My college essay got me in….to this
It’s 8AM on a Wednesday. I am 19 years old, drinking my 14th cup of weak college cafeteria coffee, staring at an ancient Greek verb. Eistha. I’m supposed to know something about this. I have clocked in exactly three hours of sleep.
I know about as much as you do, reading this, right now.
The verb stares back at me, equally uninformed.
My life looked like this chart.
My professor, Alan Boegehold (who died this week, 17 years later) is looking out at the two of us expectantly– because, you got that right, there are only two of us in that class–, a map of Sparta under his thumb. The map is fuzzed at the edges, to appear antique. This is the battle that would change everything.
If that everything means anything to you, now, thousands of years out. (But for you battle nerds, this.)
Boegehold is recapping for us where all the warships are, waiting to attack a certain strait. He’s so into the heated stakes, a scholar’s video game.
At this moment, the minor things matter the most– is the verb in the future? Is the ship pointed a hair to the right?
I’m wishing I had bought a Starbucks.The kind as black as night should be if you don’t live in Brooklyn and if there is no moon.
My college essay is to blame
To get here– this school, this class, this major– I wrote a very very very (apparently) convincing personal essay for my college application essay– BY HAND. That’s right, by hand. In hand-writing.
It was about a junior-year school trip to Spain, where I stayed with a family in Barcelona. On the first day there, I confused two nouns– mariscos (seafood) and maridos (spouses, husbands)– and so informed my host mother that I don’t eat a lot of things, but I do eat maridos. Meaning, husbands. Instead of mariscos, meaning seafood.
The car went silent. I have no idea how I concluded the essay, what lesson or trait my personal essay took pains to show. Maybe the importance of detail, the weight of a single word.
But here I am, at Brown University.
There is one other kid, John, in this Thucydides class. He has huge glasses to go with his huge features– and those perfect rosy dots on his cheek like you see in cartoons. It seems the correct answers to any grammar or syntax question float permanently in front of his face, like gnats at a summer evening barbecue. He is always right, and rarely, but always just barely, completely smug about it.
Let me tell you why I didn’t know my verbs. It wasn’t because I wasn’t a total nerd. It was because I’d been skipped a year of language in my preparation.
The story begins before I even wrote my college essay…
In my high school, a certain Mr. M taught 3rd year ancient Greek: The Odyssey. In his hands, there was nothing short of good natured humiliation awaiting you if you didn’t memorize your forms precisely. “As my ancient grandmother used to say, get the shit out of your ears,” he’d chastize.
Inflections were holy to him. They made the difference between understanding and not. And in the world of Classics, you can’t fake understanding, you can’t fake mastery. Professionals stake their whole career on the nuances of “the” and “a.”
But that class, alas, didn’t fit in my very busy schedule.
So they put me in Lyric poetry instead. With fourth year students. One of the students was my dear friend, and the other I developed a crush on to the extent no verb could cap. And all three of us (because, yes, there were only three!) developed a healthy crush on the teacher, S.B., who was edgy, brilliant, and had an eyebrow ring. And all four of us developed a crush on the lyric and archaic poets, whose art was like the symbiosis of the stars at night if you don’t live in Brooklyn.
And the lyric poets changed my life, but left a hole in my memorization. A gaping hole.
Which one is more important– what I gained or what I lost?
I’d never motivate myself to put in those hours again memorizing those verbs. Too tedious.
And then after my college essay got me in, something else lifted me up
But when, at a very down time in my sophomore year at Brown, my exquisite Latin Mysticism (you read that right) professor, Joseph Pucci, reached out over email in the middle of the night to say, “I think you have a talent for this” (What, mysticism?), and I, that day, became a Classics major, it was the poetry I was after. It was the connection to the bigger feelings, the way language made that possible, and always has.
That is to say, you never know the direction your life will take.
So write what is real to you, now.