فصل 28کتاب: سرگذشت یک تحصیل کرده / فصل 29
- زمان مطالعه 21 دقیقه
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The first time I saw King’s College, Cambridge, I didn’t think I was dreaming, but only because my imagination had never produced anything so grand. My eyes settled on a clock tower with stone carvings. I was led to the tower, then we passed through it and into the college. There was a lake of perfectly clipped grass and, across the lake, an ivory-tinted building I vaguely recognized as Greco-Roman. But it was the Gothic chapel, three hundred feet long and a hundred feet high, a stone mountain, that dominated the scene.
I was taken past the chapel and into another courtyard, then up a spiral staircase. A door was opened, and I was told that this was my room. I was left to make myself comfortable. The kindly man who’d given me this instruction did not realize how impossible it was.
Breakfast the next morning was served in a great hall. It was like eating in a church, the ceiling was cavernous, and I felt under scrutiny, as if the hall knew I was there and I shouldn’t be. I’d chosen a long table full of other students from BYU. The women were talking about the clothes they had brought. Marianne had gone shopping when she learned she’d been accepted to the program. “You need different pieces for Europe,” she said.
Heather agreed. Her grandmother had paid for her plane ticket, so she’d spent that money updating her wardrobe. “The way people dress here,” she said, “it’s more refined. You can’t get away with jeans.”
I thought about rushing to my room to change out of the sweatshirt and Keds I was wearing, but I had nothing to change into. I didn’t own anything like what Marianne and Heather wore—bright cardigans accented with delicate scarves. I hadn’t bought new clothes for Cambridge, because I’d had to take out a student loan just to pay the fees. Besides, I understood that even if I had Marianne’s and Heather’s clothes, I wouldn’t know how to wear them.
Dr. Kerry appeared and announced that we’d been invited to take a tour of the chapel. We would even be allowed on the roof. There was a general scramble as we returned our trays and followed Dr. Kerry from the hall. I stayed near the back of the group as we made our way across the courtyard.
When I stepped inside the chapel, my breath caught in my chest. The room—if such a space can be called a room—was voluminous, as if it could hold the whole of the ocean. We were led through a small wooden door, then up a narrow spiraling staircase whose stone steps seemed numberless. Finally the staircase opened onto the roof, which was heavily slanted, an inverted V enclosed by stone parapets. The wind was gusting, rolling clouds across the sky; the view was spectacular, the city miniaturized, utterly dwarfed by the chapel. I forgot myself and climbed the slope, then walked along the ridge, letting the wind take me as I stared out at the expanse of crooked streets and stone courtyards.
“You’re not afraid of falling,” a voice said. I turned. It was Dr. Kerry. He had followed me, but he seemed unsteady on his feet, nearly pitching with every rush of wind.
“We can go down,” I said. I ran down the ridge to the flat walkway near the buttress. Again Dr. Kerry followed but his steps were strange. Rather than walk facing forward, he rotated his body and moved sideways, like a crab. The wind continued its attack. I offered him an arm for the last few steps, so unsteady did he seem, and he took it.
“I meant it as an observation,” he said when we’d made it down. “Here you stand, upright, hands in your pockets.” He gestured toward the other students. “See how they hunch? How they cling to the wall?” He was right. A few were venturing onto the ridge but they did so cautiously, taking the same ungainly side steps Dr. Kerry had, tipping and swaying in the wind; everyone else was holding tightly to the stone parapet, knees bent, backs arched, as if unsure whether to walk or crawl.
I raised my hand and gripped the wall.
“You don’t need to do that,” he said. “It’s not a criticism.”
He paused, as if unsure he should say more. “Everyone has undergone a change,” he said. “The other students were relaxed until we came to this height. Now they are uncomfortable, on edge. You seem to have made the opposite journey. This is the first time I’ve seen you at home in yourself. It’s in the way you move: it’s as if you’ve been on this roof all your life.”
A gust of wind swept over the parapet and Dr. Kerry teetered, clutching the wall. I stepped up onto the ridge so he could flatten himself against the buttress. He stared at me, waiting for an explanation.
“I’ve roofed my share of hay sheds,” I said finally.
“So your legs are stronger? Is that why you can stand in this wind?”
I had to think before I could answer. “I can stand in this wind, because I’m not trying to stand in it,” I said. “The wind is just wind. You could withstand these gusts on the ground, so you can withstand them in the air. There is no difference. Except the difference you make in your head.”
He stared at me blankly. He hadn’t understood.
“I’m just standing,” I said. “You are all trying to compensate, to get your bodies lower because the height scares you. But the crouching and the sidestepping are not natural. You’ve made yourselves vulnerable. If you could just control your panic, this wind would be nothing.”
“The way it is nothing to you,” he said.
I WANTED THE MIND of a scholar, but it seemed that Dr. Kerry saw in me the mind of a roofer. The other students belonged in a library; I belonged in a crane.
The first week passed in a blur of lectures. In the second week, every student was assigned a supervisor to guide their research. My supervisor, I learned, was the eminent Professor Jonathan Steinberg, a former vice-master of a Cambridge college, who was much celebrated for his writings on the Holocaust.
My first meeting with Professor Steinberg took place a few days later. I waited at the porter’s lodge until a thin man appeared and, producing a set of heavy keys, unlocked a wooden door set into the stone. I followed him up a spiral staircase and into the clock tower itself, where there was a well-lit room with simple furnishings: two chairs and a wooden table.
I could hear the blood pounding behind my ears as I sat down. Professor Steinberg was in his seventies but I would not have described him as an old man. He was lithe, and his eyes moved about the room with probing energy. His speech was measured and fluid.
“I am Professor Steinberg,” he said. “What would you like to read?”
I mumbled something about historiography. I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I’d felt since learning about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement—since realizing that what a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others. I knew what it was to have a misconception corrected—a misconception of such magnitude that shifting it shifted the world. Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. I thought if I could accept that what they had written was not absolute but was the result of a biased process of conversation and revision, maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed upon was not the history I had been taught. Dad could be wrong, and the great historians Carlyle and Macaulay and Trevelyan could be wrong, but from the ashes of their dispute I could construct a world to live in. In knowing the ground was not ground at all, I hoped I could stand on it.
I doubt I managed to communicate any of this. When I finished talking, Professor Steinberg eyed me for a moment, then said, “Tell me about your education. Where did you attend school?”
The air was immediately sucked from the room.
“I grew up in Idaho,” I said.
“And you attended school there?”
It occurs to me in retrospect that someone might have told Professor Steinberg about me, perhaps Dr. Kerry. Or perhaps he perceived that I was avoiding his question, and that made him curious. Whatever the reason, he wasn’t satisfied until I had admitted that I’d never been to school.
“How marvelous,” he said, smiling. “It’s as if I’ve stepped into Shaw’s Pygmalion.”
FOR TWO MONTHS I had weekly meetings with Professor Steinberg. I was never assigned readings. We read only what I asked to read, whether it was a book or a page.
None of my professors at BYU had examined my writing the way Professor Steinberg did. No comma, no period, no adjective or adverb was beneath his interest. He made no distinction between grammar and content, between form and substance. A poorly written sentence was a poorly conceived idea, and in his view the grammatical logic was as much in need of correction. “Tell me,” he would say, “why have you placed this comma here? What relationship between these phrases are you hoping to establish?” When I gave my explanation sometimes he would say, “Quite right,” and other times he would correct me with lengthy explanations of syntax.
After I’d been meeting with Professor Steinberg for a month, I wrote an essay comparing Edmund Burke with Publius, the persona under which James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay had written The Federalist Papers. I barely slept for two weeks: every moment my eyes were open, I was either reading or thinking about those texts.
From my father I had learned that books were to be either adored or exiled. Books that were of God—books written by the Mormon prophets or the Founding Fathers—were not to be studied so much as cherished, like a thing perfect in itself. I had been taught to read the words of men like Madison as a cast into which I ought to pour the plaster of my own mind, to be reshaped according to the contours of their faultless model. I read them to learn what to think, not how to think for myself. Books that were not of God were banished; they were a danger, powerful and irresistible in their cunning.
To write my essay I had to read books differently, without giving myself over to either fear or adoration. Because Burke had defended the British monarchy, Dad would have said he was an agent of tyranny. He wouldn’t have wanted the book in the house. There was a thrill in trusting myself to read the words. I felt a similar thrill in reading Madison, Hamilton and Jay, especially on those occasions when I discarded their conclusions in favor of Burke’s, or when it seemed to me that their ideas were not really different in substance, only in form. There were wonderful suppositions embedded in this method of reading: that books are not tricks, and that I was not feeble.
I finished the essay and sent it to Professor Steinberg. Two days later, when I arrived for our next meeting, he was subdued. He peered at me from across the table. I waited for him to say the essay was a disaster, the product of an ignorant mind, that it had overreached, drawn too many conclusions from too little material.
“I have been teaching in Cambridge for thirty years,” he said. “And this is one of the best essays I’ve read.”
I was prepared for insults but not for this.
Professor Steinberg must have said more about the essay but I heard nothing. My mind was consumed with a wrenching need to get out of that room. In that moment I was no longer in a clock tower in Cambridge. I was seventeen, in a red jeep, and a boy I loved had just touched my hand. I bolted.
I could tolerate any form of cruelty better than kindness. Praise was a poison to me; I choked on it. I wanted the professor to shout at me, wanted it so deeply I felt dizzy from the deprivation. The ugliness of me had to be given expression. If it was not expressed in his voice, I would need to express it in mine.
I don’t remember leaving the clock tower, or how I passed the afternoon. That evening there was a black-tie dinner. The hall was lit by candlelight, which was beautiful, but it cheered me for another reason: I wasn’t wearing formal clothing, just a black shirt and black pants, and I thought people might not notice in the dim lighting. My friend Laura arrived late. She explained that her parents had visited and taken her to France. She had only just returned. She was wearing a dress of rich purple with crisp pleats in the skirt. The hemline bounced several inches above her knee, and for a moment I thought the dress was whorish, until she said her father had bought it for her in Paris. A gift from one’s father could not be whorish. A gift from one’s father seemed to me the definitive signal that a woman was not a whore. I struggled with this dissonance—a whorish dress, gifted to a loved daughter—until the meal had been finished and the plates cleared away.
At my next supervision, Professor Steinberg said that when I applied for graduate school, he would make sure I was accepted to whatever institution I chose. “Have you visited Harvard?” he said. “Or perhaps you prefer Cambridge?”
I imagined myself in Cambridge, a graduate student wearing a long black robe that swished as I strode through ancient corridors. Then I was hunching in a bathroom, my arm behind my back, my head in the toilet. I tried to focus on the student but I couldn’t. I couldn’t picture the girl in the whirling black gown without seeing that other girl. Scholar or whore, both couldn’t be true. One was a lie.
“I can’t go,” I said. “I can’t pay the fees.”
“Let me worry about the fees,” Professor Steinberg said.
IN LATE AUGUST, on our last night in Cambridge, there was a final dinner in the great hall. The tables were set with more knives, forks and goblets than I’d ever seen; the paintings on the wall seemed ghostly in the candlelight. I felt exposed by the elegance and yet somehow made invisible by it. I stared at the other students as they passed, taking in every silk dress, every heavily lined eye. I obsessed over the beauty of them.
At dinner I listened to the cheerful chatter of my friends while longing for the isolation of my room. Professor Steinberg was seated at the high table. Each time I glanced at him, I felt that old instinct at work in me, tensing my muscles, preparing me to take flight.
I left the hall the moment dessert was served. It was a relief to escape all that refinement and beauty—to be allowed to be unlovely and not a point of contrast. Dr. Kerry saw me leave and followed.
It was dark. The lawn was black, the sky blacker. Pillars of chalky light reached up from the ground and illuminated the chapel, which glowed, moonlike, against the night sky.
“You’ve made an impression on Professor Steinberg,” Dr. Kerry said, falling into step beside me. “I only hope he has made some impression on you.”
I didn’t understand.
“Come this way,” he said, turning toward the chapel. “I have something to say to you.”
I walked behind him, noticing the silence of my own footfalls, aware that my Keds didn’t click elegantly on stone the way the heels worn by other girls did.
Dr. Kerry said he’d been watching me. “You act like someone who is impersonating someone else. And it’s as if you think your life depends on it.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
“It has never occurred to you,” he said, “that you might have as much right to be here as anyone.” He waited for an explanation.
“I would enjoy serving the dinner,” I said, “more than eating it.”
Dr. Kerry smiled. “You should trust Professor Steinberg. If he says you’re a scholar—‘pure gold,’ I heard him say—then you are.”
“This is a magical place,” I said. “Everything shines here.”
“You must stop yourself from thinking like that,” Dr. Kerry said, his voice raised. “You are not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was.”
I wanted to believe him, to take his words and remake myself, but I’d never had that kind of faith. No matter how deeply I interred the memories, how tightly I shut my eyes against them, when I thought of my self, the images that came to mind were of that girl, in the bathroom, in the parking lot.
I couldn’t tell Dr. Kerry about that girl. I couldn’t tell him that the reason I couldn’t return to Cambridge was that being here threw into great relief every violent and degrading moment of my life. At BYU I could almost forget, allow what had been to blend into what was. But the contrast here was too great, the world before my eyes too fantastical. The memories were more real—more believable—than the stone spires.
To myself I pretended there were other reasons I couldn’t belong at Cambridge, reasons having to do with class and status: that it was because I was poor, had grown up poor. Because I could stand in the wind on the chapel roof and not tilt. That was the person who didn’t belong in Cambridge: the roofer, not the whore. I can go to school, I had written in my journal that very afternoon. And I can buy new clothes. But I am still Tara Westover. I have done jobs no Cambridge student would do. Dress us any way you like, we are not the same. Clothes could not fix what was wrong with me. Something had rotted on the inside, and the stench was too powerful, the core too rancid, to be covered up by mere dressings.
Whether Dr. Kerry suspected any part of this, I’m not sure. But he understood that I had fixated on clothes as the symbol of why I didn’t, and couldn’t, belong. It was the last thing he said to me before he walked away, leaving me rooted, astonished, beside that grand chapel.
“The most powerful determinant of who you are is inside you,” he said. “Professor Steinberg says this is Pygmalion. Think of the story, Tara.” He paused, his eyes fierce, his voice piercing. “She was just a cockney in a nice dress. Until she believed in herself. Then it didn’t matter what dress she wore.”
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