"Some men see things the way they are and ask, 'Why?' I dream things that never were, and ask 'Why not?'" George Bernard Shaw

Time to get Personal

Personal Statement: (noun) def. The UCAS personal statement is a 47 line (or 4000 character) piece of writing that allows you to tell the universities and colleges you are applying to why they should offer you a place on the course.

And by the time I was writing about the “natural ménage à trois between philosophy, the written word and, increasingly, my own inspirations” I’d realised not only that I wasn’t sure I even wanted to do philosophy at university, but that I wasn’t really taking this whole ‘Personal Statement’ thing seriously. In fact, I was pretty smug about it. I was enjoying wrapping my newly extravagant tongue around ‘inexorable’ and ‘zeal’, plundering the Microsoft Word thesaurus so I could sound like an ‘immutably and unreservedly tremendous candidate’ and inwardly laughing at all the poor souls who would have to do this for real…….Oh ‘insert-most-indubitably-eloquent-curse-word-here’. That would be me.

Because if I, if anyone, wants to go to college or university they must do what they’ve been taught should be avoided. They must shimmy into the short-shorts of concise advertising, pull on the skimpy top of over-hyped enthusiasm, slap on the lipstick of twenty-seven-times-perfected-wording, buckle up heels of self-revelling and prepare to strut the crowded pavements of the UCAS (or any other) application process. And I thought a university education was supposed to prevent people from selling themselves on the streets.

Okay, so I might be being just a little overdramatic. But it does seem odd that young people who- as bright, Bambi-eyed receptioners- listened so dutifully to assemblies on the perils of selfishness, gloating and “embellishing the truth” now have to amp up their attributes and flourish their feats. It’s a dance with the devil, in his many forms, for a whole 47 lines. And whilst it might sound fun, being the ringmaster of your own circus: ‘Roll up, roll up. Come and see the greatest Portsmouth/ Warwick/ Bath Spa University candidate on earth’ for many, for me, it’s not easy.

Especially because, on that busy, bustling pavement, applicants don’t just have to sell themselves: they have to sell themselves correctly…From my experience it seems that there are three pillars of good Personal Statement writing. A Personal Statement has to be True, it has to be Baby Bear’s Porridge, and it has to be original. Now…that’s going to be one difficult ménage à trois…

True

This one seems the easiest. All I have to do is refrain from outright lying and resist how deliciously fun it is to try and sound like I go to boarding school; sip delightful lemon tea; take the yacht out with Ma and Pa during the summer season, Oh! And utterly relish the deliberation of resuming my edification at your establishment…..However ‘truth’ is a tenuous word when it comes to personal statements. Let’s be honest: how many of us really yearn to, above all else, become part of a dynamic community of geologists? How many of us wake up, buzzing and electric, at the cherished thought of historical analysis? How many of us really, truly love, and prioritise, our subjects as much as we’ll claim we do? I know that I for one could never candidly say the study of….well; anything really has taken my breath away. But I could write a great 47 lines about the fizzy, static feeling I get; the moment the lights go down; before a band takes to the stage at a concert.

It’s a little bit like when the young Tributes, in Suzanne Collin’s ‘The Hunger Games’, must present their abilities to the Gamemakers in what’s called a Private Session. Obviously there’s more free choice and less imminent slaughter for the average university applicant, but the point i’m making is that whilst Cato from District 2’s true passion and mastery may be for the subtle art of knitting he’d never dream of showing this off in his PS (acronym for Private Session or Personal Statement; see what I did there?) because, as with much of the UCAS application process; whilst the mantra is ‘show them what you can do’ there’s still a multitude of rules. You still have to play the game. This leads us nicely onto-

Baby Bear’s Porridge

It’s a well known story. Daddy bear’s porridge is too hot. Mummy bear’s porridge is too cold. But good old baby bear’s porridge is Just Right. Likewise, a Personal Statement must be simmered and stirred and tentatively tasted; thrown out and strained out and tweaked with sugar and spices before it has any chance of being declared suitable to pass through Goldilocks’ lips. A writer must enlist the help of: past successes, fellow students, parents, teachers, dinner ladies, spell checks, more reliable spell checks, strangers, librarians. They must have their PS approved, approved and approved again until they are absolutely sure it conforms, exactly, to the correct recipe. But how on earth does that work with-

Original

Philosophy: ‘I’m just sending in a blank page!” Maths: ‘Mine’s all in code!’ English: ‘I wrote it as if I was Tess of the d’Urbervilles!’ Original is, for me, the free-spirited attractive figure; brought down by the two more conservative elements of the relationship. Although I’m sure the three of them spent many happy applications together, intertwined and iridescent in those 4ooo characters there have now been so many Personal Statements, so many little romances, that True and Baby B’s Porridge have started backing Original into a corner. And it’s so much easier, so much ‘safer’, if candidates let them constrain her. If they turn their applications inside out; until any colour is hidden. One m0re for the Tributes out there… Peeta: (writing his Personal Statement) If I’m going to Leeds, I want to still be me. Katniss: I want to go to Oxford….I just can’t afford to think like that.

So, here I am with a slightly rambling post and…Erm…about 47 lines of my Personal Statement still to do. It seems an arduous and fallible process but, to be fair, I can’t see any better way for people to apply to universities. How else are they supposed to know which candidates are the best fit for the course they offer? There simply isn’t time to interview everybody. Still, I worry that the writing of Personal Statements has become a course in itself, some art and science double honours thing in which applicants are tutored, tailored; they study, they stress and I worry that what comes out at the end isn’t passion; but performance.

I want mine to be different. I want mine to be ‘from-the-heart’ and firebrand. But I also want it to be What They’re Looking For. So where do I go from here?

If only we could all fire an arrow at the Gamemakers, yet still score a stunning eleven…

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Nineteen Words for Grace

 

It’s been a while since I read the novel ‘Nineteen Minutes’ by Jodi Picoult so it’s a credit to both the book and its author that it has played on my mind for so long but…I’m just not sure that the 579 page account of the tragic aftermath of, and build-up-to, a fictional high school shooting has remained in my head for quite the right reasons.

Instead of contemplating the vulnerability of killers, the brutality of hockey players and, in classic Picoult style: ‘What would you do?’ I find myself constructing dazzling love affairs between high school “alpha female” Courtney Ignatio and one of her father’s work colleagues. Or else I’m imagining Christopher Mcphee’s little sister; or Justin Freidman’s secret boxing career….

Readers might only vaguely remember some of these names because, whilst the novel pays articulate care and attention to all the vivid grotesquely-bullied colours of Peter Houghton (the killer) the ten ‘killed’ never really get their shot (please excuse the inappropriate pun). We never really get to know them at all and, whilst I never mind using my imagination, (So…Whittaker Obermeyer had a pregnant girlfriend. Okay?) in the words of character Drew Girrard: “you wish you knew for sure.”

And in some cases, I think, it’s about more than that. Take Courtney for example: part of the glossed-up, glimmering it/in/ popular crowd of Sterling High that was responsible for victimising Peter (until he was sent ‘over the edge’ and took his revenge). Well, the more I learnt about the various incidents of bullying that made Peter do what he did the more really wanted to know what fuelled the bullies’ actions. Peter’s equation was really pretty simple: vulnerable kid+ constant aggression/ humiliation + girl he loves doesn’t love him back= a heart full of hatred (and the pulling of a trigger) and maybe what made Courtney do what she did is easy to work out as well: Courtney= Bitch. But, from my experience of high school, when people are as calculatingly, constantly mean as Courtney and her crowd were to Peter, it’s usually more complicated than that: it’s usually done because of fear, or insecurity. And since the whole book is dedicated to how killers might actually be victims I think it might have been nice to see just a couple of lines, a sentence maybe, about how the bullies were sufferers, and human, too.

page 406. “Courtney Ignatio was so freaking bored and that meant her mind was wandering; to when her dad came home last night, the smell of whiskey, the bruise on her mom’s cheek this morning. Josie was her friend and all but there was, like nothing to do: and if Courtney wasn’t busy; she was remembering: and that was something she so couldn’t handle.”

Just a few words is all it takes and, for this reader at least, she’s a person, more than just a plastic mean girl and, like I said, when there’s a whole book illustrating how things weren’t just black and white for Peter; how there was a reason behind what he did, I felt like Courtney’s character, -and also Maddie Shaw’s and Matt Royston’s- were treated somewhat unfairly when they were portrayed as two dimensional, villainous jock/ bitchy cheerleader cut-outs. I felt like they were positioned, like Barbies and Kens, to be Peter’s tormenters; and then knocked over as his victims. Okay, so we see Matt be sweet and romantic with girlfriend Josie (as well as abusing her) but, still, nothing took him out of his Tick-a-box-Popular-Jock shell (apart from, oddly, the abuse but that’s a negative thing) and all that was needed was for him to once…play piano, make an origami crane or… bake scones, read a bed time story to a kid, fold laundry for a family of five and you can see where I’m going with this….

 

I realise that explaining why everybody in the novel acted the way they did would lead to a book far too big for even Picoult’s hefty, ‘brick’ standards. But surely the whole message of ‘Nineteen Minutes’ is that there’s more to everybody than the synthetic outside that meets the eye? Surely, with just a few words, this could have, and should have, applied to every character in the novel?

But at least we get to know a little about the Popular Kids, even if it’s only the lip-gloss, bullying and hockey sticks, because the rest of the young people who died are left as practically numbers. Can anyone remember who was victim 8? Or else readers are forced to do precisely what the novel is a warning against and define the now-dead by obvious on-the-surface features that tell us nothing about the person behind them: there’s Noah James-incidentally Victim 8- who readers can only judge by his basketball ability and “jock” clique. We know Grace Murtaugh’s father is a minister but, if we’re honest, that gives us no information about his daughter. And then there’s Kaitlin Harvey, and I personally think it’s saddest of all that practically the only thing ‘Nineteen Minutes’ readers are ever told about this murdered girl is her disability….

Again, the book’s pretty long as it is, but whilst it’s all very sweet that Alex Cormier feels “Patrick’s hand slip into her lap” I for one find it difficult to care about a ,now-overdone, focussed-career-woman-swept-off-her-feet-by-righteous- man-who-has-been-hurt-before storyline when all readers know about murdered high school student Whittaker Obermeyer is that he was “shot in the hallways” ( source Wikipedia). I definitely wish Picoult had chosen whether her novel was about a high-school shooting or what’s basically a girl-meets-boy romance. The two just don’t correlate in my view; it doesn’t seem right.

What’s more, like with Courtney, Matt and Maddie, it would only have taken a few lines to put a face, a real person, to those names and numbers.

page 388 ” ‘Mr Houghton’ Alex said.’You are charged with, on March 6th 2007, a count of first-degree murder, contrary to 631:1-A, in that you purposely caused the death of another to wit, Whittaker Obermeyer’. Alex was jolted by a memory: at one of Josie’s parent-teacher conferences they’d seen a girl crying in a hallway- obviously given a hard time by her teachers, or parents- and a gangly boy, maybe sixteen at the time, with little square glasses had hurried to her; and pushed her hair off her face. Their hands had fastened together and the boy had kissed her damp eyelids gently and joked: ‘Look, they’re all old…That F probably stood for freaking brilliant and they just forgot’. Alex had smiled. She’d asked Josie who the boy was….. Now, Alex realised, they’d never know who Whittaker Obermeyer could’ve been.”

Or how about-

Page 21″‘That’s not even the whole scandal’ Emma added. ‘Her dealer was the head of the Bible study group that meets after school. You know, Grace Murtaugh’s boyfriend. You should see her today: total wreck; crying to Natalie Zlenko all first period.”

Nineteen extra words. Nineteen words for Grace. In nineteen words she has a broken heart, a determination to come to school regardless, a friendship with the GALA president (possibly frowned upon by her Christian family) a reason she might not have been thinking clearly, a reason she might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time on March 6th 2007. In nineteen words, for me at least, there’s something there. In nineteen words; there’s a life for Peter to take.

Of course ‘Nineteen Minutes’ isn’t about those who died. It’s about the survivors and the killer; who was also a victim himself. However, I can’t help but feel that Picoult gives herself a very easy task. Of course readers will more easily empathise with, and understand, Peter when they’ve known him literally since birth and followed him through all the awkward changes of childhood and adolescence, as well as countless sickening incidents of bullying. Yet, all we know of those he killed are plastic Make-me-an-It-Girls, colour-by-numbers jocks (in other words not real people) or else faceless names that readers have no way of ‘knowing’ and, whilst the grief of their parents is raw and moving, it’s naturally hard for to feel much meaningful emotion for the murdered, when readers have never ‘met’ them and yet they know the murderer so well.

Maybe it was all done for a reason. Maybe the young people who were killed are presented as just names and ghosts to emulate the way Peter saw them: bodies in the way of his revenge. Perhaps it was done so readers viewed the murdered the way society viewed them after the shooting; not as people who once listened to music and told lies and ate pasta but as The Victims of The Sterling High Tragedy, each one of them one of The Ten. But, any subconscious effects these reasons may have had on me as I read inspired much less emotion than I would have felt if Picoult had, with just with a few words, made sure her readers knew that Peter killed: not ten names, not ten stereotypes, not ‘ a jock’, ‘a nerd’, ‘a Bible study kid’ but ten people.

Like I said I don’t mind making up who these ten people really were in my own head but that’s what it feels like: ‘making up’. I’m wondering whether Jodi Picoult knows the truth about these characters.  I’m wondering if it would have been better if, with just a sentence or two of ‘Nineteen Minutes’ she’d told that truth to us.

For me ‘Nineteen Minutes’ is a very, very good book: in terms of the Picoults I’ve read i’d put it joint top with Plain Truth.

But, as Judge Cormier concentrates on “giving weight to the name of each dead child” I can’t help but wish that the author had gone, just a little further towards, doing the same.