I began college when I was thirty-two years old. In order to get my feet wet, I took only two courses that first semester, English Composition and Psychology 101. These two courses influenced me so much that I eventually ended up with post graduate degrees in both, a Masters in English Literature and a Masters in Community Mental Health. Yet my very first English class stands out because of an assignment that changed my life.
Dr. Black, his real name, asked us to go home and stare at the mirror. He wanted us to learn something about ourselves and then he wanted us to write down what we learned. So, that night, after dinner and after making sure the children had completed their homework and were sound asleep, I told my husband not to disturb me because I was going to be doing my homework. I closed myself up in our bedroom and stared into the mirror. After about five minutes, I felt like a fool. I thought the assignment was ridiculous and the professor a loser. Boy was I wrong.
I continued to stare first at the exterior me, my brown hair, brown eyes, high cheek bones, long neck, etc., etc., etc. Suddenly, my thoughts and my eyes turned inward. I thought about who I was and what I had or had not accomplished. I thought about my character, personality, my strengths, and my weaknesses. Then, I began to cry. I don’t mean tears flowing down my cheeks, I mean sobbing. I realized that our assignment was very much like Kafka’s introspection while he wrote in his attic. I thought about how and why he felt like a cockroach and how he imagined people thought of him. I understood The Metamorphosis better than I had before, and I learned that unless one looks within, one cannot know oneself.
This was a scary assignment but a necessary one. I earned an A+ on my written introspection. I think because I was the most honest about the lesson. I learned I had much to learn about myself. Through the years, every summer, I take the time to look in the mirror. Thankfully, I don’t look at the exterior any longer because the wrinkles have multiplied and the high cheek bones are gone, but I continue to learn about myself and what I need to develop and what I need to throw away.
These days, I give this assignment to my own students as they begin ENC composition. Many look only at the outside, so I get descriptive essays on what they really saw when they looked in the mirror, but there are those few who come back the next day with such awareness and joy, for they too have learned who they are and who they are not.
Try this assignment and find out who you are.