When I was two or three years old and my mom was finishing her chemistry degree, sometimes she couldn’t find a babysitter so she’d bring me to class with her, and when she’d have her classmates over to our house for study group, I would sit at the living room table with them, repeating all the strange chemistry words that had absolutely no meaning to me and pretending that I too was getting ready for a test.
This is not going to be a story about how I became a chemistry expert or anything, because that was basically the last time I ever cared about the subject and even as a kid the most remarkable thing about my time spent in class with my mom was that I named my favorite stuffed dog “Lamba,” after one of her professors. What I’m getting at is that I have always loved learning and books and all that “smart stuff.” I want to know about everything, all the time. I want to reclaim miss-know-it-all as a positive thing, ’cause in real life, ignorance isn’t bliss.
One day when I was about five a set of Disney’s Wonderful World of Knowledge Encyclopaedia books showed up at our house, a present from my scientist mom. It was pretty much what it sounds like: 24 individual volumes that covered pretty much everything in the world: dinosaurs, continents, gems, the human body, outer space, children of the world, etc. I could get lost in those books for hours, transfixed by photographs that showed me places and things completely different from the ones I knew. As an only child, I was in charge of making my own fun, and one of my favorite activities was to gather a pile of snacks, put a cassette of Xuxa or Chayanne on my little stereo, and read the whole set, from the first volume to the last, an activity that generally lasted a whole day.
When I started going to school myself, science quickly became my favorite class. Do you remember those first few years of elementary school science, when you learned so many magnificent things that your mind was just continually blown, especially when you got to the astronomy chapter and you learned about the solar system and for the first time you saw yourself as being part of a bigger scene, as a tiny person on a giant Earth that’s still just a tiny planet in the solar system that is part of a galaxy that is part of the universe and it’s just so magnificent? For an early birthday (I think it was my fifth?) my mom’s best friends gave me an astronomy book that was way too advanced for me (it probably still is), but all I had to do was to look at the pictures and, once I learned to read, read the captions to know that this was something absolutely fantastic.
In hindsight it’s possible that this book was actually meant for my mom and that I just…took it.
Anyways, the point is that to this day Outer Space/The Universe/The Outer Limits are my favorite thing ever (proof). I think I regret not pursuing this passion more, I mean maybe I could be an astrophysicist by now! Palling around with Neil deGrasse Tyson and just being awesome all the time.
It’s OK, though—when you love learning about EVERYTHING, it’s not like you can dedicate your entire life to it all. Not understanding this principle in the first grade, when I first learned about the Maya, the Aztecs, and the Incas, I decided that I wanted to be an archaeologist. That obsession lasted until I figured out that everything had already been discovered, so there’d be nothing left for me to get to do. (I was wrong, obvs, but I was also like four, so cut me some slack.) Then history became my favorite class, and I was obsessed with the history of the Taínos, the people who lived in Puerto Rico before Christopher Columbus made his appearance. I wanted to know absolutely everything about them. I had a book with all their hieroglyphs and their meanings, and I swear for a while I had them all memorized. I tried to find a way to make all my school projects and assignments somehow relate to the Taínos, and I usually succeeded. I was lucky enough to live on an island where you could still visit some of their ruins and look at their etchings and their ceremonial parks. Being face to face with all these things I had read about made me feel like I had a special connection with the people who once lived in this place. Actually, I imagined that I had lived there in a past life and that this life was me coming back home. I was a weird child, I guess.
By the time I got to high school, I was making most of my mind-blowing discoveries outside of the classroom. You know, the kind that begin with that new favorite band that you can’t stop reading about and then you start listening to the bands that they say they listen to and read the books they recommend, watch the movies they love, look at the art that inspires them and it keeps on going forever in a chain and maybe your mom gets a little peeved that you can spend so much time dissecting Hole lyrics and not enough time on your geometry homework, BUT, you know, THIS IS IMPORTANT.
(Of course just because what you’re most passionate about doesn’t live inside the classroom doesn’t mean that you are too cool for school and can’t take pride in your work, like when you start learning European history and everyone is just killing and marrying one another all the time but you still manage to remember everyone’s names and years and maybe score a perfect 100 on your history test about the French Revolution, an achievement that you will think worth mentioning 15 years after the fact when you write an essay about how much you love learning for an online publication you just happen to write for.)
What I’m saying is that for me, high school was mostly about self-discovery, which caused some slight friction with “the adults” but was just as important if not more so than learning about the Horsehead Nebula. But then came college, which turned me all around again. If you decide to go to college, presumably you’ll be studying something that really interests you (I want to make a case right here that you should study something that really interests you, not something that your parents think is “practical,” because you will not remember anything from your classes about stuff you don’t care about, while learning about ANYTHING is actually practical because you’re giving yourself a new perspective from which to see EVERYTHING else, so you might as well pick something that you love.) And then…and THEN be prepared to spend the funnest years of your life doing nothing but feeding your brain the things it desires the most.
The second semester of my freshman year I took an ancient-art history class that was pretty much paradise. An ancient-art history class is basically a regular ancient-history course, except you learn everything through pictures and mosaics instead of words, and it’s a lot easier to get lost imagining the way people lived forever ago when you are studying the things they drew, like the Paleolithic drawings in the caves of Altamira, which feature animals and even outlines of human hands made by people between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago (wrap your head around THAT for a second), or by studying their likeness, like the Empress Theodora, who lived in the early 500s and whose mosaic in the Basilica of St. Vitale is one of my favorite things ever. She is so regal and powerful; that mosaic never fails to make me feel the same way learning about the Aztecs and Mayans did when I was little.
When the ancient-art history class was done I signed right up for the modern-art history class, which was taught by a young professor–with, I suspect, feminist leanings—who introduced me to the work of Cindy Sherman and Laurie Anderson. In my Intro to Graphic Design course I was assigned a project on Dada and Futurism and that was the end of that. The Dadaists lived the kind of life that I wanted to live, dedicating themselves to destroying the art establishment, creating new languages in pretty much every medium and visually inspiring me more than anything else. (Plus, I developed a huge crush on Tristan Tzara, one of Dada’s founders. I now have his portrait tattooed on my arm, so you know, I felt a REAL connection.) The Futurists were kinda fucked up in that they loved war and were fascists BUT they were also obsessed with the future, machines, and movement, which influenced their poetry and painting in very cool ways. In a design history class I learned about Bauhaus, an artistic movement in Germany whose a minimalist and modernist point of view is responsible for the cool coffee pots and chairs and buildings we see today, and once again everything in my brain changed. I loved going to my school library and getting lost in reading about all these people, all these movements, all their visions. Any time I was allowed to pick the topic of an essay, for any class, I would write about one of these three movements. When you add to all this awesome magic the fact that all of my friends were also into the same things and we were constantly bringing one another different books and movies and pictures and stuff as inspiration, you can see why college = heaven to me. There is nothing like being allowed to devote yourself SOLELY to the things that interest you, and be rewarded for it. (Please enjoy this freedom if you have it; most people don’t, and this is the last time in your life that it will pay off to be this selfish with your time.)
I am not in school anymore. but thanks to the magic of the internet, I am never at a loss for things to be obsessed with, and things that continually blow my mind: cool people posting about feminist theory and feminist art on Tumblr, with things that happened in the past, with things that are continually happening, and with people now that will show me the way to even more things that are new and rare and important. And that’s why I love learning about everything around me and not around me. It encourages me to connect with different lives and different worlds and sometimes in the process it unlocks new places inside me. There is nothing cooler than seeing the little cranks and wheels in your brain start to turn and open up some part of you that had never before been accessible.
Long live the nerds and the know-it-alls, never give up your appetite for instruction. ♦