Why getting an English Degree was so absolutely Important

I am very proud to say that I have a degree in English Studies from Trinity College Dublin. One of the most prestigious colleges in the world. This degree has become my trump card when telling people I don’t know about myself, especially with people who tend to dismiss me because (a) I’m blonde (b) I’m a woman and (c) I have a disability. I chose to do English because I was really good at it in school. I didn’t want to do computers or any course that was perceived as being ‘suitable’ or ‘useful’ for people with disabilities. (This is what my husband did instead of doing the courses he really wanted to do, primary teaching or accountancy). I was top of my English class, so it seemed like a logical move.

However, my choice to study English in College has been the subject of some very awkward conversations that usually go like this:

Randomer: So, what do you do?

Me: Well, I’m a PRO for a disability organisation. (Pause. Then wanting to sound intelligent, I say) But I also have an English Degree from Trinity.

Randomer: Wow, Trinity College. Well done you. You must be very intelligent.

Me: (bashfully) Oh I don’t know.

Randomer: (Impressed pause) That’s truly amazing. (Another pause, during which I can see a look of confusion creeping onto my companion’s face). So, what does that qualify you to do?

Me: Well, technically I’m a literary critic.

Randomer: A what?

Me: A literary critic. You know, like, I can read a book or a poem and tell you about the language, the intent of the author, and most importantly, if there is underlying sexual connotations. (Note to the uninitiated: there are always underlying sexual connotations. If you can’t see it, you are obviously not looking hard enough).

Randomer: Thank God you were born.

If you’re thinking that I should have been awarded a degree from the National College of Bullshit, you would be right. Because the English Studies course I read was amazing, a real ‘must-do’ for any lover of literature or aspiring writer. I was taught, and constantly surrounded by, geniuses who had written volumes of books and papers on topics such as Shakespeare, Post-Colonialism, Poetry, Irish Women writers and many more diverse and interesting topics. These were truly intelligent people and I felt like a dumbass. Here’s some examples of how this idiocy manifested itself during my college days:

  • My first tutorial: We were introduced to each other and then asked to name the last book we’d read. I panicked and, unable to lie, I dutifully revealed that the last book I’d read was Life of Pi. The lecturer proceeded to ask me what struck me about the book, to which I replied ‘The striking relationship between animal and human and the theme of interdependency’. Agreeing, she asked me to elaborate, to which I replied ‘you know, your man, and the tiger, on the boat together, not killing each other.’
  • We took a course called Old English. Old English is not like ‘hear ye’ stuff, it’s like ancient Greek, and we had to translate texts such as Beowolf (can’t remember the others, sorry). I spent hours translating them word by word, but it annoyed me when I read out my word-for-word translation while my classmate read out his/her translation, grammar and syntax perfect. I felt stupid until I discovered that my classmates had got their hands on the already translated version by Seamus Heaney (or some other translation). Then I felt ridiculously stupid.
  • We also read Chaucer and Marlowe, with their use of ‘u’ for ‘v’, ‘y’ for ‘I’, double Fs and all that stuff. But those texts were much easier than the dreaded Piers Plowman. I went to the lecture on Piers Plowman for clarification on the meaning of the book, only to hear something about sheep eating mud. Useful. Not.
  • It took me two years to figure out that rhetoric and discourse are just fancy-schmancy words for language. When someone spoke about post-colonial/feminist ‘discourse’, I would write in the margin, for the hundredth time that week, ‘look up “discourse”.’ Thankfully, I grasped these difficult concepts just before my final exams (and before writing a thesis on the subject of female discourse in Shakespeare’s plays).
  • In fact, the only time I failed an essay or exam was in second year, when I  thought I would  get away with using the same text for two questions, even though it specifically stated on the paper not to do this: ‘You must not substantially repeat material’. Well, according  to Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author, what matters most is what the reader interprets from the text, not what the author intended by writing it. I therefore read, ‘Go on. Use the same material for two questions. They’ll never notice. Plus you haven’t read any of the other texts so you don’t have much of a choice.’
  • I often bullshitted my way through tutorials using only the blurb on the back cover as a guide. Come on, where are you supposed to get time to read 6-8 novels a week in between one of your twelve one-hour lectures? The most memorable occasion was when I gave a presentation on H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come. I’d read the first 300 pages but didn’t have time (ah, elusive time) to read the ending. So I gave the presentation and I’d finished giving my general interpretations when the lecturer asked the class: ‘So who got to the end, apart from Sarah and I?’ Silence. ‘Okay Sarah, why don’t we enlighten them?’ ‘Of course! Er, why don’t you go first?’ Laughter. ‘Sarah, did you read the ending?’ ‘Er, not so much, no.’ Endings are apparently important in an apocalypse class. In my defence, I only had sixteen weeks to prepare for this presentation, in between these twelve one-hour lectures. Come on, I’m not Superwoman.

Laziness and fabrication aside, I’m glad I had the opportunity to go to Trinity and study English, which was taught some of the most intelligent and insightful academics in the field. And if nothing else, being able to say you have a degree from Trinity seems to be a significant achievement. Now that I’ve exposed my deepest secret, I’m off to hide my parchment somewhere before it is pried off me.

Feck off. It’s mine now. I’ve earned it.

Kind of. *This blog was inspired by a fellow classmate’s Facebook status today*

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Equality for all

It’s the night before the Marriage Referendum. I’ve read articles and stories from both sides and I’m ready, as the slogan urges us, to vote Yes for equality. But being who I am, I can’t turn off my thoughts about the word ‘equality’ and what it means in 2015. And here’s why.

I know that I use this blog to prattle on and on about the importance of disability rights. I am aware of how one-dimensional some of my posts may seem to those of you who know that I am more than my disability and am proud to know Sarah (this isn’t directed at any dads in particular by the way). But here’s the thing: despite being periodically frustrated by my limitations, I have embraced who I am. I know that I try to be understanding, accepting and tolerant of all others, simply because that’s how I expect to be treated, even though it is not always the case. I laugh off the insults, the condescension, the ignorance because at the end of the day, it shouldn’t really matter what people think of me. I am who I am, regardless of the labels people throw at me.

Over the last few months I have listened, watched and read arguments in favour of, and opposing same-sex marriage. You haven’t been able to avoid it unless you live under a rock; it was even on the front page of the Tullamore Tribune this week. Politicians, celebrities and ordinary citizens talking about which way they are voting in the Same-sex marriage referendum. People sharing their experiences of what it’s like to be gay in twenty-first century Ireland. It’s amazing how this referendum has forced people to face such a taboo subject head-on. To examine what it means for people living in shame of who they are. To explore people’s anxieties and deconstruct their misconceptions. To hear both sides argue their cases so passionately.

Ireland has progressed so much, people say. But allowing same-sex marriage won’t stop homophobia or hate crime. And although so much has been done to ensure that Ireland is becoming a more accepting and understanding society, I have to admit I still don’t feel it.

In the last two weeks two separate incidents involving people with disabilities made the headlines. The first was a man who was left on a train when the ramp was not provided to let him off the train. He was let off twenty minutes later, and he commented that never before had his disability made him feel so vulnerable. The second one was a woman who was denied access to a Dublin Bus because a buggy was occupying the wheelchair area. One wheelchair space for fifty-odd seats seems a bit discriminatory anyway. These are not isolated incidents, as I know only too well from working in the disability sector; everyone has a story to tell about public transport in Ireland.

How can Ireland be viewed as being progressive if there are still people in society who cannot even access basic services such as transport? Why are we still highlighting the same issues over and over again?

I thought I was being paranoid, so I decided to do some actual research. According to a report by the National Disability Authority in 2011 on attitudes towards people with disabilities, the number of people who believed that ‘it is society that disables people’ fell from 62% strongly agreeing and agreeing in 2006 to 57% in 2011. Not a significant drop, but a drop nonetheless. Furthermore, there was a decrease in the number of people who think that people with disabilities should be treated more favourably in certain circumstances (i.e. when their disabilities prevent them from doing things that a person without a disability could do) from 80% in 2006 to 68% in 2011.

It occurs to me as I read these statistics that the changes in the attitudes of those who partook in the study may be due to the onset of the recession. Since 2008, funding that was once earmarked for disability services has been restricted and the needs of people with disabilities have had to be prioritised. Every year disability organisations make pre-budget submissions, outlining how further cuts will have devastating consequences for their clients. When you have a disability, you become costly; a report launched by Inclusion Ireland in September 2014 estimates that the extra cost of disability is roughly €207 per week. That’s not even provided through our (means-tested) disability allowance. And because of this people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty; many are caught in a welfare trap, afraid to move into employment in case they lose their secondary benefits such as medical cards and travel passes, and consequently they are either seen as spongers or dependent on the state.

How is this equality?

Tomorrow’s same-sex marriage referendum will come and go, and whatever the outcome, one thing is for certain: this referendum has given so many people a platform on which to relate their personal experiences, voice their opinions, and persuade the people around them of the merits and disadvantages of same-sex marriage. Giving the Irish people the opportunity to vote for same-sex marriage empowers the people and puts the potential of equality for same-sex couples in their hands.

Imagine, this time tomorrow, the right to marry your partner regardless of gender could be a reality.

Maybe, one day, equality for people with disabilities could be a given, too. But in order to achieve this, we need to be more vocal, more visible. We need to make sure that our voices are always heard. Not just around election time but every single day. Only when true equality exists should we fall silent.

PS Yes Equality!

Just a date

It’s funny how the human mind can make associations, how a chill in the air or a familiar smell can wash over you and bring you back to a time and place that you thought you’d never have the good fortune/grave misfortune of experiencing again. For example, when I see my own breath fog up against the black sky for the first time every October, I know that Halloween is just around the corner, with Christmas nipping furiously at its heels. I know as I chomp on a contraband Easter egg after Alison has gone to bed at night that the slight red tinge in the sky is signalling the arrival of summer. I smell the barbecues, the freshly mown grass, the faint titter of laughter wafting gently through our windows.

And despite the improvement in the weather (well, normally. At the moment it is freeeeezing), I begin to feel cold, heavy, wary. Sometimes I feel sick with restlessness and anxiety as memories, good and bad, swoop in and strangle me until I can’t breathe. May used to be my favourite month of the year, and in many ways, it still is. For me, May signifies the beginning of the end of school and college. It reminds me of a photo that was taken of my brother and I when I was five, celebrating my brother’s ninth birthday on 18 May, just me and him, with an icecream log. Mum wasn’t there because she was recovering from her c-section; my sister had been born almost a fortnight beforehand, on 7 May 1989.

Exactly twenty years later mum closed her eyes for the last time.

I’m sure that it’s an absolute bitch for my sister to have to share her special day so selflessly. I’m sure that no-one wants to sit around moping on their birthday, getting all maudlin about the past. Birthdays should be happy days. Personally, though, I’ve always found birthdays to be a bit of an anti-climax (apart from my 21st when John Paul proposed in front of my family and friends. That was an awesome birthday), to the point where I would actually rather if the day came and went without being marked or acknowledged at all.

And for years I felt the same about my mum’s anniversary, which I try in vain to separate from my beloved sister’s birthday. Can the two be separated? It’s a struggle every year to experience such happiness and sadness at once. How have I managed it? Trying to pretend that the anniversary didn’t bother me, that’s how! Oh so it’s mum’s anniversary today? Well, she was dead yesterday and she’ll still be dead tomorrow, so what difference does a date make? It’s Laura’s birthday, let’s not forget that!

Trying to deny the sadness didn’t work for me in the long run, and last year five years of suppressed emotions hit me suddenly like a freight train. I had to take a considerable length of time off work to feel normal again. Note to the readers: don’t bottle up your emotions. They will come back when you least expect and bite you on the ass. Hard.

For the first couple of years after mum died, I went through the motions. For the first anniversary, I insisted on holding lunch in our house after the anniversary mass for all my relatives so that I didn’t have to face my emotions. It worked; I was so busy in the lead up to the event that I barely had time to think. The second anniversary, I stood beside the grave with my aunt, husband, sisters and brother, then proceeded to go out that night and get wasted (in the name of celebrating Laura’s birthday of course). By the third anniversary, I had an almost three month old baby with terrible reflux and I spent the whole day crying because I felt like an inadequate mother. I had been so hard on my mother and yet, she managed to raise four of us. At that stage, I was seriously debating whether I had it in me to raise one.

Yet somehow mum was there, guiding me. Some days, it just wasn’t enough. I needed to hear her voice. I longed for the opportunity to ridicule her childraising advice. I wanted her to tell me I was doing something wrong, nagging me to the point where I’d lose it and ban her from seeing her only grandchild. I needed her to remind me that I was not alone. And she did, in her own way. I managed to push past the fear and the preconceptions I had of myself, and do the very best for my child, the way my mum did for me.

This year, I will try to embrace the date and try not to suppress my emotions. I promise to allow myself to feel the dread, the sadness, the emptiness. I will grieve for what we lost, as well as what we could’ve had. Most importantly, I will remember that the 7 May is a day of happiness and celebration, and acknowledge that people enter and leave our lives in the strangest of ways. And even though this day is tough, simply because of a date on a calendar, I will be thankful for the fact that I had such a wonderful mother who gave us a sibling who is intelligent, beautiful and loving. (Laura, I can hear your head exploding from here).

For me personally, 7 May will always be a strong reminder that good things happen, and bad things happen, and after they do, all that is left are memories, both beautiful and terrifying.

Rest in peace Mum, and thank you for bringing Laura into all of our lives. I think of you and miss you every single day. And happy birthday sis, make sure you fill your special day with lots of wonderful memories. xxxx