Friday, February 17, 2006

Some things I'd like to say to my brother (but won't)

Dear Little Bro,

Today on the phone Mum told me that you've decided to enrol in university. I'm so glad that you've figured out what to do this year, since it didn't work out with the job, or those courses at the community college that you dropped out of, or those other jobs you lost the year before. Still, I have to admit the university thing is a path I wasn't expecting you to take.

Mum said that you finally figured out that you aren't stupid. I'm glad of that. Your friends and family have known it for a long time. You said you just kind of gave up on education right back at the start of high school, and didn't reckon it had any relevance to your life. I guess that explains why you stopped doing your homework and never passed any exams; why you dropped out of school at sixteen. I never really understood that, seeing as I know you are smart when you want to be.

The thing is, I'm kind of scared for you. I see situations like yours often enough now that I'm on the other side of the fence. Students who have the brains for a university education, but not the skills. And professors really don't like it. They get grumpy when they are handed essays that are obviously composed by people who've never written anything before in their lives. They can be snarky when students don't keep up with the reading. (I'm sure you intend to keep up, but it'll take more time and effort for you than for most, not having read a book since you were eight years old.)

I'm guessing that you really do plan to make the effort this time around, and I do believe that you can do it, but the reason I'm scared for you is that your success will depend so much on the luck of the draw. If you get professors and tutors who have the time and will make the effort to look closely at you, to realise you have potential, and who go out of their way to guide you, then yes, you'll probably be okay. If, instead, you end up with the sort who are campaigning against that law that allows anyone over the age of 20 to attend university no matter what their (lack of) qualifications, they might see you as a poster-case for their disapproval of the system, and you could find yourself cut down at every step. Even if you just get the harried, tired professors and tutors who have too many students and too many responsibilities, you could so easily fall through the cracks.

I've cursed students like you and wished them back to high school. I'm ashamed to admit it, but sometimes I've given up on them too. When the first essay arrives and it's obvious that to help them pass I'm going to have to guide them from IM-speak through to an understanding of elementary English and grammar, teach them critical thinking from scratch, and then put in extra time and effort teaching them the course material on top of all that, I've sometimes decided that's not my job (or been afraid I wasn't up to the challenge) and accepted the fact that they'll fail. The thing is, when I've looked at them in the past, I've never looked closely enough to see you inside. This semester I kind of suspect it might be different.

The other thing that worries me is that you might be choosing this path for the wrong reasons. Because it's not going to be easy to make it through, your motivation has got to be strong enough to keep you going. I knew I wanted a university career more than anything else (there was no anything else) and that was what kept me afloat on the days when it wasn't any fun. But for me, that wasn't very many days. For you -- well I never got the impression that learning for the sake of it was really your thing. Mum says you are doing this because you want to get a job that isn't a dead-end pizza delivery run. So I have to ask: if it's about the job market, why are you majoring in Religious Studies?

Forgive me for finding your choice of major suspicious. But since you can't be doing it from career motives, then what? You were always the openly atheist one (while I hid away in my hypocritical closet. You were right to call me on that, by the way.) What worries me is the thought that this might be about fitting in. That was actually my first thought before I even heard what your major was. After all, you are the only one of us who never went to university. You are the only one who was openly non-religious. You're right, you know, when you point out that everything isn't always about me, but I'm scared that this might be (as well as about the Parents). I know you've been struggling with your identity, and that your biological mother coming back into your life has only made that harder. I've watched you the last few years, moving in with Her, then back to Mum and Dad, then back to Her. Doing what She wants. Doing what Mum and Dad want. Doing what She wants. Doing what They want.

You need to do what you want. And I really hope against hope that that's what you're doing now. If you are, then I support you 100%.

You know what the weirdest thing is, though? This is the first time in our lives that I've really felt like I imagine a big sister should. I've practically come over all maternal! I want to protect you and guide you and smooth out your path ahead of you. There is so much you will gradually discover in your first few years at university that I want to explain in one big monologue for you right now (bet you'd love that). I want to test-drive your professors and tutors and make sure they're up to scratch. And most of all, I want to tell them how important you are, how they have to go the extra mile for you, because you are worth it.

Maybe these protective feelings (and the hope and excitement I'm nursing on your behalf) have turned up because this is the first thing you have done in your life that I can really identify with. And if that's the case, then I'm sorry. I've been telling you you don't need to go to university to "fit in" with our family, to make us care. But me feeling this way about your decision -- even the fact that I'm writing to you now for the first time in nearly two years -- it looks like it might not be you who's deceiving yourself. It might be me. Maybe it is all about me after all.

I'm so sorry.