That thing you do
Two years ago, I enrolled in VAStu 330R – bookbinding. As an alumnus, I would be paying graduate level tuition. As a full-time employee, I would be working late hours on other days to allow myself the time to leave work early and get to class. And I was only allowed to take the class in the first place because it was an evening class. But I was still very excited, as I’d wanted to take this class for years.
The thing I had forgotten, in all of this, was that I would be surrounded by artsy, creative people. The last time I had taken a visual arts class, it had been VAStu 103 – Intro to Drawing. The class was fun, in a ghastly kind of way. I liked the teacher fine and my classmates fine, but I was the absolute worst artist in the class, and everyone knew it.
I forget that it’s not possible to “figure out” how to be creative and talented. (It’s like I told my brother once – I can’t just be random. I can sit down and create an algorithm to approximate randomness. I can even sit down and create a really good algorithm to approximate randomness. But I can’t just sit down and be random.) I forget that really, really wanting to be creative and talented . . . will not make me more creative and talented in the ways in which I am not. I also forget that anyone who takes a physics class (or ten) for fun may not be a natural artist.
Anyway, I had only been in the bookbinding class for a few weeks when I noticed that I was, once again, surrounded by insanely talented and creative people. This time it was a little better than in the drawing class. Bookbinding is as much craft as art, and I did fairly well with the basic tactile skills required in physically assembling a book. Even though my first book was a little drab looking, the rest of my books held their own against everyone else’s. I wasn’t as uncomfortable as I had been in the drawing class, even though many of my classmates were preparing their BFA showcases that semester.
Our class time was divided between brief lectures/demonstrations and work time, during which we could work on our books with our instructor present, in case we had questions or problems. One afternoon, late in the semester, a few of us were quietly working on projects when I caught saw one of my old Russian professors in the hallway. I went out to say “hi,” and to ask what she was doing in the building. We started talking, she came in to the classroom, and we had the following conversation (in Russian):
Natalia Ivanovna: K------, right?
Me: Yes, but I am also Katya.
N. I.: What are you doing?
Me: I . . . do books. [I had no idea how to say “bookbinding” in Russian. Still don’t.]
N. I.: Are you studying art? I thought you were studying linguistics.
Me: I study linguistics. But I also study art a little. For fun.
N. I.: How did you make this book?
Me: I make this book . . . I make . . . How is it in Russian “to sew”?
N. I.: Шить.
Me: I sew this book. Or I make it with this. [holding up glue]
The conversation continued along these lines, with her asking me questions about the books I was working on, some other projects I had at hand, and how I was doing, generally. You’ll notice that my responses are somewhat stilted and awkward. That’s my attempt at translating my Russian responses, which were also stilted and awkward. (Especially after not studying Russian for two years.)
Eventually she left, I went back to my signature sewing, and the classroom was quiet, again. After maybe half a minute, my teacher asks, quietly: “What language was that?”
“Oh, that was Russian,” I reply.
“How do you know Russian?”
“I took it for a couple of years. It fulfilled requirements for the linguistics major.”
Another student: “It sounds like you speak it really well.”
Me: “Oh, I speak it OK. I’m out of practice.”
[Permit me a brief interlude. It always kills me when people tell me I speak a language well that they don’t speak at all. I want to say “How do you know? You don’t even know what I’m saying! I could be butchering the language! Murdering it.”
Oh, I know what they mean. They mean that I’m saying lots of words together and I’m not pausing very much and I’m not throwing English words in and the sounds I’m using all sound foreign. Well, guess what? I’m pretty good about sticking to foreign phonological inventories, and I use the grammatical structures I know confidently. I don’t speak that well, I just plan out what I’m going to say so that I only have to use the words and structures that I already know. Silly people.]
Back in the bookbinding room, another student is mumbling about how they just know a little Spanish. There are murmurs of agreement.
In the halls of the JKHB, Russian does not turn heads. Very few languages do, in fact. Welsh does, but only because people can’t identify it right away. (Melyngoch and I once had a panicked student demand to know what language we were speaking as we practiced our Welsh dialogue in the hallway before class. We replied that it was Welsh. Sounding very relieved, she said: “Oh, I thought it was German, but I speak a little German and I couldn’t understand anything!”) And in the linguistics department, speaking something like Russian or Welsh is rather taken for granted. (We’re linguistics majors. We all taught ourselves Basque over the summer.)
I was not prepared for the quiet awe that met my little Russian conversation. Maybe we all underestimate the things that come easily to us.