Art’s History

by Alison O’Connor

Dear diary,

Congrats Ali, you slacker, you. At least you won’t feel that pressure anymore, you can focus on more important things, like that sixteen page ethnography essay due in a matter of weeks. You can commute downtown much later on Friday mornings without feeling like you’re always missing something. Good job, Al. I mean that, I suppose, both ironically and seriously, good for you. Withdrawing from Art History I: Gothic to Stone Age did seem like a cop-out, but it was a pretty wise choice, you gotta admit, and it will seem like one of the smartest things you’ll have done in college, and you’re still a freshman. Just think of that.  

I’m nineteen years old, it’s not like I’m very old yet, so I couldn’t have known that the class would be a big mistake, or too much to handle, or even just very, very boring material that would weigh me down on top of the already stressful Writing and Rhetoric II course I have to pass. And it was an easy enough mistake to have made, after all. I love art, I love drawing and painting and all that. I had originally even wanted to major in art at good ol’ Columbia College instead of poetry, until I decided that I wanted to be a poet in my future, and try for that instead. I didn’t want to take a minor either, so my plan was always to take a minor’s worth of art classes, the basics of drawing and the history of art required to get an art degree. But I should have seen it coming, the lack of focus and the crying, the stupid crying.

I barely made it out of my first drawing class at Columbia in one piece, seeing as everyone else did photo-realistic artwork even as sketches, while I was too stylized and my art was too pencil-heavy. I cried nearly every day, and, as luck would have it, got my period twice during that fall semester course. It was very early in the mornings, and I wanted to give up time and time again, but somehow I stuck by it, somehow I finished the class with a B+ and somehow I got praised by my instructor for my hard work. He did, after all, tell me he liked the way I drew even after all his sighs of dejection in the face of my dark marks and his “…Alison…” that one time.

Because of that magical perseverance, I was convinced I could succeed with the same vigor and passion in Art History I spring semester of my first year of college, I was convinced I’d make it out in the same way, and get a good grade in the end. I thought that because this class started at 9:00 instead of 8:30 like the drawing class did, I’d have an easier morning commute and I would be able to focus a fair amount, since none of my classes at Columbia had been in lecture hall form. I have always had trouble with focus, and smaller-grouped classes have always been the best for me as a learner, which Columbia’s been great with. I was ready for this new challenge, the hands-on experience and ready to tackle all of the work before me. My parents told me that I should drop the class if it didn’t seem to fit me or didn’t end up being a good course to take on top of all the others, since it wasn’t in my major and just an extra class of choice. I told them I wouldn’t because I didn’t want to be a quitter, and wanted to take on whatever work-load came at me. After all, I’d done so well considering fall semester’s math class, which was a pain, and that drawing class that was hard for a number of reasons. So this would be a breeze in comparison.

Boy, was I wrong. About a lot of things. The class, it turned out, was indeed in lecture-hall form, and it was a bigger class composed of actual illustration/graphic design/photography and fashion design majors, so as a poetry student I stuck out, which made me feel very self-conscious in the midst of such a large setting. The professor was nice enough, an older, sweet voiced woman who also happened to be a grandmother. But in her introduction, she put a lot of focus on the joys and greatness and struggles of parenthood and kids, asking around which students were parents, and congratulating them for their hard work and for having children. I am tokophobic and babies and little kids make me very uncomfortable, as well as people talking about how wonderful it is to have children. This was fairly annoying, but I was determined to like the professor and not mind her heavy interest in parents and kids, especially her own kids and grandkids. I also did not want to make a fuss about the lecture-hall format or the greater number of students, or even the barrage of handouts and papers, the slides upon slides she put before us, the information almost overwhelming. For me especially because in high school note-taking and catching up on in-class discussions was not a strong suit by any means. I have a strong tendency to draw all over my notes and assignment sheets instead of copying down actual information, and these drawings, mark, are in that same heavy-hand, too, the kind that gets all over everything.

So there were numerous reasons to drop the course. But I was firm about not quitting. I could handle the extra work, and my choice to take on a heavier work load. After I complained to my parents about how much she gabbed about how great parenthood and little kids were, they told me that I should drop, but I told them that, no, I would soldier on and do what was needed. I would come out on top. Dropping or withdrawing seemed like the easy way out, quitting, and I really did not want to do that. I wanted to prove that I could fit in with the others, though I was not even in the art department as a major. I wanted to like the teacher and do all the work and make her proud. I also felt like it would be too easy to just shirk all of the extra work I would be loaded with, all that overwhelming information coming at me like speeding bullets on that projection screen. They were right, but it took me four weeks or so to recognize this. Four weeks of guilt, me neglecting my assignments, me ignoring everything, spilling coffee on myself and counting the painful minutes until the droning three hour class would be over at last, before my next class twenty minutes after.

Diary, the class was a giant pain, and very needlessly so, because it was a voluntary one. There was a field trip one day to the Oriental Institute in Hyde Park, which was the one highlight, but even there I struggled to catch up with the others and jot down information down. My classmates were very nice to me, but they seemed to notice how timid I was and how little I contributed or raised my voice. I was a shadow, and it showed. I felt so out of place it seemed like I had convinced myself I was nothing to the class, and that’s how I came off to everybody. My worksheets kept on piling up, on top of all of the other long-term writing projects and presentations of other classes. I was actually sleeping through classes, too. It was early in the mornings I was commuting, and because all it was was slides and lecture after lecture, keeping track was very hard and something I was involuntarily bailing on just as quickly as my presentations and homework.

But I was convinced that the easy choice would be to quit, to drop, so I didn’t drop. I went past the deadline to drop the course, because quitting was a bad thing, and trying at the course would be a bad thing. So I continued to rub the sleep from my eyes each Friday morning, get my greasy-haired self on the train, then the bus, then get coffee which would often get spilled on myself, then sleep through another class in the shadows of my classmates. All while not doing the work and forgetting to visit the architectural spots of Chicago we were instructed to visit on our own times. And what would my parents have thought, if I quit? They’d think I wasn’t making any effort, wasn’t doing my best to succeed. I wanted to tackle every course that came my way, but I was just not seeing the very obvious facts of the matter. I wasn’t trying hard as it was. I was too busy being miserable in a class that wasn’t the right fit for me at all, trying to live up to a phony image of myself as an “art minor that had to prove her existence” while I was letting everything slip and fall behind in all my other classes, just when all the long-term deadlines were approaching around the corner. My idea of “perseverance” here was to ignore all of my responsibilities and drag myself down for the sake of proving some unreasonable point by suffering through a class that just was not working in any way. My parents knew it and I knew it. Things were going horribly. My idea of perseverance was to let all of my grades fall near mediocrity and to nearly fail Art History in the process. All of the work as coming back to bite me, and I was frightened. I would lie awake in bed on Thursday nights droopy eyed but too scared to even think about the next morning.

One Friday afternoon that spring, though, my parents at last brought up Withdrawl, which was like dropping the class, but instead of vanishing from the transcript, would appear as a ghostly “W” to show that you had once taken the class, but then decided not to. I could still withdraw from Art History, but I fought them on it, even still. I said that I was determined to pass the class, to fight to get my grades to a place I could be proud of, even though I really had no idea what I was getting in the class. I had no idea what was going on in the class at all, for that matter. But the more my parents and I talked, the more I realized how ridiculous I was being. I could be actually working hard instead of trying to convince myself I was still doing well in a class where I just wasn’t. I could be really trying in my other classes instead of dragging myself down. I wasn’t even admitting there was a problem. It was all or nothing with me, had been for all those four weeks or so, and it was only becoming more apparent as I continued to work things out with my parents. At last, I had to come to terms with the fact that giving up, withdrawing would be the hard choice, not the easy one, in order to really succeed in my second semester of college. I would be able to lighten the load, and pull myself up out of the rut I had gotten myself stuck in. I decided to do it, and I did, with one click of the mouse and the help of my dad, and I was out before I even knew it. It was scary, but there it was. I was really out of that class once and for all. I was free.

And what do you know? I worked hard and got my grades to very good places, and finished off my second semester of college on the Dean’s list, through actual hard work instead of my pretend charade of it. I felt very proud of myself, and my parents were, too. I hadn’t let them down at all, which had been my big fear after all. I realized, too, that actual hard work meant sticking with something and actually working to achieve it, and that it meant putting forth the effort in something that I was ready for and could manage in addition to every other course. It meant making myself confident and happy in my work, work that I actually found satisfying and enjoyable instead of something miserable and draining that was going nowhere. It was knowing when to give up in order to achieve greater things in the long run, to enjoy all of my courses instead of making myself unhappy over one for the benefit of no one, not my parents and certainly not me. Withdrawing from a class that made me miserable made me realize that I am a hard working person and capable of doing great things, and that making my parents proud meant doing well at what I love instead of being unhappy at a course that wasn’t working for me at all at that time. After all, I can always try again at another semester at a time that’s right for me, and knowing fully well what to expect. So, Ali, you sorry girl, I hope you learned something after all.



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