Live Through This

Appetite for Instruction

I want to know about everything, all the time.

Illustration by Emma D.

Illustration by Emma D.

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. ♦

40 Comments

  • gr-ass February 22nd, 2013 7:21 PM

    this is awesome, thanks for this. and i felt the same way when i was younger learning about the planets and stuff, but i remember being like scared, like feeling so small? y’know
    but thanks for this i really enjoyed it.

  • tasmia February 22nd, 2013 8:01 PM

    Wow, this is me. My “appetite for instruction” is overwhelming sometimes! i feel like I’ll be a perpetual jack-of-all-trades :3

  • Jasmine February 22nd, 2013 8:13 PM

    Fantastic article! x
    When I was a kid, other children used to make fun of me because I just loved to learn so much. Even now (as a sophomore in high school) a lot my friends still don’t really understand how I can love gaining new knowledge so much. I’m so excited to go to college where I’ll be surrounded by people who want to learn new things as well!

    • discofaerie February 26th, 2013 10:43 AM

      Hi Jasmine..
      I feel the exact same way you do. That’s why I am so excited for college… people are alright in high school, but a lot of them don’t understand why I would rather stay at home & read or write on a Friday evening then go out and waste time doing silly teenagerish things(sometimes). I can’t wait for college so I can completely immerse myself in discussing and learning about the things that truly interest me with people who feel the same way I do. You will probably be a wonderful classmate :)

  • Hannah February 22nd, 2013 8:28 PM

    I’m so in love with learning. This article is so relevant to my life, especially today.

  • Abby February 22nd, 2013 8:50 PM

    So this is why I fall into Wikipedia holes at least twice a day.

  • paige.xo February 22nd, 2013 8:53 PM

    this is my problem… im perpetually curious about everything. it makes choosing school subjects so so hard. im never going to be able to choose a major when i get to uni

    • chloegrey February 26th, 2013 2:39 PM

      I feel the same way, I find something interesting in almost every subject so I’LL NEVER BE ABLE TO PICK JUST ONE

  • Miko February 22nd, 2013 9:55 PM

    I could relate to this so much! Learning is awesome<3 This winter I went to Puerto Rico and I visited the indigenous ceremonial park in Caguana, the one of the Tainos, and I know exactly the feeling about having a special connection with the land there, it was such a spiritual and enriching experience that words can't really describe the magic! Thanks for the great article, an appetite for instruction is a hunger that should never be satisfied:)

  • flapperhatgirl February 22nd, 2013 9:56 PM

    Wow. Just… Wow. I think this is maybe one of my favourite rookie posts, ever. It reminds me of when I was nine or ten, and I’d sit in front of the computer for hours and read the World Book encyclopaedia. Other kids would come over, and I’d be like, “let’s read the encyclopaedia!”

    Also, the futurist art movement is really interesting. My dad’s an artist, and he’s actually been doing some pieces in the style of the futurists lately. The art is really cool – apart from the loving war, hating wemen part. Cringe.

    http://thepseudo-intellectual.blogspot.com/?m=1

    • chloegrey February 26th, 2013 2:42 PM

      haha I did this too :) I had a giant encyclopedia of world mythology and when my friends were supposed to come over I would sit by the door and put my grandmother’s old glasses on and be like ‘oh I was just casually re-reading this wanna read with me’ when they came in. Ooh I was such a conniving seven-year-old wow.

  • Maddy February 22nd, 2013 10:14 PM

    I would love to be a computer science/creative writing major because I’m very passionate about (and, frankly, good at) both. I really, really like information and knowledge. This has manifested in me being on my school’s quiz team that recently went on tv! It airs next month. Two more things:
    1. I sometimes wish I could not learn things I’m not interested in (US history) and just focus on my sporadic interests.
    2. Right now I love blue whales, Asian elephants, and watching dissections online. The Brain Scoop is the BEST but also Inside Nature’s Giants.

  • rhymeswithorange February 22nd, 2013 10:18 PM

    Yay I love learning too!! I can’t wait to go to college this year

  • kathryn-s February 22nd, 2013 10:22 PM

    So great and paired with a perfect illustration!

    Last month I got super obsessed with watching science documentaries on Netflix Instant. Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking is so good!! There are three episodes and they’re about time travel, aliens, and black holes! Awesome!

  • mariaantoniavs February 22nd, 2013 10:41 PM

    The first thing that came to my mind when i saw the title was guns n’ roses

  • Ladymia69 February 22nd, 2013 10:52 PM

    A thirst for knowledge is the best accessory!

  • ivoire February 23rd, 2013 12:05 AM

    I think I have a problem with loving everything, yet loving it so little. I’m not too sure how to put it but I feel like I really need to be deeply passionate about a single thing instead of spreading it all out on everything.

    • raftingstarlit February 23rd, 2013 5:08 AM

      I feel the same way! I wish I could be really into one thing instead of loving everything, because I end up knowing about bunch of stuff, but not very deeply. My main problem is choosing a career, because I wish I could be a chemist, writer, astronout, designer, musician at the same time.

      • ivoire February 23rd, 2013 6:20 AM

        yep, that’s exactly it!

        • chloegrey February 26th, 2013 2:43 PM

          I feel this way too yall :) I think I’m gonna do interdisciplinary studies in college next year cause I’m interested in combining all my different interests if that makes any sense…

  • Narnia February 23rd, 2013 1:33 AM

    You ARE me! I’ve wanted to be an archaeologist since I was 7 and I would never read fiction books in elementary school. By the time I was in 4th grade I’d read all of the biographies at our school. And everytime I’d find a new Eyewitness book it would like eating a delicious piece of (white) chocolate. i read all of those kids encyclopedias front to back. When I was little I would only watch the History and Discovery channel. And then in middle school I was obsessed with obscure facts, his torical/paranormal mysteries, and serial killers. Now that I want to be a writer Im obsessed with post-modernism, Nouvelle Vague film, ye-ye music, Andy Warhol, stylized film, and avante garde cinema/music/art. But, now I like learning more because its interesting, than to be “smarter” than others, so its more enjoyable.

  • MichelleCarneece February 23rd, 2013 3:23 AM

    Ugh, this is wonderful. My biggest disappointment is that I reatain everything I absorb. C.S. Lewis once said that he was burdened for being unable to forget anything he read. Color me majorly jealous.
    Anyway, not to be Winifred Whiner over here, but I always feel the need to chime in about the “college as a learning sanctuary” sentiment, because this was DEFINITELY not true for me or most of my friends. I’m not trying to be contentious, and I’m SO glad that college actually fulfilled the best-years-of-your-life dream for you, Laia, but after doing a lot of uni-hopping and investigating with fellow students, I think too many colleges fail to provide an environment that promotes true learning. I was told that college enabled you to pick what you wanted to learn to essentially your own path to enlightenment. Unfortunately, most semesters were bogged down with gen eds (high school 2.0/a quick cash-grab for the school) and requirements for my major that rarely offered much depth beyond what I could research in my spare time. And I tried THREE separate, respected colleges. For me, college wasn’t an oasis of learning or a means to mastering a subject; it was a childish ritual of regurgitating trivia, sucking up to teachers, and not being allowed to finish projects at a faster pace. I felt guilty for a long time before eventually dropping out because college, as a system, chronically devalues the intellect of those without degrees. I ADORE learning – that’s why I quit. I don’t mean to sound fanatical; I just want to encourage other Rooks who might have similar doubts!

    • MichelleCarneece February 23rd, 2013 3:25 AM

      Whoops – I CAN’T retain everything I absorb. I knew a typo would slink in there somehow. Serves me right for writing this at three in the morning. :)

  • sissiLOL February 23rd, 2013 3:29 AM

    Thank you for the wise woards!

  • Hazel February 23rd, 2013 4:07 AM

    This article is perfect because I’m I have a word document open with my almost-finished essay about Dadaism for my graphic design history class.

    • chloegrey February 26th, 2013 2:45 PM

      woah I wanna take a graphic design history class! that sounds fantastic

  • ♡ reba ♡ February 23rd, 2013 5:50 AM

    YES!! best article ever xxxxx

  • Simone H. February 23rd, 2013 6:25 AM

    Oh God, that’s just me !
    Archeology, history, art, outer space, knowing about EVERYTHIIING !
    I also take pride in being a know-it-all, because knowledge is power, man. Also, my mom just told me (right this second) “people who are curious are intersting people”. And my friends are always surprised about what I know and how, but just… Internet ! TV ! Books ! Magazines ! Rookie !
    Awesome article !

    PS : WE’RE ALL RAVENCLAWS.

  • jenaimarley February 23rd, 2013 9:25 AM

    This is so wonderful.
    When people ask me what I plan to study in college / do later in life, I have to tell them it’s complicated because I am so lucky and happy to know exactly what I am totally devoted and obsessed with but that it is kind of everything too: the intersections between Feminism and art and music and environmental justice. But I also love that my little sister is totally obsessed with everything astrophysics and I hope she gets to be totally awesome and work with Neil and nvite me to dinner at his house or something because ahhh just because I don’t really like studying mechanics, black holes and the the raisin-bread universe theory rock my world.

  • Isabelle97 February 23rd, 2013 9:56 AM

    Yup thats pretty much me :) Lets get some Ravenclaw pride up in here!

  • AnaRuiz February 23rd, 2013 12:04 PM

    Articles like this are the reason I love Rookie. It would be so amazing if everyone thought like this.

    Anaruizwriting.blogspot.com

  • Lorf96 February 23rd, 2013 3:07 PM

    I feel this way about all my subjects I’ve chosen for school! I’m always trying to expand my knowledge about them! Ravenclaws unite!:Dx

  • carogenous February 24th, 2013 1:18 PM

    as an undergrad archaeology student, I love you and I still worry about everything being discovered until I see cool articles like this woman who is a hairdresser by day and archaeologist by night recreating ancient greco-roman hair-do’s in her basement that for so long were just assumed to be wigs!! omg so cool

    I’ve also wanted to submit an essay to rookie for so long about Mary Leakey being the best woman ever but I never form coherent enough sentences about her

  • lubs February 25th, 2013 2:32 PM

    Also, XUXA! Oh my gaaaaawd!

  • shalalala February 25th, 2013 6:37 PM

    OMG XUXA!!!

  • discofaerie February 26th, 2013 11:09 AM

    A thirst for knowledge could NEVER be a bad thing.
    I remember avidly reading this big red science encyclopedia my family had soon after I learned to read, sprawled on the couch, hour after hour after hour.. every day. It was just so lovely sitting there all by myself and learning about all the different, wonderful scientific things and faraway places this world had to offer.
    Then one day it fell behind my bookshelf and I cried and cried and tried to fetch it out.. but it wouldn’t budge. I never told my parents for some reason and when I got it back a few years later, I cried again. That book will proably always be a part of me and I feel like it’s the same way with our thirst for knowledge.. which most people experience at some point or another.. we may lose it at some point but it’s up to us whether we decide to rediscover and retain it.. but it’s always worth it to rediscover it. Let us all learn on, rookies! Beautiful article, and I LEARNED SO MUCH! <3

  • chloegrey February 26th, 2013 2:48 PM

    I just scrolled down wantonly replying to everyoneee but YES YOU GUYS ARE THE BEST
    This article just describes so much of my experience and it really resonates with me.

  • Lu February 28th, 2013 6:07 PM

    OMG I have just found my soulmate thank you Laia <3

  • Viki GG March 7th, 2013 5:00 AM

    Thank you Laia. I wish I had read this 6 years ago, when I made the bold mistake of chosing LAW in university… It was a practical choice but I soon realize that I utterly loathe law. 5 years of my life wasted learning dull and static stuff.
    As a child I also wanted to be astrophysicist, or archeologist, or paleonthologist, or whatever -ist. I really regret having studied Law and nowadays I feel truly miserable. I agree with you and recommend anyone to STUDY OR DO WHAT YOU REALLY ENJOY, AND NOT TO DO OR STUDY SOMETHING ELSE. Don´t be as stupid as me, ok?

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 11th, 2013 1:54 PM

    I LOVE this article. I never want to stop learning about things that I love.