Francis: On unlearning

Opinion by Claire Francis
June 16, 2019, 12:08 a.m.

I’m a solitary creature, by both nature and circumstance. I stumbled onto The Daily’s staff my freshman year much in the way young, untested Stanford students do anything — desperate for achievement, belonging and recognition all at once, joining something, anything, for the sake of joining. I responded to an email recruiting copy editors smack in the middle of winter quarter, a period during which absolutely no one volunteers for additional responsibility, and by that Thursday I was struggling through a python program on a desktop in The Daily’s office. My freshman self certainly boasted more stamina than her senior counterpart; hours of copying in relative silence, rigid with nerves, while upperclassman managing editors clustered around the room’s central table, seems borderline unbearable to me, now.

And yet I surged forward, Energizer-like, burning an oily concoction of perfectionism and imposter syndrome, of loneliness and ambition. And here I sit at my laptop, four years and a college career later, still involved — even more intensely so — with this godforsaken organization, unrecognizable in the overwhelmed eyes of that 19-year-old newbie. What do I say to her, this version of me from whom I feel so alienated, but to whom I owe so much of my present, here, at the end of all things?

I am no Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou, no Anne Sexton, whose bejeweled words resonate with the disjointed souls of lost readers. I have no sage life advice for the Youth™, no narratively satisfying revelation to impart via voiceover upon a “moving on” montage of boxes being packed and lingering hugs being given. I have myself — whomever that is this month, this hour, this minute — and I have the steady pressure of Time’s arm around my shoulders, nudging me this way and that. I have the unfettered expanse of the future in front of me, riddled with land mines and wedding bells and rolled-up diplomas. What I don’t have, anymore, is the skeleton-deep, nearly incapacitating conviction with which I started Stanford that there is an ultimately, objectively, necessarily “correct” shape for that future to take.

College is, inevitably, a smorgasbord of smashed expectations; it is a painful unlearning process in which we shed the thick, shiny skins of “should”s upon which we rely through high school hallways and pre-K playgrounds. I was so often paralyzed, my freshman and sophomore years, not by indecision, but by the paradox of choice through which I couldn’t trust myself to live without some sort of external assurance that I was doing it right. What a lonely, scary way to step into the world, especially as little more than a child, especially with the riches a place like Stanford offers up on platinum platters. Eventually — multiple mental breakdowns later — I came to terms with the fact that both my self and my future are fluid, and that bending either to the incoherent will of an imaginary, unified public will result in both my sense of self and my future deserting me for good. College, like life, is a fundamentally solitary situation — there will be mentors and lovers and siblings and found families, but no matter how many coming-of-age films I ingest or how often I engaged in life-changing 2 a.m. discussions in my freshman dorm, this permutation of the early adult experience, of the Stanford story, is solely mine, for better or worse.

The Daily, to return to the realm of the more tangible, gave me space to digest and to create while I settled into myself. I don’t write — or, at least, I haven’t thus far written — about our school’s sports records or administrative scandals, not because the immediate and palpable effects of those kinds of stories aren’t deeply valuable, but because I struggle to place myself within the context of the wider world, if I’m not doing what it tells me to do. Even within The Daily’s community, I existed in tangential relevance, quietly negotiating my place in the world from afar and chewing on content, questioning the status quo, in my copy corner. The Daily was my diary and my educator, a bizarre hybrid of the public and private spheres in whose pages I materially preserved my various selves.

I’ve never self-identified as a writer, despite the unfortunate fact that writing might, in truth, be my one claimable, marketable skill as I yeet off into the postgrad workforce; despite the endearing fact that my father used to proudly proclaim me the “next F. Scott Fitzgerald” after pretending to edit my Common App essays (our buddy Scott is … not someone whose lifestyle you want to emulate, just to be clear); despite the bittersweet fact of the embossed and abused notebooks stacked upon themselves in my closet; despite the comforting fact of the 37 (38, now) titles that pop into existence under a search of my name on The Stanford Daily’s website; despite the somewhat contradictory fact that my declared major is English. I write — salty book reviews, sarcastic Netflix recommendation lists, impassioned defenses of Captain America, dark comparisons between depression and senioritis, and too many Harry Potter-themed articles to admit to — because reality, my reality, is too nebulous to make coherent, otherwise.

I write while listening to lyrics blast against my eardrums, while picking at the blister on my thumb in the spot where I cradle my pencil, while vaguely acknowledging Pod Save America rants in the background; there is always more happening in my head than I can put down on paper. I can’t guarantee any of it is exceptionally well-written or profound content, but it does what it means to — it calms me, and it provides proof that I, in this current incarnation, this special assemblage of skin cells and hair color and nail polish and calluses, am here, and that I’m doing my best to understand just what that means. I write for me, because that’s all I know how to do.

Happiness is a complicated thing. Even more so, it is, like the self and the future and the structure of this column, an inconsistent thing. I used to believe that there would come a time during which I would be satisfied with myself, with my skills, with my life, and yet what, more than anything, keeps bludgeoning the back of my brain in the last weeks of senior year is that such an expectation is a perpetually-moving mark, a false reassurance that emotional endpoints really exist in the human experience. I have no closure, as I graduate, because this is not the end of a narrative; it is not the demarcation point from which I measure the “progress” of my life in prestigious jobs secured or financial grants given or artistic criteria fractured, moving forward. Instead, I have to reckon with life’s distinct lack of consistency, hoping against hope that my future self — whoever she becomes — will be similarly satisfied as I am, as that copy-editing child was, with unlearning the “should”s and the “must”s and the “might have been”s in favor of what is, and what I write as a result.

Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’

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