What Are You Good For?

It is currently 4am as I sit here writing this. Me being awake at stupid o’clock is not unusual: I’ve suffered from insomnia since before I can remember, and my chronic illness only makes things worse.

What is unusual though is the thing rattling around in my head. Normally my insomnia time is spent either frantically working on whatever project I’m obsessing over, or for ignoring the darkness outside my window to stare into the blackness inside my soul and systematically work through my comprehensive catelogue of flaws, failings, and mistakes.

What I’m not used to is dwelling on moments from my past that are positive. So buckle up, because this one is going to require some context.

I was diagnosed with depression in my early teens. In hindsight, it may have been the early stages of my chronic illness getting misdiagnosed, but boy howdy did the medication they put me on make doubly sure I was depressed. During Year 10 and 11 (that’s ninth and tenth grade for you Fahrenheit folks, although in the UK those are the last two years of mandatory education) I must have missed at least six months of school, and worked my way through the entire bingo card of reasons not to go. Actually ill? Making myself ill? Too tired? Too bleak? Refusing to let go of the mattress when your dad tries to physically drag you out of bed? Asleep all day because you were awake all night enjoying the life you had in a text-based MUD more than your sucky actual life? All the classics.

It should have absolutely tanked my education, but it didn’t, because I was (and arguably still am) an overachieving smartass. I coasted, and still managed to get an A or B in pretty much everything. One exam I overslept, showed up five minutes before they would have had to refuse me entry to the exam hall, and still finished on time and well enough to get a B. For another, I stayed up all night playing Star Wars Galaxies, fell asleep half-way through an essay question, wrote and then scribbled out ‘Stormtrooper’, and still got an A. I was insufferably that kid… until I wasn’t, but that’s a whole different story.

What I cannot take credit for though is the double A I got for English Language and Literature. I could not be arsed with English. I have always loved writing, but like with most subjects, school was determined to make it boring. Grammar? Tenses? Fuck off. Reading was supposed to be fun, reading was supposed to be escapism, and we sat there, tedious day after tedious day, dissecting it like frogs until all that remained was the putrid guts and oozing fluids of something that frankly deserved so much better. Sure, I was enough of a smartass to waffle and bullshit my way through an exam, but coursework? I was too busy embracing the darkness within to bother with any of that.

Mr Findlay was not having that. For one thing, he was determined to have a class of students who did not find his subject boring. I remember him grumping his way into the classroom one lesson, because he’d just found out that our school – which pretty much refused to pay for anything that wasn’t directly sports-related – didn’t have enough copies of the text to go around, so for our Shakespeare segment he would have to teach us The Merchant of Venice. He was furious, and out of protest taught us a lesson on Macbeth that first week, “so you won’t end up thinking all of his plays are shit”. He’s the reason that I still refer to a trip to the bathroom as “going for a euphamism”. And he is, without a doubt, the reason that I got those A’s.

The only piece of English coursework that I had any interest in doing was creative writing. We were given free reign, and so I wrote a Star Wars story. I’m a little too embarrassed to share it now – partly because a young Jedi exploring the darkness of a ruined temple by the glow of his lightsaber feels a bit like a time-displaced Fallen Order ripoff these days, and partly because in hindsight I realise that the planet shrouded in eternal night with an all-consuming dark presence at the centre was probably me leaking out my angsty teenage depression thoughts without me ever realising it before now – but it was pretty good, and that’s not something I ever say about anything I’ve ever done.

My English teacher agreed. In fact, he thought it was too good. Given the circumstances, given my disengagement, it wasn’t a stretch to suspect that I might have snagged this short story from somewhere else. So, unbeknownst to me, he dedicated his free time to figuring out where I had stolen the story from – which, of course, I hadn’t. I didn’t find out any of this until a parent-teacher evening. I asked about my grade, and he kept telling me he hadn’t got around to it yet – and waited until my parents were sat there to explain what he’d thought, and what he’d done, and why I was getting 100% on that coursework, and why he would not be accepting any more half-assed efforts from me. He gave me more challenging assignments. He gave me multiple assignments all at once, so I could chip away at them in the order I wanted to. I got those A’s for English because Mr Findlay refused to let me score any lower.

But here’s the thing. For the somethingteen years since, it is the 100% that I have focused on. It has been something I was proud of, a compliment that I’ve clung to. Validation, because someone I had so much respect for thought my writing was up there with Stackpole and Zahn and Anderson. But over the weekend, I had a conversation with my dad. I don’t talk to my dad often, but when we do talk, we talk a lot, and in amongst all the pandemic talk and the politics and everything else, this memory came up, and my dad? The bit he remembers is very different. He doesn’t remember the 100% part, he remembers what Mr Findlay said next: “If I knew I could write that well, consistently, I would hand in my notice tomorrow.”

Now sure, that’s hyperbole. But what has been keeping me awake is the fact that my brain chooses not to recall that part. My brain focuses on the compliment, but not the encouragement. I know why. At the time, I was certain about what I wanted to do. I was going to get my degree in astrophysics, and then I was going to go into research or teaching. I didn’t need English. It didn’t matter that I got better grades for humanities than sciences, because tests are bullshit, and that wasn’t The Plan. So I put it in a box, slapped a ‘well that’s nice!’ sticker on the side, and tucked it into the back of my head.

So what, right? A teacher said a nice thing, big deal. Stop thinking about that, and start using your nighttime the way it is supposed to be used: reliving the paralysing embarrassment of being six years old and needing to ask the teacher you had a crush on how to spell the word so, to the raucous laughter of your classmates. Y’know, sensible stuff!

The thing is, I am always struggling to understand what I am good for. What I’m good at. What the point of me is. I used to be this effortlessly smart person, until the momentum that had kept me coasting ran out. I used to be a physics student, until I found a topic that made my understanding stumble, and life came along to sweep my legs out from underneath me. I was the sappy romantic, who’d swap one out of a dozen roses for a fake so that the love they implied wouldn’t ever be able to die, until my partners decided they wanted something else instead. Then I was the up-and-coming go-getter at a job I loved, poised to really go places until my health brought everything crashing down. One by one, the ways I describe, define, and understand myself have got chipped away, and every time I struggle to reshape my sense of identity with less and less to work with each time, feeling like there is progressively less and less of me left.

But someteen years ago, Mr Findlay sat there and told me that writing was something I could have tried to take seriously. I still write, I still enjoy it, and like just about everyone I am “working on my novel”, but I still think of it like a hobby. Like it is a peripheral activity, and woe is me because a peripheral is all I have left to define myself by. But if I’d taken the encouragement as well as the compliment, I could have tried to put writing at the core of who I am, instead of off to the side. Instead of treating it like the side salad on the banquet table of my identity, the man who wouldn’t let me fuck up GCSE English suggested that I could have made it the main course. Why can’t I now? Why don’t I now?

I don’t know what to do with this new perspective. When I started typing at 4am, I didn’t know where this was going to end up, and having got here, I’m not quite sure what this conclusion means for me. I have been changing the way I write, and changing the spaces I write in over the last few months, so maybe I’m inadvertantly on the right path. At the start of the month I posted some fan fiction online for the first time, and while I’ve written on forums/etc for years and years, this was it’s own kind of terrifying, especially with strangers stumbling across it in the wild; but maybe that’s the right path too, and maybe this blog post is the right path, and maybe what I need to be doing is just finding ways to do more. I don’t know.

But I am going to finally take the encouragement, and I am going to do something with it. I hope that whatever you’re struggling with, you’ve got some encouragement you can find and do something with as well.

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