If you could go back and study a subject you’d never had the chance to explore or understand, what would it be?
Let your imagination go free-range with this question. Don’t narrow your answers by worrying about whether you’d become one of the leaders in the field; picture yourself being diligent and achieving excellence. If you choose a performance- or practice-based area, dismiss any anxieties about whether you’d receive accolades or awards; consider only the satisfaction of your curiosity and satisfying your own sense of mastery.
You will not be graded. You will be applauded. You’re doing this for yourself alone and not your resume.
With these principles in mind, what do you wish you’d had the opportunity, the talent, the strength and discipline to place into your life’s intellectual carry-on?
Mine are fairly basic and they fall into three categories.
Because I am illiterate when it comes to all things musical — being unable to read it even though I can appreciate hearing it — I wish I’d taken courses in music when I was in high school and college. Because of budget cuts that continue to plague arts programs in public schools, our district phased out classes for those who did not sing in a choir or play an instrument (and poor kids did not usually play instruments.)
I knew I liked The Doors better than The Archies, and I knew Leonard Cohen’s voice made me cry while Peaches & Herb made me wince, but I could never explain why. I’d like to hear the design in a Bach fugue as well as be in awe of it and I’d love to hear nuance as well as brass when listening to a jazz band.
At both fundamental and ethereal levels, I know math and music are connected, and I wish I knew the math part, too. Because I unknowingly but systematically transposed numbers as a kid, however, I was always terrible at math, barely passing even the most basic classes. I assumed that part of my brain was misshapen, like an intellectual hangnail or hammertoe, annoying and unfixable. I placed mathematics in my peripheral vision.
Yet when I recently had the honor of being the graduation speaker at The Lincoln School in Providence, R.I., I listened to one of the young women deliver a class speech that was charming, enthralling and hilarious concerning the concept of integers (which I had not known was derived from the Latin word for “whole”) and employing it as a vehicle to discuss how the girls, as individuals, created a community.
The Lincoln senior explained integers with elegance, lightness and simplicity, and as I watched her appreciative classmates nod in understanding, it struck me that they were already enviably fluent in the vocabulary of a world I would never enter. I wish I had a third of her grasp of the subject (but that’s a wild guess, since I’m not sure what a third would be because of the whole I’m-bad-at-math thing).
In addition, so to speak, there are nearly countless bonuses attached to learning mathematics: With it, I might have been able to study physics, astronomy, economic theory and figure out what exactly European dresses sizes mean.
I’d like to be able to claim with confidence that I can: ice-skate, fix old cars, trace your family’s genealogy, design and build a bookcase where the title I’m searching for is instantly illuminated, and recite the Book of Job in the original Hebrew whenever the need arises (which happens more than you think).
Lastly, I’d like to grasp the actual plot to “Game of Thrones,” but, even with a total immersion course, that’s probably not possible. I have no clue who these people are anymore. It’s sad.
Most lives aren’t long enough to study everything we’d love to learn, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If we’re fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of horizons that shimmer in our imagination, or have at our fingertips talents we’d like to unlock, let’s instill in one another the courage to approach them. The only thing there’s no time for is a sense of inadequacy or a fear of failure. That time has passed.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at UConn and author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at ginabarreca.com.