Brace yourselves, this may come as something of a surprise. I've dropped out of Oxford. Yes, I know. It's something of an about face considering my previous posts but hear me out. I left, not due to egregious academic incompetence, lewd or licentious behaviour beneath hall tables or even to pursue a love interest. It's taken me a while to reflect on this but here I go. I'd welcome your thoughts.
I came to Oxford, like most undergraduates, puffing with pride and more than a little starry-eyed. It is a beautiful, awe-inspiring and near holy place where one can retreat into academia, the pursuit of knowledge and the training of the mind. Sadly, such cerebral cornucopias are few and far between. However, sheer hope and naivety can only take one so far in academic life and, already possessing a law degree, I found the return to student life difficult. After a certain age, you'd hope, you can't quite manage the deferential, near subservient poise of a willing and receptive student. As a student who is only (mildly) older, I often found myself chafing at the degree of obedience and rigidity expected of an undergraduate. What if, shock horror, I don't want to write an essay on the role of menstrual fluid in Jane Eyre? Or consider the role of the omniscient narrator in early Norse poetry (not in translation, thank you very much). What if, woe befall me, I want to run off to Belgium for an amorous weekend? Belgium is sexier than you'd think.
Cue many mad dashes to the train station for a wild jaunt in London. Cue running out of the dining hall mid-meal because if Mr. X starts talking about his Etruscan pottery collection one more time! Cue retreating into my room wondering how I can justify the enormous expense of my degree when I already have one and the prospects of an English graduate, Oxonian or not, are increasingly slim. Cue a quiet feeling of terror and disbelief at my situation. It was not a happy time and of course, the feelings of grinding guilt and ingratitude didn't help either. I often felt I had 'stolen' someone else's place, someone who would relish simply being there. Indeed, Oxford likes to remind its students of their privileged position, to what end I won't go into. Yet, I now like to joke, I've joined an even more exclusive club. The ignoble Oxford dropout. It's a rather select club, mind.
To say my college was shocked is an understatement. However it may surprise you to know that I was not the only one. Such figures are understandably not widely available. However, when you find yourself in the Bodleian Library writing a novel rather than reading one, hoping against hope that your tutor won't notice your absence from the three-person tutorial, you know you have a problem. When you find yourself chatting to the deer in the Magdalen College park about how exasperating Robert Browning's poetry is, you know you have a problem. When you wake up covered in chocolate wrappers next to an empty wine bottle, you know you have a problem. So after much mind numbing, psyche twisting angst and indecision, I packed up my bags at the end of Michaelmas (that's term one for you and I) and trundled back to London. December was spent, luckily, on a very considerate friend's couch. Indeed I had a rather soft landing. We partied, drank too much and I even went on some cringe worthy dates. I should probably write some of them an apology. I was a bit lost lost and in a state of disbelief most of the time and but for the support of my friends, may just have pitched a tent in the Lake District to see what would happen. But the year turned and I spent it with a dissatisfied heiress in Canada watching the countdown of the Times Square clock instead. We had more in common than you'd think.
After the commotion of leaving, I had some time to think about this unique experience. I came to the conclusion that what brought me to Oxford was a sense of enormous hope and love for my subject. This was also what caused me to leave. It is one thing to study a subject, another to enjoy it. I made the rookie mistake of equating study with fun. Indeed, career Oxford professor of English, Mr John Carey, said something very similar in The Economist a few months ago. See here. Lacking the discipline and drive of a first time undergraduate, I wavered, pontificated on subjects I knew nothing about (perhaps the greatest skill one can obtain at university) and eventually saw that I was risking my love of literature for a love of a brand; Oxford.
I won't lie, I miss the place. I miss the mystery and beauty of the colleges and grounds; the grandeur of it all. But I don't miss the feeling of being mistaken and of time slipping away. We're often told to make the most of every opportunity and I did for a time. What we are not told is when to acknowledge your mistakes and, furthermore, how to learn from them. That is what I'm trying to do now. The greatest thing this dropout learned at Oxford wasn't academic, it was personal. I learned resilience and the importance of self-motivation. Above all, I learned when to take a risk, to say 'No' to the babble of voices that assault all of us (yes some people have stopped speaking to me over this) and focus instead on what I actually want. And act upon it. To go forward, to try, to fail and to learn from it and improve for the next time. Oxford taught me to act independently and bravely, even when it scares me. Or, in other words:
'To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.' I picked that up in a tutorial actually. Thanks Tennyson.
Be seeing you.