please her family, and I found myself sacrificing my creativity and individuality for a school who promoted both behavioral and academic conformity. Every assignment was prompted, right or wrong, a simple grade, and the “hard work” of the school year was summed up to a cumulative GPA based not on how much you understood the lessons’s content, but how well you scored on paper. The mentality of the school was ineffective, and instead of “getting the grade”, I started to retract from doing school work, particularly work that was promoted and formatted. I struggled with being the student that followed the prompt, not knowing that I was searching for an outlet to release creativity and produce work in an environment where I was not often pressured into bending into a standard. This caused me a lot of trouble in my junior year of high school with my writing seminar class. I started off strong, doing my work, meeting deadlines, focused on maintaining “the grade”, and slowly fell off. Instead of learning and being passionate about my work I was simply making artificial roses, trying to fulfill a means to an end. 

Where I Am Going: 

Now that I have graduated and escaped the conformity that was my high school, I am challenging myself to break free of the mentality that prompted writing is limiting. Instead, I want to push myself to find ways in which I am able to show individuality in my writing. Going into this class, and every class moving forward, I want to go in with the mentality that I am working to learn and grow as a free thinker. I want to push myself to find the opportunities within every assignment to know more, and to grab my education by the horns. That being said, I intend to find the common ground between doing work and finding my passion, despite my still very strong attraction to creative writing rather than literal writing. I look forward to motivating myself, and not only taking my college courses for a grade but for an opportunity to develop my mentality as a student, writer, and person. 

As for those reading who may relate or even understand, I want to push you to not let your biases shape how you enter new environments. I regret being stubborn and denying myself the opportunity to grow. The only way we can ever grow is to push through the uncomfortable, and I hope this essay can keep me grounded in the upcoming years of my education and life beyond.