Am I A Bad English Student?

English-IanMartindale2014-039.jpgKatie Houston

It was six months before UCAS deadlines and I was trying to perfect and polish my personal statement which was actually to study medicine. For the past four years I had been working my way towards getting into medical school. I had been volunteering in hospitals; I was taking A-levels in Biology and Chemistry. I was working hard.

I had always enjoyed reading books when I was younger. I think I had quite the number of Jacqueline Wilson’s under my literary belt (who didn’t – she’s the best!) But coming from a family of school leavers at sixteen and not a particularly academic, let alone artistic, lineage, I had never had ready access to a bookcase growing up. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted for nothing and had a very happy childhood, but I had never plucked a Dickens or an Austen or a Shakespeare off the shelf. It wasn’t until around age fifteen that I delved into Romeo and Juliet, seventeen that I read Pride and Prejudice, and, embarrassingly, it wasn’t until university that I opened up Oliver Twist for the first time.

As I sat in seminars and lectures, especially at the beginning of my university journey, I felt completely and utterly out of my depth. My peers were talking about books and authors I knew nothing about. I would nod my head along to their points, trying to feign some kind of shared perspective with them whilst desperately trying to think of ways to swing the conversation to something I could talk about. In short, I felt like an outsider, an imposter.

Although to a lesser extent, I still feel it now: an almost ingrained sense of shame when knights of the literary round table arise and I have barely even cast my eyes over their work. And it is these moments in particular that I have to remind myself of those six months before our final applications were due.

I found myself researching courses in English. At first it was just to see what type of things were covered. It was just curiosity. And then I researched more. And more. And then I was going home and ranting and raving about everything that came up in my English lesson that day; in that English lesson that I only took by chance when I realised A-level Spanish wasn’t for me. I liked English at school, I might like it at A-level, right?

It was then that I realised that I needed to stop looking at medicine completely. I did enjoy the sciences with their analytics and experiments, but there was something about Austen, Fitzgerald, Hosseini, Browning, Frost, Wilde, Carter, Middleton, Rowley and, finally, obviously, Shakespeare that actually stirred something inside of me. Then a year or so down the line, I was at university, studying the very thing that I was passionate about. Yes, I hadn’t read widely and independently beforehand, and yes, I felt a bit lost at sea when I received that first reading list in the post (Morte D’Arthur anyone?), and yes, I am still as passionate as I was before. So no, I don’t think I’m a bad student after all.

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