Western Alumni

Moving away, growing up and gut-checking along the way

Shannon Proudfoot, BA’03, on self-reflection and university life

By Shannon Proudfoot, BA’03

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I recently read Ian McEwan’s 2007 book, On Chesil Beach. It’s such an astute observation of human nature and relationships that it takes things that are so familiar they’ve become invisible and spools them out in a way that re-explains us to ourselves.

One of the protagonists, Edward, is a newlywed in 1962, mulling over moments in his life that have taken on that squeamish quality memories acquire when you see them much more clearly in retrospect. At one point, Edward recalls his fondness for the visceral clarity of the occasional fistfight when he was a student at University College London.

One specific night, he was headed to the pub with a friend. Harold was short, bespectacled, “maddeningly talkative and clever”– exactly the type Edward would have tormented in his younger days but now appreciated.

When they passed a couple of leather-clad rocker types in the street, one didn’t even slow down as he reached out to smack Harold across the back of the head. Edward immediately popped him square in the face, then returned to help his friend retrieve his broken glasses from the road. It took Edward several hours to recognize that Harold wasn’t grateful to him, and still more time to realize Harold was in fact embarrassed; their friendship withered.

At first, Edward thought Harold’s pride was wounded, but eventually he understood “that what he had done was simply not cool,” McEwan writes. “What he believed was an interesting quirk, a rough virtue, turned out to be vulgarity. He was a country boy, a provincial idiot who thought a bare-knuckle swipe could impress a friend.”

Well, that’s a pretty solid summary of what it’s like to move away from where you grew up and then learn to grow up some more, isn’t it?

We tend to judge ourselves against the norms of our social context, but when those norms are what you’re used to, they become invisible, like old wallpaper. There’s not a rule you’re conscious of following, things just are. Until, that is, you’re launched into a new world with fresh norms, and then the old ones become bafflingly obvious, and often outdated.

When you head off to university, this becomes clear most quickly in the context that’s easiest to rectify: fashion. A glance around Concrete Beach demonstrates that your ‘Exiting The Hometown’ haircut has more hometown in it than you maybe wanted, or that what was coveted in high school is gauche in your new world. In my high school, that was Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirts that rendered the wearer a human billboard who’d paid handsomely for the privilege (it was the late 1990s in northern Ontario; we did the best we could).

But as Edward discovers, it’s the deeper stuff that takes longer to grasp and more work to recalibrate, with more potential embarrassment. You go on acting like the class clown because goofily not caring (or pretending to) was the way in high school, before you realize that earnestness and effort are now the coin of the realm. Or you still think you have to do everything with someone, but then you gradually realize that going your own way and being into your own weird stuff is fine – cool, even. What’s worth getting angry about and how to express that anger, what you judge or accept with a shrug, what you appreciate or complain about – you tend to shake it all out and scrutinize it anew.

A lot of this, of course, is simply about growing up, but there’s also something particular about being chucked together in a shared life with strangers who all have their own default settings that provoke that kind of reckoning and stretching. That’s not to say you become a human weathervane, perpetually twisting in someone else’s wind currents – moving past that is part of growing up, too – but there’s something about being in a place where basically your whole purpose is to sort things out that makes you inclined to, well, to sort things out.

Now, we have the Internet to be our Concrete Beach: a place where we can be constantly exposed to other people’s norms and gut-check our own notions that something must be a certain way because of course it is. But it hasn’t really turned out that way, has it? Instead, suggesting to someone that perhaps there’s another way to see things is often the surest way to get them to double down on their own view, as we all cling ferociously to the baggage we arrived with.

We’d probably all be better off instead recapturing a little of that fish-out-of-water uncertainty that lends you a kind of naked openness, glancing around to see how everyone else is doing things and allowing for a personal reappraisal.

Shannon Proudfoot is an Ottawa-based writer for Maclean's.