School is starting tomorrow. I wouldn’t mind an extra month of summer, but I’m feeling far less anxious than the previous two years. Working part-time has been perfect for me: winters are still long, but I’ve finally found a way to stop yearning for a hypothetical future where the day job will at last be less stressful and miserable. For the first time in years, there is no ‘tomorrow’ needed to make today tolerable, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Looking back, I still wonder at how long it took me to realise that giving up research for good was the right choice. This is one truth that’s hard to look in the face: anytime you’re tempted to say that you’re moved by less superficial things than social status, think long and hard. Status is a complex thing. It’s a blend of little voices at the back of your mind, friends and former teachers and family and everyone who’s ever been moderately impressed by your abilities as a child and said you could aim high. I’m certain that if I talked with most of those people today, they would be adamant that they never asked me to dedicate years upon years to trying to carve out a niche for myself in the academic world. And yet. There’s everything you’re expected to go through if you don’t want to disappoint: top classes in high school, classes préparatoires later on, a unique French monstrosity where students are expected to take two gruelling years of extremely demanding lessons, the most common side effect being (aside from depression, of course) pre-formatted thought and intellectual snobbery parading as open-mindedness and analysis; then moving on to the university, idealising culture to an unhealthy level and perfecting the art of self-justification, to the point that you’re really convinced that you’re a better person than everybody else because you’ve read books, and that there is no higher calling than spending your life in literary circles, feeling like you’re going to change the system from the inside because you look down your nose at anybody who doesn’t study literature the way you do, though of course everybody feels the same. It’s very hard to unlearn all those things, because it makes such perfect sense. Everybody thinks that Culture Is Good. Everybody is impressed by people with big degrees. Then one day you look back, and you realise that you’ve just spent the past half decade focusing on nothing and no one but yourself. And there’s no amount of intellectual snobbery that can justify that.
One of the things people often seem to assume is that, as teachers, what we want from our job is intellectual challenge. But there’s one thing they miss: it’s a huge, daunting intellectual challenge to teach to a class of thirty where not two students have the same level. Not bring them through high school kicking and screaming, but actually showing them something they will be interested in and remember. Two years ago I made my students watch Bela Lugosi’s Dracula; this summer I received an e-mail from a former student who wanted to watch it again and didn’t remember the exact reference. This is hardly an impressive academic achievement. I won’t lie, it doesn’t feel like one. You wouldn’t parade it about like you would a prestigious publication. Yet it made my day. It takes time to learn to be proud of little moment like that, but it doesn’t take time to be happy about them. Happiness and pride are different thing. I don’t believe for a second that I’m some sort of ‘everyday hero’ because that doesn’t make sense: there are no heroes if everybody is one. And that’s all right. You don’t have to be a hero to do the right thing. In most situations, even, doing the right thing means refusing to be a hero. It takes an awful lot of self-centredness to be exceptional.
I know this sounds like someone trying too hard to convince herself that failing was a good thing after all. You only give ‘participation awards’ to those who lost, because those who won don’t need them. Perhaps that’s true; there’s no way around it. History is written by winners, by those who invented the concept of ‘winning’ in the first place. But when I see the sort of ‘winners’ we have to put up with — bankers running the country, academics fighting to the last to preserve an unjust school system that only gives a chance to the wealthy and connected, top managers defending their right to earn a hundred times as much as the average worker — I think that the only way of changing the system from the inside is to get rid of its dominant assumption: that you have to be part of the elite to do anything meaningful.