My generation learned the word “no” the months before high school graduation, in the weeks we spent pouring blood, sweat, and tears into personal statements and final exams in our attempts to impress our potential universities. We were a high achieving group, my graduating class, getting A’s and B’s across the board, and for the most part, putting a lot of passion behind our work. We chose our GCSE and A Level courses from the heart. The British education system tailors our education to suit our truest loves and to support us through a career that we wanted. Yet when the university letters started trickling in, one by one, we each faced resounding rejection. I was lucky enough to get a single acceptance letter out of the five UK undergraduate programs to which I applied. My friends were much the same. Their pickings were slim; if they even got into a single program, that single program was their only option. It was hardly our fault. The newly Conservative government under David Cameron did a number on the postsecondary education system and we felt the brunt of the shift. We received the lowest acceptance rate in a long time. Many of my high school peers have only just gained acceptance into an undergraduate program of their choosing after years of fighting for the grades and experience necessary for the next step in their careers.
Fast forward five years from that devastating statistic we had become. I’d long since returned to my home country of Canada alongside my family when the UK government flat out rejected me and my stellar grades. I received a B.A. in English at a Canadian university I loved and once again, upon graduation, I found myself in a world of “no.” Many a time, my University of Victoria friends and I would sit up late at night, worrying about the likelihood of finding jobs in our various arts backgrounds. We’re not valued for our creativity. If we can’t do math or science, or have a good head for money, what good are we, after all? English, art, theatre, political science, film studies – they’re all “soft subjects.” Useless subjects. But we all share one thing in common: we have a passion to be inspired; to create. And that should mean something out there, in the real world.
I returned to my hometown of Edmonton in the interim while I sorted out my grad school options. I’ve since discovered the once Conservative province of Alberta is thanklessly obsessed with sucking oil dry from holy grounds in order to appease money swilling, one percenter gods at the top of the political food chain. They don’t care about creativity. They want people who will do their dirty work without question. They want drones, ones who won’t upset the already precarious status quo.
I quickly learned that I am not a drone. And every time I sent a job application to the proverbial shredder to be damned, I grew a thicker skin. “No” sparked the fire in my belly and cranked the skyward thrust of militant middle fingers. I did what the soulless drones could not: I defied. I spat “no” straight back in my naysayers’ faces.
When a doddering fool of a professor told me day after day I had no clue what I was doing, I sat back with crossed arms, raised a pointed finger and said, “No.” My grade may have suffered after telling a superior they were in the wrong again and again because they were too ignorant to comprehend how damaging their racist, sexist, ageist words were. But, at least I knew the truth.
When a boss pulled me aside and told me I was a failure for not being the perfect, bubbly extrovert of a Stepford Wife out on the sales floor, I said “No.” Too furious to form coherent words in response to her negative statements towards me, my quivering voice did everything it could to suggest perhaps it wasn’t my performance that drove customers away, but her lack of positive reinforcement toward her staff. It’s no wonder all my peers hated their jobs, and it’s no wonder my boss hated me. When she gave me “no,” I had the self-respect to give her options to improve our working relationship. And all I got in return was a resounding, “This is your fault; how dare you imply I’m a horrible person.” Yes, I wonder how that feels…
It’s a nightmare, living in a city where self-confidence is a threat. I wield my confidence like Buffy Summers wields a wooden stake, keeping it secure in the belt loop of my jeans. Here, I have to carry it at all times, in case rejection strikes unannounced. I wear my head held high and my heart in my throat, anticipating when the next “no” comes along, so I might fling it right back. The truth is, I no longer know what “yes” feels like. I no longer know what getting what I want feels like. Not without playing the system and manipulating people to get it.
And that’s just not me.
My world of “yes” grew so small, this time last year, that when my mother asked me what I wanted to do with my life after I finished my B.A., my reply came with a cynical laugh and hearty “…but that’s just a pipe dream.” And I wholeheartedly believed it. Yet, that day, I discovered where that defiance of mine came from, because from her lips came that fiery notion of I defy, with a simple sentence:
“But what if it’s not?”
That simple phrase not only fortified my stronghold, but gave me permission to dream. And not only dream, but be. And my dream was to return to England, barrels blazing. Despite my irreplaceable university experience in Victoria, my deepest regret is and always has been leaving the UK. I had no choice at the time, given that there was no longer anything professionally enticing me to stay. Yet the busy streets and towering buildings of London called to me. The whistling winds of the moors whispered to me in my sleep and I would wake gasping for grey skies and rainy weather, accompanied by a cream tea in the countryside and a hop, skip and a jump to Paris on a whim the next day. I needed England like I needed air in my lungs and blood in my veins. I could live without England no sooner than I could live without writing. And I knew beyond all else, I needed to return.
My vehicle came in applying for postgraduate school. With no tangible idea of what I wanted to study beyond the undergraduate level, no writing related program really caught my interest, in Canada and otherwise. Communications didn’t feel quite right and building upon my English major felt like a waste of time. I needed employable skills.
My heart finally fell to racing after stumbling upon a publishing program in Edinburgh. After careful research, I found Canada offered only a single equivalent program while the UK offered many. So, I applied. Again, I found myself facing a choice of five universities as I had back in my A Levels, and just as I had that first time, I cautiously swallowed back the notion of being turned away by all five for my lack of experience and general worth, whatever that meant anymore. After all, if Alberta didn’t want me, how could the UK possibly take me seriously? My world of “no” clouded my ordinarily sunny push toward spending the rest of my life doing what I loved. It made me forget that I was a girl who spent hours on end fiercely pounding words from brain to fingertips without stopping even to appease a growling, neglected stomach. I slowly forgot that writing was what I was born to do, that my mastery of words had once made many a jaw drop. People would talk in awe of my dedication to my craft and I would wince in guilt at that very same craft, collecting dust in abandoned corners of my brain. All because all I’d ever been offered in recompense was “no.” And you can’t survive off no’s alone.
When my advisor looked over my personal statements for potential edits, she sent them back untouched, with the utterly floored statement of “Wow — you were meant to be a writer!” As writers are wont to do, I found myself assuming she was simply humouring me. There was no way I was that good, what with such an overwhelming stack of no’s against me. So, I sent off my grad applications, thinking I somehow hadn’t done enough, that I’d failed myself somehow.
Two months later, I get my first world of “yes.” It’s an unusual taste, coming unexpectedly from the university on the bottom of my list. It’s so positioned at the bottom, despite being the exact program I’m looking for, because it’s located in Oxford, and I doubt they’ll even bother glancing at my application beyond my unnoteworthy GPA before binning it. Yet it’s the intimidatingly prestigious sounding Oxford Brookes that gets back to me first with a request for an interview in three days’ time. Somehow, despite my world of “no,” I’m not anxious. I don’t spiral into “what ifs” because I know I’ve got this. I expect a stuffy Oxbridge professor overly fond of tweed and his upper class posh accent that sets him apart from the peasants. Yet the person on the other side of the Skype call is an exuberant female professor with an accent caught soothingly between my best friend’s and an old English teacher of mine. She walks me through the program description and before I know it, we’re fifteen minutes in, chatting about vampires and the rise and fall of dystopian young adult fiction. Another ten minutes pass and my brain is hardly processing the words, “I want to recommend you for an unconditional offer.” My very first “yes” in about a year.
My mind takes a minute or two after I hang up to truly wrap itself around the meaning of the word before I’m screaming and dancing around the room. With a single “yes,” my dreams just became a none-too-distant reality. They want me. I’m wanted for all my hard work and oodles of experience in the field I’m passionate about. What’s more, as my interviewer gushed over and over again, with my current experience, I’m employable. I’d have no trouble finding a job in a heartbeat. I can suddenly see myself popping over to London for a day whenever I please, taking a leisurely stroll through Hyde Park and stopping in the British Museum for a gander at the Greek sculptures. I can see myself spending hours poring over musty leather bounds in the Bodleian Library and climbing the large stone steps that saw Hogwarts first come to life on film. I can see novel length dissertations, ready made for publication, and internships in editorial positions at large publishing houses. I can see a life, a life I once dreamed up that’ll one day, in a few months from now, become real.
So, this is a message to you, my fellow “No Generation.” If you ever find yourself stuck thinking you’re better off sitting idly by, scrolling through Tumblr, playing video games, or marathoning shows on Netflix instead of pursuing your dreams because you know a world of “no” is forthcoming, a world of “yes” is just around the corner. You just have to go out and find it.
Illustration courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod.