“Thank you,” I said. “I came back to this place to find something, to connect with something lost, to reunite if not with my whole self, then with a piece of it. What I’ve discovered is that this thing is not here. In fact, it is nowhere. I have learned that my name is not my name. It seems you all know me and nothing could be further from the truth and yet you know me better than I know myself, perhaps better than I can know myself. My mother is buried not far from this auditorium, and there are no words on her headstone. As I glance out now, as I feel the weight of this trophy in my hands, as I stand like a specimen before these strangely unstrange faces, I know finally what should be written on that stone. It should say what mine will say: I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.” –Percival Everett
Four months ago, when I first read this epigraph in our course syllabus, my notions about this class, English in college, and college in general were admittedly foggy. I didn’t know who Percival Everett was. I didn’t know where the passage was quoted from. I didn’t know how relatable the epigraph would prove to be when reflecting upon it again in December.
I now know that the passage comes from the closing lines of Percival Everett’s novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier–a story that comments on identity and the ways in which it can transform based upon one’s experiences. It is Not Sidney Poitier who proclaims, “I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY” after living (and sometimes dreaming) through a sequence of events that famous movie star Sidney Poiter originally acted out in his films. At the end of the novel, Not Sidney quite literally witnesses the death of his former self, and assumes the identity of Sidney Poitier instead: “I thought that if that body in the chest was Not Sidney Poitier, then I was not Not Sidney Poitier and that by all I knew of logic and double negatives, I was therefore Sidney Poitier. I was Sidney Poitier” (Everett 212).
A similar identity crisis is seen in the character of Vlepo in Everett’s Frenzy. Throughout the story, Vlepo struggles to comprehend what he is. He describes, for example, an instance where he has the opportunity to look inside himself, and what he sees indexes a total incomprehension of his own identity: “there in the deepness of me I saw nothing, felt nothing” (Everett 49-50). At the same time, Vlepo has lived a thousand lives from a thousand different perspectives. Throughout the novel he occupies the headspaces of humans, animals, plants, gods, and objects. Because of this, he has great difficulty determining which experiences are his own. This is similar to Not Sidney living through Sidney Poitier’s life experiences, except times a million. In the end, there is no finality in his transformation like there is with Not Sidney. That being said, however, Vlepo certainly changes. The many lives he has inhabited repeatedly alter his views and how he interprets life.
Looking back at both of these stories, I was reminded of one of my favorite class discussions in which we talked about the ship of Theseus and the philosophical debate surrounding it. In the Greek legend of the ship, Theseus’ crew slowly replaces the old parts of the vessel with new ones throughout a long voyage. Eventually, all the original parts of the ship are gone. The philosophical question (as I address in this blog post) is whether or not the ship at the end of the voyage is the same ship from the beginning. With entirely new parts, can it still be the ship it was at the start? Not Sidney’s storyline would argue that the ship is a new one at the end, if we are to substitute the ship’s parts with experiences. As Not Sidney accumulates the experiences of Sidney Poitier, they slowly overshadow his own experiences to the point where he becomes someone else entirely. At the end, he’s not himself.
When we first learned about the possibility of the ship becoming a new one altogether and the changes in identity that Not Sidney and Vlepo experience, I thought of these stories as tragedies. I have always been somewhat averse to change, especially when it is me that has to do the changing. In my first few weeks at Geneseo and in English 203, all I wanted was for things to go back to the way they were in high school, where I felt set in my identity; I didn’t want to have to change the way I had always done things. In the end, though, I’ve decided to embrace the kind of “ship-effect” this class, and college in general, have had on me and allow myself to become someone else. I’m not my August self today, but that’s okay. Rather than viewing this as a tragedy, I now see it as a triumph. This Ashley, the one writing this, is a different ship than she was at the start. The many learning experiences I had in English 203 are the new parts that replaced the old ones to make a stronger, better vessel.
One such experience that comes to mind is our very first class meeting. We were discussing the epigraph about the “suspicious pants.” I remember talking with my group, admittedly acting a little cocky because I’d always excelled in high school English. After our discussion, Professor McCoy asked if anyone wanted to share. My hand shot up, and trying to sound smart, I answered something along the lines of “I find it very interesting that we as humans try to assign human characteristics to inanimate objects.” I remember feeling pretty smug about my answer. This is how I’d made it through most of my high school English classes: think about the question for a little bit, formulate some semi-intelligent sounding response, throw up your hand, and earn a smile and a nod from the teacher just like that.
This time was different though. Professor McCoy pointed out that I should be more careful with my wording. Just because I tend to assign human characteristics to inanimate objects doesn’t mean that we as humans do too. I was taken aback by this and definitely a little angry; I had given what I viewed was a smart answer, so what should wording matter? If there is anything that this class has taught me, it’s that wording does matter, especially when you’re trying to make a point. I was making broad generalizations in an attempt to show off, and in the process I made my argument vulnerable. At the end of the semester I’ve realized that I am not the same person who said things just to sound smart; this class has taught me that there is little worth in that. It is far more important to take your time and formulate a well-crafted response than it is to sound “cool” for a fleeting moment. In my blog posts and in everyday conversations I now make a conscious effort to pay attention to what I’m really saying.
In a similar vein, this class has also encouraged me to “unpack” everything. In the beginning of the semester, I can think of a few instances where Professor McCoy would ask a question and I would just shake my head “yes” or “no.” Over the course of the last four months, I realized that doing that is never a sufficient response. While I think I did a pretty good job unpacking in my writing, I noticed that I struggled doing so in our class discussions. This was most evident during our group blog post activity when I would try to explain certain ideas to my group members only to be met with confused expressions because of my poor verbal communication skills. As a result, some of my ideas ended up being left out. Since then, though, I think I have definitely improved on this front. I am not the same student who tripped over her explanations and punctuated it with a “y’know what I mean?” only to be met with blank stares. I take time to actually think about what I’m trying to say instead of just spitting out whatever’s in my head. I realized that I need to slow down sometimes and make sure I understand before I try to get other people to understand.
In my first blog post, I wrote about how the “NOT MYSELF TODAY” epigraph inspired me to try and find my identity as a writer in this class. I feel like this happened, but I think more importantly, I transformed my identity as a communicator. I’m able to express myself clearly and understandably in a way that I could not before. English 203 has not just helped me become better prepared for the rest of my English classes. Rather, it has helped me articulate my ideas and explain my thinking in such a way that will be helpful across all fields for the rest of my life. I’m “NOT MYSELF TODAY” after these weeks in English 203, and I’m happy about that. This class has taught me that identity is transformative, and with the right experiences and practice, it can change for the better.