When asked the “What is your background and where are you going?” question recently, I realised my answer had shifted.
Usually I begin my story in 2010 within the cubicle maze of corporate American pharma. Walking through silky air-conditioned corridors listening to the metallic whirr of coffee machines and the deep glug of water coolers. Still a chemistry undergrad, I realised I wanted this: the trappings of white-collar life and the stimulation of industrial research projects. I would get a PhD in Organic Chemistry, then angle after an industry position. Watching the company spasm through a site-closure and mass layoffs while I interned there didn’t kill my desire, but I knew I’d have to be careful if I followed this plan. That career narrative followed a sensible path (who wouldn’t want a well-paid, stimulating job?!) and had compelling logic (me needing a PhD for an industrial position was an reasonable statement).
Except this time I answered the question a different way. I shifted my narrative back 5 years. Back to grubby linoleum, the faint tang of lemon disinfectant blending into stale urns of instant coffee sealed behind staffroom doors. Back to the time when I was arguable better-dressed, albeit in a far more flamboyant way. Back to secondary school.
“It was assumed I’d go and study English literature or writing rather than chemistry, because I was so good at it…” I began.
I feel dubious about pitching my origin story back to my secondary school days. This all happened a decade ago. Did my life peak before university?! Haven’t I done anything significant since then? But as already discussed in ‘Terminal Star‘ – secondary school was when my adult identity formed, and I first articulated my values. I was good at all my classes. But people saw how I went about writing.
Bonus material time! The following is my contribution to the December 2006 student magazine. The school had just endured a government audit that sharply criticised its facilities, drawing ire in the local newspapers. In a tone influenced by The Onion, I decided to defend my prized school.
One line of my piece was censored: I originally wrote “lessons are an ‘Open Mike’ session against the teachers.” Which was a reference to an incident involving a teacher named Mike that local newspapers & tabloids feasted on…and I’m still annoyed my line was mangled. Let this be a correction to the record.
I wouldn’t want to put my secondary school writing up for scholarly critique. Plenty of the in-jokes and references won’t make sense to the casual reader. Yet I’m still proud of it. I didn’t agonise over its composition, in fact I recall clacking it out in a one-r and barely revising. I toyed around with which mundane school group to gift a “militant wing” – I went with the Chamber Orchestra as the funniest. If I had to rewrite the article today…I’m not sure I could make many improvements. It’s still recognisable as my “voice”. I comes across as confident in a way I’m never confident in the flesh. It’s clear I relished writing the takedown.
The point is that from 2006 to present my writing often took a back seat or was actively suppressed. But if science was my expertise…writing was my instinct. I don’t believe I was wrong to care about white-collar science, or that my logic had holes in it. I just think that I should listen more closely to what drives me.
In my next post I’ll bring the narrative up to the present day, explaining why Alexander Hamilton has become my historical homeboy.