Reflecting on the Semester- Olivia Ells

“It’s incredible that a sentence is ever understood. Mere sounds strung together by some agent attempting to mean something, but the meaning need not and does not confine itself to that intention.”–Percival Everett, Erasure. Over the course of this last semester I’ve had the pleasure of taking this course and expanding my knowledge of English and how there is so much that goes into writing and even more that goes into understanding the writing. I found myself being able to understand a lot throughout the course but also found myself stuck and confused a majority of the time as well. Not only within the course content but within the course itself. Coming from an education history where I took a course, followed an assignment outline, turned in the assignment and got a grade. The given assignment outline was one of the strictest things I encountered throughout my highschool experience, every rule or expectation was written down for us to follow; from where the heading needed to be to, what font and size font was expected, from what quotes we needed to include. Even how we worded different transitions within our writing. We were given zero creative freedom. Maybe in a way it was easier for our teachers if every paper they read was the same? easier to grade? We never really knew. All we did know was that all of the papers my classmates and I wrote were practically identical to each other. And our creative brains were practically destroyed. But that was what was expected from our teachers. We were applauded for following a standard of rules, for being just like our peers. 

So my first day of this English class was definitely a surprise, having it be a very creative thinking course was definitely a struggle for me for the majority of the semester. Opening up my creative brain again and being able to have creative freedom when it comes to my writing was very exciting but also very nerve wracking. I continued to have anxiety about whether I was doing assignments correctly because Professor McCoy allowed us to write based on our interpretations, but I was also afraid of being wrong. When in reality none of our different interpretations of our readings or the different things we did in class was wrong. It was a big shock that how I used to be taught in highschool was not how this course was going to run. Hearing from Professor McCoy that this would be a self graded course gave me a rush of different feelings, from eagerness, fear, anxiety and even joy. I didn’t know how to do such a thing, it was not in my nature to be able to grade my own work and ability, it was unfamiliar territory and I wasn’t sure how it would go. It was quickly learned that I didn’t have much to worry about as long as I did the readings and taught myself how to really slow down and unpack my different thoughts. The first day of class was a very interesting one, coming in with the impression it would be an essay heavy class but it has been the complete opposite. The first week of class, we looked at a specific epigraph titled “Suspicious Pants”, I think I can speak for the whole class when I say, we were all very puzzled and confused on why we were trying to figure out the meaning behind a random tweet of a pair of pants. As our class groups began talking and unpacking our differing opinions on the epigraph we determined it had a deeper meaning. That meaning being that we all interpret stuff differently. This especially happens in that scenario when a caption is connected to the picture, it makes you see things you might have not necessarily seen without the caption attached. Being able to talk with my group and explain my different thoughts towards this specific epigraph helped a lot with stating the basis of this course. 

Throughout the semester we did a heavy amount of group discussions and collaborations. They really allowed me to unpack my thoughts, slow down my thinking and really explain my thoughts with my classmates about different course topics and pieces of literature written by Percival Everett. Such as “I am not Sidney Poitier”, “re; f (gesture)”, And “The Bacchae.” Learning about Percival Everett was different from anything I have ever done as a student, in college. The complexity of his writing and the meanings behind it made it extremely difficult to understand most of the time. This is where I tie in how the epigraph I chose, “It’s incredible that a sentence is ever understood. Mere sounds strung together by some agent attempting to mean something, but the meaning need not and does not confine itself to that intention.” -Percival Everett, Erasure.”, and how it connects to what we have discussed in class this semester, regarding different pieces of literature. Percival Everett is a great writer and how he shows his thoughts through his writing. He is an even more complex writer, leaving many of his readers stumped or confused about his intentions behind a piece of writing or the meaning behind what he intended for his reader to get out of it. One example I have of this was in the “I am not Sidney Poitier ”, When we find out that the main character’s name is “Not Sidney ”, and he wasn’t saying that his name wasn’t Sidney. Beginning the book, the majority of us were confused at this, we were not sure if it was a double negative or if he was trying to avoid being called Sidney Poitier by those around him because he looked like him, and he wanted to be his own person, but his name is actually “Not Sidney”. This is the best example of how I can tie both “I am not Sidney Poitier ” and the epigraph “It’s incredible that a sentence is ever understood. Mere sounds strung together by some agent attempting to mean something, but the meaning need not and does not confine itself to that intention.” -Percival Everett, Erasure.”. 

This not only relates to some of the literature we have studied in class, but also connects to my growth and time here at Geneseo. I feel as though I am in a boat, at sea trying to figure out which direction is land, Land representing my future degree and field of work. I am lost with no map, or sense of direction, just trying my best to find my way through everything. Trying to find land. This really is the best analogy when it comes to me explaining how I feel here at Geneseo. Yes of course I have wonderful friends that help me through things, but for the most part I’m alone, in my journey. I’m away from home, my family, my boyfriend, everything I have ever known, thrown into this unfamiliar place, trying to find my way. It really is a blessing I’m able to be here, chasing my dreams, and doing what makes me happy, but there are hard parts too. Struggles I have had to overcome, with friendships, classes, health, professors. It is crazy to me that I am still able to stand here at the end of the semester with my head tall, and be able to say that I’ve accomplished what I came here to do. I came here to pursue my dream of becoming a teacher, to make lasting memories and friendships, and to overall pass all of my courses. It has been difficult doing so, due to my health this semester not being the best but I was able to push through and conquer my classes and be able to pass, finally able to say that I did what I needed to do, I accomplished my dreams, and I am one step closer to my dream job. 

This class has been a learning experience, with how much time and effort I was able to put into everything, from group discussions, to reading our different pieces of literature, to participating in group projects and essays. Such as the Nun-sense Collaboration, the Bacchae Let’s Collab! Reflection!, and even through the Assignment Care for My Growth Check-in. I have learned a lot, the main thing being; to slow down and take care of my reader, through my writing. To make sure that I give enough detail and light to what I am saying so they are left with no unanswered questions. This has been a tough thing for me to do this semester, because of what I mentioned earlier about my previous education experiences with not being able to use my creative brain, and I am proud to say that I think I finally have the hang of it. Unpacking my thoughts and slowing down has been one of the biggest things I’ve gotten out of this course and I really look forward to being able to put that knowledge and practice into my future endeavors. 

Identity and Interpretation

Brianna Donahue, Olivia Ells, Natalie Houston, Alissa French, Jordyn Stinar, Cameron Kramer

In Lilies of the Field, The actor Sidney Poiter plays the character Homer Smith. Homer Smith was a very intense and driven worker. He stops at a farm to get some water, where he meets a group of German, Austrian, and Hungarian nuns. The Mother Superior, Mother Maria, asks him to fix their roof, and offers him to stay for dinner. During dinner they are all speaking German and call Smith, Schmidt, which is the German equivalent. As they are speaking German, he begins teaching them English, so the language barrier is less prominent. In the morning, he asks to be paid for his work on the roof and he explains that he works only for money, but the Nuns are convinced he was sent from God and want to repay him in other ways. Smith expresses that he’s always wanted to become an architect but never could afford the schooling. He then applies for a job, as a contractor. He eventually agrees to build the church for the Nuns. Since he is living on their property he is spending a lot of time with them. He drives them to where they hold their mass, he eats dinner with them and then after teaching them about the English language. A strong bond between Smith aka Schmitt and the sisters over this period of time. Smith drops the sisters off at mass and goes for breakfast after. He goes to the same place every time where he befriends the owner. The sisters get materials for Smith to use for the church. The town comes together to build the church with Homer Smith. Over time, the church slowly gets built, the sisters get better with their English, and Smith gains respect for the Nuns. Once the church is fully built, Smith writes his name in the cement in front of the cross. He does this by himself because he is proud of what he has completed. After building the church the dynamic between the Nuns and Smith is now mutual respect for one another. Smith leaves and Mother Maria is shocked by her sadness since he is leaving, and neither of them expected the relationship they ended up having.

  The main character in Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Not Sidney, experiences something similar to Homer Smith’s story in Lilies of The Field. Percival Everett changes the nuns’ names from Lilies of the Field in the book I Am Not Sidney Poitier because he is trying to differentiate between Sidney Poitier and Not Sidney Poitier and give the nuns’ names a deeper meaning. He changes multiple aspects of the movie in the book. This is due to the fact that he is living Sidney Poitier’s life but in Not Sidney’s own way. One decision that Not Sidney makes that is different from Sidney Poitier is that he puts up $50,000 to build the church when in the movie Homer Smith builds the church himself. There are differences between the book and the movie, regarding why Percival Everett changes the names of the nuns. One of them being how he changed the names of the nuns to new names that related to the individual’s characteristics and personality from the movie. For example Mother Maria is the Mother Superior in the movie Lilies of the Field but Percival Everett changed her name to Irenaeus. The Wikipedia page on Irenaeus explains who he was: “Irenaeus was a Greek bishop noted for his role in guiding and expanding Christian communities in the southern regions of present-day France and, more widely, for the development of Christian theology.” This being said, we can conclude that Irenaeus was a leading figure, similar to Mother Maria. Percival Everett changed the other names of the nuns as well, though none of these changes were as predominant as Mother Maria’s. He changed the original names of Agnes, Gertrude, and Albertine to Origen, Eusebuis, Firmilian, and Chrysostom. All of the new names were from Christian narrative. 

Percival Everett changed all of the original female nun names to prominent male figures of Christian history. The female names in the movie make sense for the character as they are foreign. In the book, after the names are changed they become ironic as they are no longer meaningful to the characters origins. All of the new names come from different areas like Turkey, Israel, and Egypt.  Was Everett trying to play into the origins or was he trying to strengthen the power of the female characters? Power comes into play when all of the new names are those that hold prominence in the traditional Christian ideals, specifically with them being male. Mother Maria’s name was changed to Irenaeus, who we now know held a lot of power for the Christian community at that time. In the Britannica article titled “St. Irenaeus” it is discussed how influential his writing was to the people of his time frame, “In the course of his writings Irenaeus advanced the development of an authoritative canon of Scriptures, the creed, and the authority of the episcopal office.”(Wingren, 2012). Everett possibly chose this name to replace Mother Maria’s name because Mother Maria held authority and influence over the other sisters. It seems that Mother Maria or Sister Irenaeus acted as a leader for all of the sisters. 

As the author, Percival Everett shows a constant theme in this book I am Not Sidney Poitier. This recurring theme revolves around Sidney Poitier vs Not Sidney Poitier. There are so many aspects of Sidney Poitier’s roles that are changed in the book through Not Sidney Poitier’s life. The character Not Sidney has a constant battle with his identity. He is often mistaken for the actor and must explain the origin of his own name. Everett uses this theme of Sidney Poitier vs Not Sidney Poitier to differentiate the characters as a whole. This also helps the reader understand the difference between the two and how Not Sidney wants to be recognized as himself and not mistaken for Sidney Poitier. Everett changes many aspects in the roles of Sidney Poitier as a way to separate the two. For example, in the movie Lilies of the Field, Sidney Poitier builds the church with his hands and takes time to do so, but in the book, Not Sidney Poitier just tries to pay for the church to be built. Everett changes the names of the nuns in the book as another way to differentiate the characters by changing aspects of their stories. He wants to make it clear that they are NOT the same person, ironically why the character’s name is Not Sidney Poitier. Author Percival Everett is giving Sidney Poitier’s life to Not Sidney, but changing the story, using as many aspects that he can that revolve around Sidney Poitier and Not Sidney Poitier, while still keeping their stories similar all the way down to their names. Everett as an author tends to write nonsensically. This all relates back to the course being taught by Percival Everett, the character, titled Nonsense. In the book on page 100, Percival Everett exemplifies just how important the title is to its course, “I suppose what we’re talking about in this class is art. If it’s not, then I’m lost, but of course I’m lost anyway. At least I’ve been lost before and it looks just like this. Let’s consider art as a kind of desacralization, perhaps a sort of epistemological discontinuity that is undoubtedly connected or at the very least traceable to an amalgam of very common yet highly unusual sociohistorical factors” (Everett, 100). Throughout the writing, Everett The Character, has a tendency to abruptly change the direction of the course and go on rambles. This is proven on page 100, when Everett’s speech has a lot of length but not a lot of sense and meaning that anyone but himself can understand. This goes back to the course’s title of Nonsense. During his ramblings on page 100 Percival Everett The Character appears to be speaking a lot about nothing. But in reality, there is a meaning behind his words that nobody else can understand. This is possibly the reason for the name changes throughout Everett The Author’s writing. He appears to be changing these names to be confusing or different, when in reality they could have a meaning that no one understands. Based on what we have read and learned from this course and reading I am Not Sidney Poitier, we have found that Percival Everett, the author, enjoys controlling what he writes but likes to leave the perception up to his readers. This explains many of his ideas that occur in the book. He leaves his readers thinkING and curious about the meanings behind his words.

There are many reasons why Percival Everrett could have changed the nuns’ names in the book I am Not Sidney Poitier. He could have changed names with the intention of having meaning but confused the readers with nonsense. His meaning could have been to compare Sidney Poitier vs Not Sidney Poitier. Whether or not the reader understands his decision, his writing choices have meaning. Percival Everett was trying to convey many of his ideas through the book I am Not Sidney Poitier. He changed so many of the concepts due to the main idea of Sidney Poitier vs Not Sidney Poitier, the nuns being one of them. When we first started reading the book, we did not really think too much about the name changes of the nuns but after we started this assignment and started thinkING, we truly began to analyze it. We found that Percival Everett had multiple themes that he might have been trying to convey to his readers. The most prominent being to play into the theme of Sidney Poitier vs Not Sidney Poitier. One of our course epigraphs is a quote from Erasure written by the author Percival Everett, “it is crazy that a sentence can ever be understood”. This demonstrates how Percival Everett’s writing can be connected to our course, because it doesn’t always seem like he has a specific rhyme or reason for doing the things he does. He often leaves it up to his readers on how they want to interpret his work. In this course, we as students are able to make observations and come to conclusions about topics in the books we read. We also get to discuss with our peers our opinions and ideas and share how we came to those conclusions. We did that for this collaborative essay, we came together and shared our ideas and came up with our own opinion on if the name changes for the nuns was important. Any of the different interpretations listed above could be the reason Everett changed the nuns’ names, but in the end, it is up to the reader to decide what they believe.

Accepting my future

Through these first couple weeks of class, I have been able to look at many different epigraphs that have made me think deeply about certain topics. Ive been able to open up a part of my brain that hasn’t been used in a very long time. My creative brain.

One epigraph I was very drawn to and has helped open up my creative mind. Is the one titled “I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY” written by Percival Everett’s, in the book titled I am Not Sidney Poitier. I relate to this epigraph in the way that it made me feel validated in how I am feeling right now. Being here at college is the first time I’ve ever been away from home. It is bittersweet leaving, and I know I’m supposed to accomplish amazing things here. But since I’ve gone back to my hometown after being at college for just a couple weeks, it doesn’t feel the same. It doesn’t feel like its home anymore. Yes, the people are the same and they haven’t changed, but the feeling I get stepping into my bedroom is different than before. The feeling I get driving through the streets of my town, is a different feeling that overwhelms my body. I’m not sure what it is but I definitely know that in a very confusing way it’s reassuring me that I am where I’m supposed to be. Here at college, I am doing everything I can to become the person I dream of being. The quote “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”(Percival Everett), resonates with me because when I left for college I felt like I was leaving something behind, and in fact I wasn’t. I just needed to accept that I was starting a new part of my life that didn’t involve my hometown. And it was okay that I put myself first and chased my dreams. My mom always told me to think of myself first before I sacrifice my own happiness for others. I think this epigraph in my interpretation is saying the same thing. It’s explaining how Sidney Poitier is returning somewhere to hopefully find a piece of herself she feels is missing, but in reality nothing is missing, and she finds comfort in that. It took returning to this place, to understand who she is and that there’s nothing missing from who she “needs” to be.

Another quote from this epigraph that really resonated with me was “It seems you all know me and nothing could be further from the truth”. (Percival Everett) This quote resonates with me because through high school, I was always the type of person everyone used and walked all over. Those people think they know me, as the girl who doesn’t stick up for herself, and never really knows when to tell someone no. I’ve grown a lot since high school. And I’m not that girl anymore. So as much as those people think they “know” me. They don’t know who I am now. A very strong, determined, and powerful person who knows what she wants and will do anything to achieve it. I think this comes from being so young, and having accomplished as much as I have in my life so far, I know my abilities and I will never become that girl ever again. So they will never have the privilege to know who I am now. Just like Sidney Poitier.

Looking through the multiple epigraphs we have gone over in class. I feel as though Professor McCoy as well as these epigraphs have helped reopen my creative brain and helped me work to think deeper about topics. Throughout high school and my past college experience, in all of my classes whenever we had an assignment to write a paper, we were instructed to follow a strict prompt and write for word count. Our creativity was stripped away. Being in this class has really helped open that writing creativity back up. Being forced to look at these different epigraphs, and figure out what they each make me feel, Has made me start THINKing about other things in my day to day life. Being able to look at the deeper meaning of things has helped me be able to write this essay, that at first I was very unsure about. It was hard for me to grasp what the concept was because it is more of a “your interpretation” paper rather than spitting facts and bull-shitting about topics we don’t necessarily resonate with. I’m excited to keep using my THINKing skills, and dive deeper into this course, being able to use my interpretation of different topics and write more essays that use my creative thinking skills that I always knew I had, but was never able to use.