I’m not someone with an extensive collection of stories. If you’ve known me for a year, you’ve probably heard all of mine. And you’ve definitely heard one of my favorites. I tell it in situations ranging from meeting a prospective student for the first time to convincing my roommate to take a class with me. It’s the story of how my parents decided what they wanted to do with their lives.
My dad went to college in Iowa—a small liberal arts school (of course) called Grinnell. He arrived at school determined to be a math-Russian literature double major. Instead, his second year, he took an economics class—just for fun—and fell in love. My mom has a similar story, although her ah-ha moment came a little later, in her junior year. A political science major, she took an art history class on a whim, and, you guessed it, fell head over heels.
It’s the perfect liberal arts story in both cases: take a class you aren’t expecting to like, love it, have your world changed. I’ve been raised on a diet of these and similar stories from friends of my parents and parents of my friends.
Having grown up with this myth, I thought I knew exactly how to “do” college. I told people smugly when I arrived at school that I had no idea what I was going to study, although I was thinking about physics. When people told me they knew what they wanted to study, I had to hide my sense of superiority. I’m doing it right, I thought. These people who came into a liberal arts college with a plan were doing it wrong. Liberal arts, and college in general, was about casting the proverbial fishing line and waiting for a bite. My advisor and older students reinforced this narrative. They encouraged me to take classes outside of my interests because who knows? Maybe you’ll be great at computer science (I am, decidedly, not).
Despite walking into each new class expecting to find my future neatly laid out in front of me, my epiphany story just wouldn’t come together. I had the early components: I dropped a required class for the physics major so I could take a class with a visiting English professor, and—as I’ve told many people, triumphantly recounting my story—I figured I should re-evaluate my choices. Of course, loved the class.
But deciding to become an English major didn’t feel like an epiphany. It felt inevitable. I was always the kid who got in trouble for reading in class, and only very recently stopped reading through lunch. I wanted a clear career path laid out in front of me, not the “realization” that I like to read.
This all came to a head a few weeks ago when I signed a sheet of paper, handed it to the registrar, and received a depressingly small button in exchange (“I declared!” it reads proudly, once you get close enough to see it). I emerged an official English major. But I wasn’t excited. I didn’t feel like I was any closer to the pivotal moment when I would walk into a classroom and feel everything shift satisfyingly and exactly into place.
I needed room to breathe. I took the train downtown, and walked out on Chelsea Piers until I reached the end of the dock, surrounded on three sides by water, with a storm rolling in over New Jersey. As my hair whipped in the wind, I took deep breaths (and a picture on my phone), then settled down to think. And I realized: Nobody ever just realizes. No epiphany just strikes out of the blue like a car door opening into a biker’s path. Instead, epiphanies appear like swamp bubbles, growing over time and eventually emerging from the surface. While they sometimes release a satisfying pop, it’s clear from the smell that they’ve been brewing in the muck for quite a while. The story I kept trying to create for my epiphany was manufactured, but so were my parents’ stories.
I’m not going to receive my passion fully formed, waiting for me in some unexpected corner of academia. I’m going to find it where I most expect it: in an area I’m already interested in. Now that I’m thinking about it, my maternal grandfather raised his kids to love art, dragging them to auctions and trips into the city to see shows on Museum Mile, an activity my mom still considers one of the highlights of her childhood. My dad’s love for economics combines the two things he loved most about his two intended majors. Economics is about math, of course, but (as he frequently reminds me) it’s also about people and why they behave the way they do. He figures it out through numbers, but it’s the same urge that leads him to spend his train ride into work reading Turgenev.
And as for me, I’m sure it’s always been clear to everyone else that I would end up working with books.
Should I have figured this out sooner? Probably. But did I? No. Maybe it’s because the idea is so nice to just wait around long enough, dabbling in dabbling, until one day a plan for the rest of your life appears, wrapped with a red bow and a tag reading “happiness guaranteed.” Letting go of my epiphany means making decisions all on my own. I’d love to end this with a platitude about how excited I am to forge my own path, but between you and me, I’m terrified. Fortunately, I’ve got four more semesters of college left. I’ve already signed up for a six-hour-long sculpting course every Monday of fall 2013. Somehow I think I’ll stick with my English major, but who knows?