Ta-Nehisi Coates describes how painful it is to learn

by Mr. Sheehy

The hardest thing about learning any new skill is that beginning portion when you are forced to walk in the dark, with no map at all. It’s not just what you don’t know, it’s that you have no idea what you don’t know and when you’ll stop not knowing it. Fear then takes over. Will I ever read Rousseau? Why can’t I get that “r” right? When I will I stop embarrassing myself every time I speak? Why do I keep confusing “son” and “ton?” What is wrong with me? Do I have a brain injury? The questions—the darkness—dogs us. And so we quit. It’s hard to sit in ignorance—mostly because there are no real signs of when that ignorance will end.

I am privileged, in that I was born into a culture where no one had the right to be the best at anything. You had better dance at that party. No one cares that you can’t cabbage patch. And you had better play basketball on that crate—even if you can only rebound and play D. I’ve sucked at a lot of things in my life. I’ve also gotten better at them. At 15, I was an awful djembe drummer. By 17,  I could both play the djembe, shave a goat-skin, attach it to the head and string the drum. I was a bad poet. I became a better one. I was a bad reporter. I became a decent one. I knew very little about the Civil War. And then I read some books, and I knew much more. It’s true that I was not a scholastic high-achiever. But have always been—and expect to always be—a hard student. School never ends for the hard student. She is primarily concerned with her curiosities, not the benchmarks of others.

My expectations for French are derived from my experience. I expect to suck for awhile. Then I expect to slowly get better. The point is neither mastery, nor fluency. The point is hard study—the repeated application of a principle until the eyes and ears bleed a little. And then all of that again. In my time as a hard student, I have found that it is much better to focus on process, than outcomes. The question isn’t “When will I master the subjunctive?” It’s “Did I put in my hour of study today?”

Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic.

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