English

Monique Gaskins

 

 Why I Became an English Major

“Say! I like green eggs and ham! I do! I like them, Sam-I-am! And I would eat them in a boat. And I would eat them with a goat… and I will eat them in the rain. And in the dark. And on a train. And in a car and in a tree. They are so good, so good, you see… I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!”

I’m pretty certain that this book is where it all started. My parents would read my older brother, Michael, and I to bed every night and Dr. Seuss was always a favorite. After the daily bath, my father would start the stories. Michael would sit, soaking in every word. Two-and-a-half-year-old Monique, on the other hand, ran around in circles, jumped up and down on the bed, and often knocked the book out of my father’s hand, vying for his undivided attention. My parents were sure I wasn’t listening until one day I asked to read the story for the night. My parents looked at each other and, being the polite people they are, handed me the book even though they were sure I couldn’t read. “I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!” I finished, sure of myself, and looked up from the book. My parents couldn’t help but laugh. I had tricked them all.

My parents began buying me all sorts of books. I was nocturnal since birth but books seemed to settle me down. “You have to be in your room by 7:30, but no one can force you to sleep,” my mom always assured me. I’d stay up till three or four in the morning soaring through worlds of poetry and imagination. I even began reading my brother to bed every night with any Mark Twain adventures. It was like the disease that had no cure. I’d read everything we passed on the way to school; I’d read anything they gave us in class; and then I’d read to fall asleep.

The reading led to the writing. By five, I was keeping a diary. Music and books—these were the only things I knew. I became the girl who loved fairytales. I was truly a sucker for a happy ending. I read all the love stories you could think of. Every week, I was in the teen section at Barnes & Noble reading a new story on love. My brother teased me often about my book choices. “Based on this collection of yours, you know a lot about love and a lot about the Holocaust.” He was right. I loved first person accounts of stories especially if the story involved love. Cynical and skeptical of love in real life, I found all the love I wanted to find in books.

My first year of high school was rocky. I felt alienated, foreign to the people around me. I had only one really close friend but I didn’t mind because I still had all the imaginary friends I made through books. That’s when I met the two characters that would stay with me the rest of my life: Scout and Elie. Scout was the portrait of younger me. She spoke like I thought. She interacted with her brother the way I did. I knew from the first moment I met her that it was true love. I knew I wanted to write like that.

Elie touched me in a very different way. He suffered more than I’ll ever suffer in my life probably, but he spoke emotions I felt that I didn’t know how to explain. It was ironic, he was going through death camps at fifteen while I was reading stories of death camps at 15 from the comfort of my own very privileged home but we felt each other. He struggled emotionally with the things I struggled with. He made the feeling of alienation just whither away when I read him. He was cynical but he always had hope. It just really touched me. It does now. I wanted to do what he did. I wanted to write what I felt and what I experienced—traumatic or not—because I could see the impact that his life had on mine. I wanted someone who lived worlds away to read my words, and remember there’s still hope.

My diaries turned into books of poetry; written words of every emotion I felt and I felt everything. I loved every book any teacher assigned me. The main issue I would have was finishing books the night we got them. I am a nerd by nature, but English wasn’t something I had to stress out about understanding. English made sense to me and eventually, English became my way of helping me make sense of me. 

By my sophomore year, everyone began asking what I planned to study in college. I’d like to have a talk with the person who decided that at fifteen you need to know what you’re going to do with your life and who you want to be. I never could fully answer the question. Most people expected me to be a doctor because both of my parents are physicians. I did well in my sciences, so I thought that’s what I would do. I ran the idea by my brother and he seemed disappointed. He said to me, “Moni, you can be anything you want to be. You’re smart enough. So do what you want! It’s your life.” “What did I want though?” That was the real question.

A few days later, an English teacher of mine put up a sign that said, “What to do as an English major.” The sign was filled with jobs I didn’t even realize existed: Editing, Publishing, Public Relations. What were these things, and why hadn’t I heard of them before? I’m not sure when the switch came exactly, but when people asked me what I wanted to study in college, I just started saying, “English.”

I came to a point where any and all reading was a breath of fresh air to me. Whether assigned or not, I just loved books. I loved the way the paper felt. I loved the smell that floated in the air as I flipped through a new book. I loved being so sucked into a story, the sun came up and I’d hardly notice. Most of all, I loved meeting a character that said everything I couldn’t, and felt everything I felt. There was some kind of magic in reading. There was so much power in words. I’d known it for years. I wanted to know how to manipulate those things. I wanted to be a person who was well read; someone who could enjoy The Brothers Karamazov as much as Eat, Pray, Love.  

So I did it. I stopped pretending I wanted to be a lawyer and I stopped feeding into the idea that I had any intention to be my mother. I just wanted to write. I only knew how to write. I knew I wanted to build my life around it. Every time I got scared I was making a bad decision—every time I heard someone ask me, “What can you do with a major like that?”—I just heard my brothers’ voice in the back of my head, “Moni, you can be anything you want to be.”  And I intend to.