Isabella Wang is a first-year student, studying English at SFU in the fall of 2018. On the side, she is an emerging, Chinese-Canadian writer who is passionately involved in Vancouver’s literary scene. She is a two-time finalist and the youngest writer shortlisted forThe New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Essay Contest. Her poetry is published/forthcoming in Room Magazine, Looseleaf Magazine andTrain Journal. She is serving as an intern and the Youth Programming Consultant at Room Magazine. She also works with Books on the Radio, and is volunteering as the Youth Advocate and Social Media Coordinator for B.C. Federation of Writers.
When One Dream Fails: letter to first years
By Isabella Wang
Auditorium. Lights dim to a flicker over each corner of the stage. The principal stands with a microphone in hand, at the commencement of my graduation assembly. “You are not the same person from when you first walked into this school,” he begins.
Five years seemed like a long time when I first entered high school. I thought I would have forever to figure my life out, and that by the time I stepped out of those doors, I would have procured a contract with The American Ballet Theatre. That was to become my dream— a soloist dancing the Don Quixote ballet on the world-renowned, Mariinsky Theatre stage.
I enrolled in an intensive ballet program, going to school on mornings and training in the afternoons, evenings, and on weekends. I trained 364 days a year, 45 hours every week, for the next three years.
My parents were reluctant to let me dance, thinking it was a waste of my intelligence and that I should instead, direct my focus to pursuing computer or medical sciences. I was stubborn and stood my ground, however, and eventually they caved in on the terms that I kept up my grades, which I did do. But not being at school meant that I neglected the time to make lasting friendships and get involved in the community. I wasn’t on any of the sports teams, didn’t join any clubs, and was too shy to speak in front of a crowd, which blew my chances of trying out for student council.
I was so determined to become a dancer that I confined myself during what was supposed to be a time for me to be open, for me to pursue opportunities and try my hand at different activities. By then, I had already suffered over a dozen injuries, including a degenerative back disorder and stress fracture along my middle toe which made walking impossible. But enduring, working triple pirouettes day in and day out in pointe shoes, hurt my head more than it did my feet. There was no other way to go except forward.
I was afraid to look back. I was known as “the ballerina” by my classmates at school and family at home. I built my entire identity upon ballet and without it, I was lost.
I lost interest in everything after I quit ballet and left the studios. It felt as if I no longer had a purpose, and my English class kept me from dropping out of school altogether that year. My English teacher was a man of six-foot-tall, who had a fur vest on his chair that we never saw him wear, and a guitar that he claimed to play only when nobody else was in the room. In person, he was so quiet he could waltz through the halls without anyone hearing him, but in class he would read to us in perfect modulation, Beowulf in Middle English with his booming, resonating voice. He was the only person who could tie the line, “They could not, would not do ’t” from King Lear, to “would not on a boat, will not with a goat” from Green Eggs and Ham, and explained Milton’s Paradise Lost to us by saying, “God’s angels drive him everywhere in an Uber. That’s why he’s everywhere all at once.” Days in his classroom turned into years. He told me, “High school is meant for making mistakes. You mustn’t be afraid to push.”
I spent the summer of my grade eleven year preparing for the SATs, and writing my application essays for Columbia, Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton universities. I didn’t think there were any other options for me except med school. I owed it to my family; with ballet, I felt as if I had already shamed them once and I could not do so again. Yet, I was behind on academics. Pre-occupied with ballet, I had taken only the minimum requirements for my program, thinking that if I were to become a dancer, I wouldn't need any other extra-curricular electives.
How wrong I was. I resolved to taking twelve academic courses and volunteering 200 hours in grade eleven just to make up for the time I had lost in previous years. The scheme worked for a while. Though there were all-nighters and crying and panic attacks and numerous melt-downs, I maintained an A+ average throughout grade eleven and late December of grade twelve caught me sizzling away like smoked pork in a cast iron skillet.
I tried raising the possibility of studying English one last time with my parents. “How practical do you think this is, with you, being a Chinese girl in a Western society?” confronted my mother in Mandarin.
My father asked me, “Is this like what you did before? You are going to fail with writing the way you failed ballet.”
“But I learned from it, dad!”
“I should never have allowed you to dance.”
“But I learned from my mistakes!” I cried.
He cried back, “Those mistakes destroyed our family!”
I knew they had, and I broke. My parents had a point. Writing reminds me of ballet in so many ways, and in no way would anyone take me seriously as a writer. But I couldn’t let the thought go. All I did was write. I wrote through calculus and physics and biology class, doodling poetry in the margins. My teachers were so concerned, they let me do it. English class motivated me when all else seemed unsurmountable. It kept me going to the night of my high-school graduation, to that moment, sitting in the back row of the auditorium, listening to the principal speak of how far we have come.
How far each of us have come, indeed. Yet once again, with university, we are about to find ourselves entering that same, unfamiliar space with new people to meet, new demands to upkeep, and more commitments and responsibilities to fulfill.
We have been told all sorts of things. I’ve had a friend wisely instruct me to finish all my required readings before the semester started, while another assured me that she managed to get a 3.2 average GPA without reading anything throughout her undergraduate degree. All this confusion is temporary. Soon, we will have figured out our own ways to learn— what schedules and study habits work and doesn’t work for us, and until then, there will be peer mentors, professors, and academic advisors to guide us.
Some of you have already figured out every course you will need for your degree, and are starting this semester off with a hefty six-course load. Others have succeeded in locating on Google Maps, the closest bubble tea and banh mi shop to campus. Either way, if you are to take anything from the story I have recounted, I would advise you to maintain a balance between what drives and what sustains you. But let this also be an invitation for you to reflect upon your own high-school years. What did you enjoy? Who and what helped you succeed? What do you regret? What do you wish you had done differently?
Last month, I toured SFU’s Burnaby campus for the first time, and on my way there, I pissed off the bus driver on the 99 B-line because I kept on having to make sure I was heading in the right direction. When I finally got there, I wandered off, past the parking lot and into a building and another building that I don’t remember the names of, and over the pond and eventually made it to where I was supposed to be, by which time the tour had already commenced, so I saw no point in interrupting. I spent the rest of the day in the library, hunched over a bowl of chilli, which got me to thinking about what will happen on my first day of classes. I had purposefully crammed all of my lectures and tutorials into three days, giving me ten minutes in between to teleport myself from one class on one side of the campus, to the next, on the other. I will get lost and will be the only person rushing through the doors in the middle of a lecture, and all the back row seats will be filled so I’ll have to squeeze in somewhere along the middle aisles and all eyes will turn on me and the professor will draw me out like in one of those old-fashioned, black and white movies… No, my entrance won’t nearly be as dramatic as that, but surely, we all have considered it at one point.
If you are like me, you have just spent your summer working four jobs trying to pay off your tuition, while our friends travelled overseas, crossing countries and touring landmarks, only to face the dry season, back here in Vancouver, with wildfires raging on more intensely than ever before. For some of you, this will be your first time studying overseas, in which case, it is not only a new campus you will have to navigate, but a new country, city, and even language, perhaps. Regardless, there will be changes for all of us. You are not alone. Reach out. Introduce yourselves. Make connections. Come.
I remember how my English teacher used to always joke, “One thing I don’t know is everything.”
So I messed up high school. I have no way of knowing that I will not mess up university. I did not fulfill my dreams of becoming a dancer, and for a long time, I thought I had failed. But although things did not work out the way I had wanted them to, I have come to realize, that everything worked out in the end, just fine.