Yesterday I attended the midyear meeting for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistants in Rome. This was a huge source of anxiety for me, because not only is Rome a gigantic, chaotic, and frankly terrifying city, but I didn’t know how to talk about what I have accomplished this year. Because I didn’t feel like I had accomplished much of anything: I felt like I’d been moving from one struggle to another and the best that could be said was that I had not been killed by a crazy driver or simply turned around and gone home. No friends my own age. My volunteer project dead in the water. Problems with classes I didn’t know how to teach and teachers who were being unhelpful. How, I asked myself, could I talk about successes when I felt like all I had done was fail? And how could I even express the difficulties I was having when I was sure that the other English Teaching Assistants were doing great?
So I came to Rome with this feeling of imminent doom. This was something I just had to get through. Then I just have to get through the next four months, and then I can get out of this country where problems are just a fact of life and there’s no point doing anything to solve them and where a young blind girl shouldn’t need to and has no business trying to live independently so far from home.
And then I had a fantastic day.
Part of it was that we’re officially past the midway point. Now I can say I’m more than halfway through, which is great, because saying “well, I’m halfway there,” automatically brought on the horrifying thought, “Oh God, I’m only halfway there!” And I’m not going to lie: having a shower that stayed warm for more than five consecutive minutes was a big help.
But hot showers aside, there were some bigger reasons that contributed to it being such a good day.
For one thing, it turns out that the other English Teaching Assistants are having the same difficulties as me, and it was wonderful to rant about all the things we’ve struggled with and haven’t talked about. It was heartening to discuss how much we miss home and our friends and feeling like we knew what the heck we were doing with our lives and salty food. And it was inspiring to plan how we were going to get through the last months of our year in Italy. To know that I am not the only one who feels this way, to know that I am not actually alone, was amazing.
And I was able to realize that I haven’t just survived these months in Italy. I have, in fact, been successful. I have students who respect me, who are interested in what I am teaching, so much so that they are asking for topics. My own Italian skills have increased tremendously. I am navigating a foreign country—an extremely ablest foreign country—independently. And I am succeeding. I’m not dead, right? And maybe I don’t have friends my own age in Assisi, but I have to remember that I had an incredible four years at college and that this year was bound to be hard wherever I was. This weekend, we talked a lot about re-evaluating our ideas of what social success is, and if I look at where I am now versus where I was in October, I have succeeded. People say hello to me as I pass in the streets. People ask me how I do things instead of saying I can’t or shouldn’t or, worse, applauding when I do (but more on all that later).
Another thing that helped a lot was being reminded of why I have always been so interested in Italy. We took a tour of the U.S. Embassy, and like everything else in Italy, the complex has an incredible history. The land was owned by a friend of Julius Caesar, then some art-collecting cardinals, then Queen Margherita (she of the pizza), then the Confederation of Fascist Farmers, all before it was given to America as part of Italy’s war reparations after World War II. All of this history is layered right on top of itself: there’s an ancient Roman aqueduct (which Mopsy made a point of drinking from) next to a statue of a young Venus next to a fascist plaque—the modern on top of the rococo on top of the baroque on top of the romantic on top of the ancient, and plenty more layers I don’t know the names for in between. We visited the ambassador’s office and saw the largest Murano glass chandelier in the world, and while the ambassador told us he finds the office a bit too grand for day to day work, it is easy to imagine Queen Margherita holding balls and musical nights there (which gives me a new novel idea).
But I’m getting off topic. It’s this layered history, not just in the architecture but also in the culture, that was what drew me to Italy in the first place. It was the thing that made living in Italy the dream. Yes, there was a time when living in Italy was my dream. How much I wish I could go back to that time.
I made that comment this weekend. I said I wanted to build a time machine and go back to 2014 Jameyanne and tell her not to do this. I wanted to tell her that it’s too hard, that it’s not worth it, that she’s going to be miserable and lonely and scared out of her mind, that she’s going to want to go home more than anything else in the world . And then I stopped and thought about that. If I had a time machine, is that really what I would do? Has this experience, as hard as it has been, really not been worth it?
Yes, it’s been hard. Yes, there have been times when I have been miserable and lonely and scared out of my mind. There have been many times when all I wanted is to give up and to go home. But I wouldn’t tell 2014 Jameyanne not to do it. Partly because, I was 2014 Jameyanne once, and I know that she wouldn’t listen to anyone telling her not to do something. After all, she was still the Jameyanne who stuck out a semester of incredible pain because her right eye was exploding and there was no way she was missing a month of school for a little thing like having her eye removed. And even if I told her this would be worse than that, she wouldn’t listen. But I wouldn’t even say that.
If I could, I would tell 2014 Jameyanne that it will be hard, that it will not be fun, that she won’t have friends her own age, that for the first time since high school, she will feel blind, that she will be scared, that she will be more homesick than she has ever been in her life. But I will tell her that this will be worth it. Because she will learn so much about what is important to her, what she loves, and what she can do. She will be taken apart and when she’s put back together, all her pieces will be in different places, and she will have to search for the strength to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. But she will find that strength, and she will keep moving, and she will, in the end, succeed. This experience will be worth it. It’s a cliché, but 2014 Jameyanne will grow in ways that she can’t possibly understand, and since she can’t understand it anyway, maybe, if I had a time machine, I wouldn’t go back and I wouldn’t say anything. I would just let her experience this year for what it’s been.
Last week, I taught a lesson on Dr. Seuss, and I read Oh, The Places You Will Go to my kids. It was the first time I’d read the book since I graduated from high school, and I’ve been picking at it all week, the way I might pick at a hangnail:
I’m afraid some times you’ll play lonely games too.
Games you can’t win ’cause you’ll play against you,
And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance
you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on. (37-39)
But if all the bad bits and sad bits are true, who says the good bits can’t happen too?
Sorry, couldn’t resist.
So this is what I want to say to 2015 Jameyanne, the Jameyanne who is going to stride confidently into the last four months of her Fulbright year in Italy and then beyond: Remember this moment. Maybe this year has not been what I expected or dreamed. But it is still what I make it. I have grown and changed and learned so much about myself in these last five months, and who knows how that will continue over the next four months, if I am open to it. Maybe this is not the adventure I wanted, but it has nevertheless been an adventure, and perhaps it is also a staging ground for more adventures that I can’t imagine yet.
Remember this, 2015 Jameyanne. When things get hard, as I’m sure they will, remember this moment. You are traveling back to Assisi. You are listening to “Hakuna Matata.” No, scratch that, wrong message. You are listening to “Go the Distance.” You feel confident. You have new lessons to teach. New lessons to learn. New places to explore. New flavors of juice to try. Seriously, don’t forget the juice.
And kid, you will move mountains. Whatever those mountains may be. Maybe not here. Maybe not now. But they’re waiting for you, and here and now is where you build the strength, the courage, and the will that you’ll need to face them.