This week’s writing prompt with my class is simple yet complex. We often think of milestones in our lives, but can we isolate one moment that impacted us so profoundly that we can say it has defined who we’ve become? This crystal-clear moment shines in our timeline so brightly we can point to it and say That’s it. That’s when I became brave or successful or happy or bold.
What’s your crystal moment?
My crystal moment happened when I was in college. I studied abroad between my junior and senior year. It was an easy decision to make. I was majoring in English, with a great love of medieval French literature — a lot of the Arthurian romances came out of that time period. I couldn’t get enough of Chretien de Troyes’s poems and epic stories of Lancelot and the Grail, and the heroic virtues of chivalry. I guess I was a romantic.
I went into this adventure with an open mind, but I really lacked a lot of maturity when it came to being on my own. I’d always lived at home. I went to a commuter college, and while I was paying for my studies, everything else was comfortably taken care of by my parents. I had a roof over my head, meals, and even a car (plus gas money). My only responsibility was to do well in school and graduate.
I was well on the way to graduating when I got the wild hair to study in France. After all, I’d been reading plenty of French literature, I might as well go visit.
It was actually the best thing I could have done. I learned a great deal on this adventure, not all of it about French literature. In fact, while I did read some Victor Hugo in French thanks to a wonderful library in my host home, I learned much more than just stories. I’ve always known that literature is the study of the human condition. I got to experience the human condition in a new way. Better than reading about it, I got to live it.
This adventure taught me about self-reliance since I had to figure everything out on my own: from budgeting, to travel, to essentially being on my own. I learned a great deal about different cultures, not just the French. My location in Aix-en-Provence placed me close to Marseilles, close to the French Riviera, and beyond. I saw quite a bit of Europe. But perhaps the most important lesson I learned was empathy. This daughter of immigrants got to experience first hand, at the same age, what my parents experienced when they came to the United States.
Wait. Let me qualify that. I wasn’t running away from oppression. I had money in my pocket, and a return ticket to my home.
But I did learn what it was like to immerse myself suddenly into a culture I didn’t quite understand. I found myself yearning for the familiar, isolated in unexpected moments. Voiceless as long I didn’t know the language. It may have only been a little piece of their experience, but it was enough for me to return home with a different attitude. A broader understanding of what their generation experienced.
If that had been all, it would have been quite a bit. But thirty years later, in my work, I teach many new immigrants to the United States. My experiences then continue to inform me today. It’s an extraordinary full circle.