I believe that we all know who we are and who we want to be from the moment we’re born. For as long as I can remember I loved to write. When I was 13, I came first in my age bracket in a nationwide school literary competition. The kids who were registered for it came from really posh schools, mostly white kids, and I’m not actually sure how I ended up in the mix, but in any case, I put in my story and a few months later got a letter in the Post Office Box – how I miss those days – that I had won in the age group 12 to 15 years and would receive Kshs 5000. At the time, that was a crap load of money. I keep the certificate and every now and then dust it off, to remind myself what could have been, had I applied myself in life just a tad more.
In high school, I would spend my time in class doodling creative love letters to my sweetheart, while the math teacher went full on radical with Pythagoras’ Theorem. Of course I didn’t stand a chance. If a subject didn’t have a literary aspect to it, I struggled. In the Sciences, I was as dumb as bricks.
After high school, what I really wanted to do was to get a degree in Creative Writing but I didn’t have the gumption to look my father in the eye and ask him to finance 4 years of such whimsical education. Really, my parents are so old school. Ask my father and he’ll tell you that Creative Writing is par to a degree in tap dancing. I went on to study International Relations, of which I had absolutely no interest but I still had to grade highly so I could have a chance at a Masters degree doing what I really loved. As soon as I was done with Undergraduate, I started to apply for a Masters degree because I wanted to get working on my writing career as soon as I could. My father and I compromised on Journalism, in the hope that it at least offered gainful employment whereas creative writing was a crapshoot. You can be lucky to get published, or very talented and never discovered. You can also be a one hit wonder, which is never to be confused with the handful of Pulitzer prized writers who for whatever reasons wrote only book but hit it out of the ball park. I’m talking about JD Salinger (Catcher in the Rye), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind) and the like. I didn’t have much confidence in myself really as a person. I was ten times less confident than I am today, and just as neurotic, so probably not a very healthy human being. My boyfriend at the time seemed to see something in me that I couldn’t see in myself and was very encouraging. He was very Dalai Lama in his approach to life, and I always thought he would make a great motivational speaker. “Your belief that you’re not good enough will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.” “Your lack of confidence is only perceived by others because you believe it yourself and offer it out to others.” “Your self-deprecating humor shows a lack of confidence,” and so on and so forth with highly enlightened material.
So here I was, busy applying to mediocre schools that I believed were more my intellectual fit, and here he was, pushing on me applications for universities that were completely and absurdly out of reach. One of the requirements for all the top schools was work experience as a journalist, which automatically threw me off the bus, as I had never written a single article in my life unless I planned on submitting to the admission board the doodles in my high school journal. The other requirement for these schools was very high scores in the standardized test GRE. Unfortunately I was a cripple in math. Everything was just wonky.
The Dalai Lama who by this point had promoted himself to Chief College Admissions Guidance Counselor, tossed out all my applications to my ‘safe’ schools and landed on my table an application to Columbia University, the most respected journalism school in the Western hemisphere – an Ivy League; Northwestern in Chicago, the second best; Boston University, which comes in at a close third, and as my safe school, he picked New York University. Truth is, it was completely ridiculous. Meantime, life moved along. I continued working retail with absolutely no back up plan at all. Then one day an envelope came in the mail from Boston University. I called the Lama, who was at work, and explained that it was a really big envelope, and in flat-toned, matter of fact audio he said, “You’re in.” As it turns out, flat standard-size envelopes are typically rejections. You can expect to find one sad letter that begins with “We regret.” Large, heavy envelopes are acceptances and inside you will find everything you need in order to begin the process of registration. In the next few weeks, I received a very small, thin envelope from Northwestern and to this day have never heard from New York University. Next in line was Columbia. I received a flat envelope and was at least happy that my decision to attend Boston was going to be an easy one. But when I read the letter, it had a different tangent. The Admissions Board had considered me for the first round and wanted me to go to New York City to sit the writing test. My heart was thumping at a rate higher than is definitely advised by any medical board. I was speedy like on a cocaine-high, just twirling and twirling. It was insane.
The day I went to New York to sit for my writing test was also the first time I had ever been to New York but I had such a case of nerves related to my big test that I couldn’t appreciate any of the city’s magnificence. The Lama, in accordance with his role as coach, counsel and manager, wouldn’t hear of it that I would take the bus, train or God forbid drive myself. The idea that I might not get to the school on time, or in full capacity, was too nerve wrecking for him, so he buckled me in the backseat of the car like a toddler and walked me through what we thought the test would be like. I’d been told by a Kenyan who’d been to Columbia the previous year to expect a bunch of multiple answer questions that test general knowledge of the news, and then a second section that is the formal writing test.
The Lama and I worked through every possible news question we could think of with a fine tooth comb; news personalities, foreign leaders, Israel and Palestine, natural disasters and anything in between. When I opened up the test, the very first question read: “Which foreign dictator has been the president of the Republic of Kenya from 1978 to present time?” I looked around the room pretty sure I was in one of those prank, ‘Candid Camera’ TV shows. I was holding my breath, waiting for some idiot in baggy jeans to jump out behind me with a camera shouting “Syke!” It was too bizarre. The rest of the test was hit or miss, with some of the questions being really obscure. “What is the currency of Belarus?” Really?
A few weeks after the big test, I got yet another thin, flat envelope from Columbia. My heart sank and I opened it tearfully. I had put so much hope into this and I hated myself for even thinking that I could accomplish something of such magnitude but once again it was another surprise. The Admission Board had looked at my application and my test scores and were impressed, but had reservations about my lack of work experience. For that reason, I was being wait listed. I decided to get on with my registration to Boston U, because time was running out and school would be soon starting. I wrote out a seat deposit check to the university and put it in an envelope together with other documents that I planned to hand deliver the next day, Monday. I fixed myself a bowl of ice cream and sat down to watch my favorite sitcom, Seinfeld. Then the phone rings and I’m slightly irritated, especially since my show has just picked up momentum now. Elaine has been bit by a dog and is having symptoms like difficulty swallowing that she believes are related to rabis. But the ER doctor is an Indian immigrant and her symptoms are lost in translation. Every time she says “I think I need a shot,” he says, “Not shot, dog bite.” When Elaine looks more and more frantic, she keeps repeating, “No, no, no. I know I’ve not been shot. I’m asking you, ‘do I need a shot?” The Indian doctor repeats, “Not shot, dog bite. Woof woof, not bang bang!” I’m cracking ribs in fits of laughter. As the phone rings longer, I’m now aggravated. “Seriously, who’s calling on a Sunday?” I drag my feet to the phone, pick up and greet with a teenage attitude, eyes rolling all over the place.
Then, a long sigh.
“Yes, hi. Can I talk to Irene please?”
“This is she.”
“Hello Irene! This is the Dean from the J School at Columbia. How would you like to come over to New York and join us this fall?”