This post first appeared in a small book of essays I published my senior year called Twenty-Two: Essays on Growing Up. It has been adapted to fit this medium.
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. ―Mark Twain
During my senior year of college, I found myself in a one-sided relationship. I was investing so much into it, struggling each day to bring my best self to the relationship, only to be met with what seemed to be, at best: apathy, or at worst: disdain. This was my relationship with the infamous, notorious, bewildering…senior-year-job-search.
During this process, I filled out a whole lot of job applications, completed several interviews, repeatedly engaged my summarizing skills. In most applications and interviews, there were questions like this—tell us about yourself, what are your primary skills, what are your career goals, etc. My answers to those questions were pretty standard. However, my answer to one question—what coursework have you taken at college that is relevant to this position?—surprised even me. As one interviewer asked that question, I quickly racked my brain, desperate for a tidy answer that would fit easily the empty box on her evaluation form. But as I considered the question, I found that I didn’t have a tidy answer. The answer was complicated, and the honest truth yielded an untidy answer.
As much as I’m sure I was supposed to, I couldn’t give the recruiter the right buzzwords that would perhaps prove I was right for the job, right for the department, a wise investment. So with that, I decided to tell the pantsuit-clad recruiter about my education.
More than any class, test, or accredited course, overall it was and has been my education that equipped me for not just a position, but for the future, whatever and wherever that future might be.
I told them that over my four years at college, I’d spent a lot of time reading books and articles, crafting essays and submitting papers, discussing and debating, and—in the end— learning how to learn. I’d been taught how to think critically and how to be criticized, how to disagree and how to encourage, how to see the big picture and how to appreciate the small moments of the day, how to delight in words and how to express my own voice with them, how to unlearn lies and how to cling to truths. I had seen myself get smarter and stronger, but also learned just how much I have left to learn. More than any class, test, or accredited course, overall it was and has been my education that equipped me for not just a position, but for the future, whatever and wherever that future might be.
I left that interview pretty sure that my answer about my academic background didn’t quite fit into the desirable form, didn’t quite check off the right boxes, didn’t quite line up with each of the required qualifications. But I also left that interview feeling inspired despite the un-inspirational nature of that moment of assessment and evaluation. I left convinced more than ever of the worthy pursuit of lifelong learning, of the merits of my education, even if the pursuit of the education I have acquired over time perhaps hasn’t made me a better fit for a good paying job that will be the envy of my peers.
“Don’t let schooling interfere with your education,” Mark Twain famously said. It’s taken me quite some time to figure out just what Mark was trying to get at, but thankfully, during my senior year of college I finally caught a glimpse into what it looks like to not let convention or expectation get in the way of my growth as a student or in my pursuit to become a lifelong learner. So the day after that interview, I decided to follow the words of Mark Twain.
I pulled a Huck Finn.
Meaning, I abandoned my adult responsibilities and I headed West, to the land of potential. Well in actuality, I just decided to skip all my classes at college, get in to my car, and drive 6 hours to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA. I didn’t go West, but I did go South to a city I love, a city of mountains and good coffee and old friends. I went South to pursue a moment that wouldn’t make me have a better GPA or a better LinkedIn profile, but rather a moment that became a favorite moment of my education.
I went South to pursue a moment that wouldn’t make me have a better GPA or a better LinkedIn profile, but rather a moment that became a favorite moment of my education.
My Huck Finn moment raised the eyebrows of many of my fellow students, but funnily enough not my professors. My professors supported my decision, smiled with a kind of brightness that seemed to recognize and accept that there were some lessons that they could not teach me, but that as an employee at an institution of higher education, that they had still succeeded in their job: making a forever-student out of me, making me hunger and thirst for lessons beyond the lecture hall.
This trip I took was so I could hear, see, and meet my favorite author, Marilynne Robinson, who was giving a lecture series at UVA. This opportunity to hear my favorite author of all time, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a remarkable intellectual—is something I will remember forever. My t0-do list for the week was wrecked by this trip, and both irresponsibility and learning never felt so good.
During the question and answer time that followed the lecture, my friend, Anna, a high school English teacher, asked Marilynne Robinson if she had any insight to provide from one educator to another on inspiring students to learn to love learning. Marilynne responded this way:
“We must ask ourselves, our students: what is the meaning, the limit of this gift of the mind? Because in the end, there is an intrinsic beauty of the human brain. We must teach our students to know that it is a privilege to be what they are and where they are.”
That thought was met a wave of agreeing nods that rippled throughout the audience, and as I heard Ms. Robinson say those words, I felt my own head nodding too. At that moment, I was struck with a profound gratitude for my education, for the ability to sit in a lecture hall filled with academics, intellectuals, students, moms, dads, grandparents, businessmen, writers, readers, pastors, and secretaries, and not only be able to have the experience I had, but enjoy the experience. I would not be sitting there—interested in what was being said, having read the books I have, or found myself even educated enough to follow along—without the people around me who believed that there was intrinsic beauty in the human mind, the unique brain I have been given, eccentricities and all.
I was raised in a home that valued books and learning by a pastor and a teacher—so really I was raised by two teachers. I had high school English teachers who cared about me, who pushed me to do better. I attended a college that viewed me as a mind brimming with potential, as the possessor of a tool whose limits have not yet been explored. I was able to test the limits of my mind during those years with professors who cultivated critical thinking like a gardener preparing for spring planting: with patience, determination, care, and a deep understanding of the beauty that comes from such an approach.
Because in the end, there is an intrinsic beauty of the human brain.
As I sat there in that lecture with 300 other people, 300 other minds brimming with dumbfounding complexities and beautiful eccentricities, I remember feeling a sense of sheer exhilaration. Aside from the fun that came from the experience itself (She signed my copy of Gilead! We got our picture taken together! They served free wine and appetizers after the lecture!), the experience of attending that Marilynne Robinson lecture encouraged me that even as I would soon move the tassel from one side of my cap to the other on my graduation day, that I would never stop being a student and a learner, that I would never stop caring about beauty and truth and books and ideas. Because, as Marilynne Robinson said, with a small smile, in a quiet, contemplative voice, addressing all the academics, intellectuals, students, moms, dads, grandparents, businessmen, writers, readers, pastors, and secretaries in the audience who had gathered in that university lecture hall on a regular Tuesday afternoon, “We have vastly more to learn.”