After commencing

Posted: October 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

In this story buildings keep learning in order. I have been through a slew of learning buildings, some I remember vividly such as my first school, Starr Elementary: an old stoic red-bricked building that held me carefully as I stumbled through learning to speak and comprehend English. My high school, though, stands as a vague hazy sprawl of red, black and white lockers, cigarettes, LSD, and angst. I nose-dove in high school: went from a 4.0 to a 0.16 in one term. I had brains and I was really determined to lose them. Needless to say I dropped out of high school. Left the routine of classes, the stream of familiar snarly faces, left in a whirl of self-loathing fury.

I traveled the country by thumb and bravery only the naivety of sixteen allows. I followed an underdeveloped compass of whims, curiosity, and rage. Angsty dissatisfied rage led me away from everything familiar to the outermost western islands of Canada. I had disappeared from boring suburban life to wake up in the middle of a temperate rainforest and find that I didn’t really know my own name.

Every body has a name to answer to. When I first started school in America my Russian name, Yulya, was changed to Julia on account that my name wasn’t American enough. (Although by fifth grade I had a classmate named Hoa–pronounced hwah–go figure.) I stayed Julia until I was seventeen, until I was alone in a tent with my dog on an island sixty miles off the coast of Canada. I stayed Julia until I had to say my own name aloud around a campfire of strangers and suddenly felt tongue-tied. What is this name? Who is this name? How am I this name? Why this name?

The name, Julia, put a wedge between my family and me, between my ethnicity and me. Being named more American put an awkward pit in my gut whenever I sat behind a desk. But I was starved to learn, to read and write, to understand how my eyes are green though my father’s are brown. Perhaps this original undermining branded me with a sense of inferiority or shaved off any husk of entitlement. Though I always excelled in school I continually felt that I had to prove my right to exist, to be at the desk, to raise my hand and have a question answered; I had to prove I was allowed an identity.

There I was in the middle of nowhere, no buildings, no lockers, nobody who knew my name and finally, for the first time perhaps, I believed that having a name identified me as my own person, titled my story. I took back that name my parents (actually my sister) gave me, Yulya. My sister named me for Shakespeare’s Juliette, she loved that play, and loved her first sister. With my own name I had permission to take up space in America, more importantly in academia.

I sought out a liberal education, barely recognizable as an academic place. A campus constructed originally as a prison complex—gray looming buildings with thin slits for windows plus the centrally located watchtower that became converted into the clock tower where all the hippies would meet up. I spent ten years off and on here, in the thick of another temperate rainforest, pursuing my first degree, my first graduation.

This school was so liberal there was no requirement to wear academic robes. In fact graduates often streaked naked across the rickety temporary stage erected on red square for graduation. I didn’t wear the conifer green robe or cap or the stringy white and green tassel with the fake brass ’06 dangling from it. None of my immediate family came for the ceremony, just a couple close friends and my two small kiddns. The dean mispronounced my name and my picture was taken alongside the campus president with a kid in arms and another clung to my leg. After ten years I graduated something.

I haven’t returned to this or any of the buildings of learning from my past, not yet anyhow. While traveling I picked up a motto I clung to: never return to the same place twice, always approach everywhere anew and with awe as if seeing for the first time. I can’t say that I live up to this maxim at this point in life, however names carry some of this power for me.

Russians do not have middle names; they are given patronymics. A child takes the name of their father and adds ovna if they are a daughter or ovich if they are a son. I apparently take
my hybrid existence quite seriously; before heading off to grad school I took my patronymic and dropped the ending, kept only the name of my father: Mykhiel. This name permits another version of me. A story in which the narrative begins to confuse the pronouns, the descriptions blur, the outline of the main character hybridizes until they can only be defined by not being defined. A character that wants to match whichever suit but only finds that androgyny fits best.

I cannot be certain of the way people receive me, if they see my chapters and their cliffhangers, the dips and trips of my dug up identity. The digging out from beneath the coulda, shoulda, wouldas. I only have the names I have as starting points that can be chosen, a choose your own adventure book where you may find the tough or tried of me.

I try; still, to fit into academia. To fit into my multi-syllabic names that most folks avoid twisting around their tongues. To fit into gender, whichever way it has to go but find I only want to be busy with learning. Busy touching books in search of stories I can see mine fit into. Busy choosing words that shift if I press them just right. I cannot help but run up and down those ivory tower steps finding buried volumes to bring into a too long dimmed light. Perhaps I scratch like a feral dog at academia’s porch because I ultimately want to rip its boards off. I’d like to tear at the moldings and frames until an entirely different building remains, one that can house all my names (and by my names I mean anyone who isn’t the right shape or color, the right genre or country).

None of the buildings I have learned in possessed any sense of grandiosity. None of my colleges held five hundred seat lectures or were renowned for their grand architectural facades. In fact I feel larger than any of those buildings, since each of them is built into me. O but I long for those small sterile rooms, the non-descript furniture and dry erase boards. The hard thinking of determined minds filling up the bland generic space. In these non-specific rooms I honed in on names, American and otherwise, that long felt beyond my comprehension. Men and women from an America I hadn’t quite belonged to.

Well, I wore the gray cap and gown, the gray tassel, when I crossed that ship of a stage to be hooded for completing my master’s program. They butchered my un-American names before wrapping me in that tremendous hood. Once a functional garment worn to protect one’s head from rain and sleet and snow, my master’s hood, with its thick velveteen brown outer lip and sateen periwinkle lining, looks like an enormous vulva (o yes). I have been named a Master. Names infuse into me as a powerful elixir. I can’t help but sit up now I am properly named. Have completed becoming a master—master of nothing tangible—of language and how it can dance in a field, but master nonetheless. I, master of the fine art of poetry, armed with an education and a mispronounced name, direct from the ivory tower’s bellboy, have been granted a vulva.

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