Le langage secret des cancres

I was filling out a form the other day when, under the heading "Level of Education Received," I had to catch myself from automatically checking the "high school" checkbox, and select the "undergraduate university" checkbox instead.

I am grateful, humbled, and most of all relieved to have finally gotten that damn piece of paper. It's actually quite small, when I hold it in my hands—but it truly has my name on it, and, written in the gender-neutral language I asked for, it verifies that I have an undergraduate diploma, a Bachelors in Creative Writing. That still means something to much of the world. It still means something to me.

My partner's diploma isn't on our walls. It rests at his parents' house because he didn't really care to have it lying around, and sometimes compared to his nonchalance I feel a bit embarrassed at my pride when I glance at mine, framed and sitting there on our walls. I remember my grandfather who laminated the two honourable mention certificates I got in high school (more flukes than anything, and they really didn't mean much on the end of year report cards) and how proud he was (and how embarrassed I was at his enthusiasm!)

My grandfather, who at the tender age of thirteen in a small town in Italy, decided not to go to the public high school in the next biggest town and—against his struggling single mother's most adamant wishes—decided to apprentice a trade instead. Decades later, long after he'd started his own family on a different continent, after he was denied yet another promotion in a factory, he eventually decided to get his high school diploma as an adult. He once told me, with grief heavy in his voice, what humiliation he felt making this step at such a late age. He told me how he'd called his mother on the phone that night, in tears, and told her that she had been right all along.

Over the years, I heard that story several times. Usually, I was surrounded by cousins and siblings, and we'd roll our eyes collectively at the overt moralizing and the implied: "Listen to me, don't do as I did, or else." Twice, my grandfather would tell me the story when I was alone with him, and those times his voice changed, and I could hear just how clearly his grief still shone. In that story were long-buried scars of wounds that still sometimes ached. He added small details to the story, of how it felt watching the other boys leave the village every morning to go to school, while he stayed behind. How proud his mother had been of him as a young boy, and how darkly disappointed she was with him afterwards.

Both times I heard the story alone, he looked straight at me while telling it. The first time, I was thirteen. My grandfather picked me up from school because he was to take me to the dentist that evening. It was a Friday, and that particular Friday I was carrying a report card home for my parents to sign. The contents of that report card were so dismal and alarmingly bad that I kept breaking down into frightened sobs in the dentist's waiting room as my usually jolly grandfather, knowing full well that I was not afraid of the dentist, waited until I stopped hiccuping and hyperventilating long enough for me to speak. I still remember the quiet but kind way he asked me what was wrong.

The second time I heard that story told to me alone was seven years later, when I failed out of engineering school at twenty years of age.

Lives are one way to measure the passing of years. My grandfather died this past summer just before I finished my last course for my undergraduate. He had encouraged me, after I failed out of engineering, to not completely disavow getting an undergraduate degree all together. At the time, I wasn't planning on ever returning to school. I was done and tired of being the terrible student and of feeling like my efforts were always being punished. My grandmother, who has always been diligent and studious, was also most definitely on my case to get back to university as soon as possible. But I think there's a hidden language, a sort of affinity, shared by people who've fucked up royally in their lives and have endured the consequences of all sorts of self-sabotage because of a dangerous mix of bad luck and mistakes. Le langage secret des cancres: the secret language of those who come dead-last. When my grandfather asked me about what happened in engineering school—and I did tell him every failure, mistake, and instance of colossal bad luck with both my physical and mental health that resulted in being removed from the program and the university—he told me that he thought I should not give up on the idea completely.

I later told him I was contemplating going to a different university—only less prestigious in the eyes of some—and studying something completely different. At that point, in my head, I was slowly narrowing in on creative writing mostly because it was the opposite end of the spectrum from electrical engineering. He nodded, and told me to go for it.

My first love in primary school was math.

But my first first love? My first love was thinking of stories and dreaming of other worlds.

When the impulse crossed my mind of trying again, I thought that maybe I'd go back and study physics. I quickly figured, while auditing physics classes with a friend finishing his physics degree at McGill, that I was going to run into many of the same problems I'd run into in electrical engineering. The biggest issues I was afraid of, ableism, heterosexism and sexism, were and arguably still are potent problems in most STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, if not all of them.

My second thought was to study computer science formally—I had learned to build websites as a teenager and by that point had already messed around with Javascript and Python—but the same issues above stopped me from attempting it.

At the time, I was filling several journals a year with poetry (some of it extraordinarily bad). Creative writing differed enough from electrical engineering as an undergraduate degree in some key ways that when it was suggested to me by a friend, I actually sat down and gave it serious thought. I spent a lot of time mulling over these differences, and the following are some of the conclusions I settled on.

The classes in creative writing were drastically smaller than those in electrical engineering, where I often found myself sitting in auditoriums that could fit anywhere between 300-700 students. Creative writing courses usually fit anywhere between 10-20 students. Professors are thus forced to acknowledge your existence and even, sometimes, learn your name.

A huge advantage for me in creative writing: almost all professors in Arts faculties do away with the engineering nonsense of a final exam that counts for 80% or 90% of the final grade. I test extremely poorly as a rule—on final exams I've actually calculated that I underperform by anywhere between 10 and 45 percent depending on my stress levels and course load that semester. However, not everything about that change in examination style would be a positive. The examinations would become less straightforwards—I would miss the simplicity of multiple choice and a single correct answer, as creative writing and English literature professors generally prefer long- or short-form essays. I'd be switching formulas out for literary arguments and, well, creativity.

I had never written a university-level essay in my life before applying to the creative writing program, and the subjectivity inherent to creative writing was enough to send me into a cold sweat when I thought about how I'd be graded. I'd spent all my secondary schooling focusing on math and physics, not history or languages. So I figured I would be at a disadvantage compared to other students who had been refining their writing skills for years, but that disadvantage wasn't enough to keep me from applying.

My application was rejected (the first time) on the basis of my portfolio, and a professor in the program, who is quite famous in the Canadian literary scene, flat-out told me to go study something else.

Nonetheless, by that point, despite the initial rejection and the professor's cutting words, the idea of learning how to write in a formal setting had grabbed my attention, and I can be a cantankerous son of a bitch when I put my mind to something.

Sais-tu d'où nous vient le mot "cancre"? Emprunt du latin classique cancer, qui veut dire "crabe". J’ai toujours aimé l'image du crabe qui se protège avec sa carapace épaisse (mais aussi: si fragile!) Le crabe qui change rarement d'idée, qui se défend avec acharnement, même si la cause est perdue loin d'avance. J'étais cancre de classe quand j'étais enfant, et j'ai mis un sâle temps à me rattraper.

Mais si j'ai la tête dure et que ça me prend un siècle ou deux à changer de bord, ça veut aussi dire qu’un jour au lieu d'aller à la rencontre de la faillite totale, je pourrais peut-être un jour tout vaincre.

Faut le dire, mon grand-père lui aussi était pas mal têtu.

At the recommendation of a high school friend who was in the program, and who kindly coached me through the application process, I registered in two classes as a part-time independent student, and got ready to apply to the program a second time the following winter semester.

I was so anxious that I had to ask a friend in a different program to come sit with me through my first classes as an independent student. I don't even know what I was imagining, but I was so terrified of being in those classrooms that I gave myself nightmares for weeks before the start of term. After a few classes, I got a little better, and told my friend that she didn't have to come sit next to me anymore (she was a little relieved, I think!)

Splitting my time between the university and several part-time jobs, I managed to get near-perfect grades in both those classes, and got into creative writing the second time I applied.

Creative writing as a program at Concordia was a decidedly mixed bag. I met some truly wonderful writers there amongst the other students.

I quickly realised that the core component of the program, the workshops, were flawed. Most of the professors, in my own experience, tended to fall into three categories: (1) those who were quick to pick favourites amongst the students and whose teaching was decidedly uneven for everyone else, (2) those who were so set in their ways that they utterly lacked the imagination of spirit to understand difference or experimentation (and gave failing or poor grades to honest effort they couldn't appreciate), and (3) those who were so cynical and jaded that their career had led them to teach creative writing that they were just all-around terrible teachers. Several of the professors I worked under in the program were an unhealthy mix of all three. I also noted, by the end of my degree, that almost every creative writing professor I had was a baby boomer (or older) who continuously complained about millennial entitlement. Some professors, it seemed, were genuinely surprised at the truly revolutionary notion that the younger writers in the room were trying to take up what little space they could with their ambitions and ideas.

I tried to get through the required creative writing workshops as quickly as possible, and took everything said and done in those workshops with a huge grain of salt as I did my best to emotionally divest from them. I specialized in fiction and poetry. Since I'm not really in the mood to write the next Great American Short Novel or the Next Great New Yorker Short Story Every One Bookmarks But Then Never Gets Around To Reading, and I have zero desire to be the next Ernest Hemingway or Ray Carver, I often felt like I was spinning my wheels in class, watching an absurdist farce unfold as professors complained their students weren't working anywhere near hard enough and students contemplated in bewilderment as their professors showed up to class unprepared.

My temper sometimes got the better of me and I would try to voice my frustrations, but mostly I stayed silent and waited for class to finally end so that I could get on with my life. The professor who had told me to leave before I even got in the program? I was their student more than once, and it caused me to panic more than a few times before handing in work. Are they just going to fail me? Am I going to fail because I got into the program anyways? Do they even remember what they said to me?

On a much, much happier note, I took a class taught by Susan Cahill on James Joyce because a friend of mine was taking it. I am honestly not sure I'd ever even heard of James Joyce before I walked into that class. The entire course focused on Ulysses, and the class was such an uplifting, hopeful experience that I then proceeded to take almost every course available to me from the Irish Literature department. The professors teaching those courses were usually excellent professors who actually found what they were teaching engaging and exciting. I also met many great professors who taught out of the history, English, and philosophy departments as well as the Simone de Beauvoir institute.

Those electives and those professors gave me far more valuable feedback on writing, readability, and rhetoric than I got from any of my creative writing workshops.

I also got around to taking a handful of computer science courses as electives, and also took a few Linear Algebra courses. I missed studying math formally, but I had gone as far as I was allowed in Calculus without actually getting into the math program, so I decided to take Linear Algebra courses. The classes were larger than my Arts classes, but there was much less pressure to ace them and the professors didn't put much nearly as much emphasis on final exams as they had my first time around in university.

And, it was often rather comforting to switch from essays back to math.

Looking back, there are two factors that ultimately decided whether or not I could return to get a university degree.

The first is the relatively cheap cost of post-secondary education in Québec, for which I will always be grateful for and sing praise.

The second: my friends and my family. When I started my degree I was barely making enough to cover my monthly rent and had to rely on friends and partners to chip in for groceries and food. That support, often material and often emotional, ensured that I felt brave enough to tackle working part time and going to school. There are too many people to list here and do every person justice. Suffice to say that without people in my corner, I would not have gotten back up the sixth, seventh, eighth time I was knocked down.

In this story of second chances and a hundred tries, it was the people helping me by paying bills or buying groceries, dropping off documentation or essays before deadlines when I was busy at work, staying up all night at the library with me and looking over my writing for typos and francicismes, reading over my portfolios and giving me their thoughts, helping me at work when I couldn't cover all my responsibilities, making me dinner, ordering me dinner, making sure I was eating something, buying me tea, calling me out of the blue, backing me up in class, reading my blog, taking me to the hospital, picking me up from the hospital, making me laugh, giving me the chance to escape, telling me about their days, asking me about my day—All those people encouraging me ended up mattering more than grades and panic attacks.

It was never obvious to me, at any point in my life, that I would ever be able to graduate from university.

I think it was always obvious to my grandfather.

a mio nonno

ti amo e mi mancherai sempre

Gersande La Flèche

Gersande La Flèche

By day I am a writing coach & freelance English-French translator. By night (or rather by dawn because I'm an early bird) I scribble away at poetry, prose, and essays in one of my many notebooks.
MTL // Tiohtià:ke