The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

My quasi-religious pilgrimage to Oxford University — will I be judged sufficiently pious?

In past columns, Charlotte Day has illuminated aspects of her life as a Third Culture Kid who was born in Sydney, Australia, grew up mostly in New York and is now studying at an English boarding school in Kent. Today she describes her quest to earn a place at Oxford, which she has long revered as her spiritual home.

At 8:45 in the morning, my taxi turns down Holywell Street, and slows to a stop at the front entrance of New College, Oxford. Approaching the Santiago de Compostela of my adolescent dreams, my state of mind can best be described through shameless lyricism.

At this hour, the streets are populated only by the purposeful. Each dark-suited individual has some thought of unfathomable gravity revolving behind his or her furrowed brow. The morning light casts a celestial glow over the Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian Theatre, the Bridge of Sighs. Uniformly, these benevolent sandstone structures breathe in the sun.

God be in my head

Despite these poetic musings, I am incredibly nervous. I left my boarding school bed at a chill 5:00 a.m., knowing I did not know Crime and Punishment well enough, I did not know the Brothers Karamazov at all, and my ideas about the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf were utterly laughable.

Once they found me out, would I break down crying? And what about the unseen poem I would be told to discuss on the spot? If it were impermeable, I would certainly not be able to bluff my way through it. After all, what spotty 17-year-old can deceive them? Those eagles of intellect, with their acute, focused gazes; indisputable, measured statements; considered pauses; lofty, balanced arguments…

Oh! It was all too judicious and reasonable for an impulsive wreck like me.

You see, my feelings about Oxford are akin to an otherwordly obsession. So passionate have I grown about this ancient seat of learning that my preparations for this journey, especially in recent months, had taken on a quasi-religious purposefulness.

I spent the end of last year trying to live up to a set of self-imposed monastic ideals. I was to be irreproachably right at all times, my logic to be consistently clear, my views to display great penetration and uncanny powers of observation.

I even dressed in a way that reflected these intellectual ideals: threadbare corduroys in varying neutral tones, and moth-eaten jumpers would create a suitable aesthetic. I was unsparing of myself, subsisting largely on Lenten fare (watery porridge, steamed broccoli, etc.), and never going to bed before one o’clock if I could be reading instead.

Now I simply had to get into Oxford to complete this quest for ascetic perfection.

Getting in to Oxford… Now I am remembering all those melancholy 13-year-old evenings listening to Professor Stuart Lee’s Beowulf lectures on iTunesU, craving with all my ill-adjusted, lonely heart, that one day I would be sitting in that lecture theatre.

Lo, the full, final sacrifice

I am inching closer. Sitting in New College’s Lecture Room Six, with my baggage stacked around me, I will not return to the outside world for four days, and each minute of each of those days is shrouded in mystery.

A steady click comes from the two connect-four sets in the room: the science and law applicants letting off steam.

I gaze around the room. The English applicant is curled into herself, scanning a volume of Ezra Pound with a look of fatalistic despair on her pinched face.

The classicists sit in a convivial circle, trading sections of newspaper.

I take out my Beowulf and start reviewing my notes — columns of fluorescent green post-its, each bearing a comment more absurd than the last. Will I look too intimidating if I do this? I do not seek to intimidate — if only I could tell everyone in that room how intimidated I feel!

I glance at the Russian poem I have been given to analyze, by Yevtushenko: age, youth, gorging an omelette…middle age…the paranoia of the young? Our tendency to fill our lives with empty nothings, like omelette gorging? But these are rather pedestrian observations — is not some sort of inspiration called for? I avail myself of some instant oatmeal — to weigh down those jumpy nerves with a bit of stodge.

It is not hard to spot the two Etonians. One, so endearingly badly dressed, his argyle jumper tucked into a pair of murky-water-green corduroys. Both, so painstakingly polite, so frightfully embarrassed about their origins, so terribly unwilling to share where they live, or let slip that a relative of theirs had once been at the college himself.

I do not deny that there is a lack of diversity in that room, nor do I seek to explain it. The other candidates I encounter in Lecture Room Six are, every one, interested, charming, honest, terribly nervous teenagers — not representative of a centuries-old tradition of inequality.

Beati quorum via (I will lift up my eyes)

I am summoned out of Lecture Room Six to confront the English interview, which takes place by an electric fire, in an office lined with volumes of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Perched uneasily on a fur-swathed sofa, I answer questions on Doctor Faustus and the aesthetics of mathematics. Each response meets with a dreamy sort of assent, notes are jotted, and the conversation becomes increasingly oblique.

And then it is time for my Russian interview. I climb to the top of a rickety wooden stairwell, after a walk through the quad, turned hostile in the penetrating wet. (By now it is our second day.)

One tutor merges with the sofa, which in its turn has disappeared beneath stacks of application forms, submitted essays, and Modern Languages Aptitude Tests. The other sits before the fire, her high forehead reflecting its glow.

The discussion that ensues prompts the eyebrow-raising and chilling nods I have foreseen, and then questions about War and Peace — leaving the deficiencies of my 13-year-old’s reading of that tome quite exposed.

Afterwards, I stand, bedraggled in the dark quad, with a terrible sense of emptiness. I have two more days to fill; ahead of me, long hours in Lecture Room Six drinking bitter Tetley tea from a plastic cup. The expansive passion I have carried inside for years has tightened, wound itself into a taut cord of longing.

And I saw a new Heaven

When the fellows swish in to formal dinner, I almost feel ill. I do not know where to rest my eyes, each square inch of wood paneling makes me twitch with anxiety.

We rise with the hollow thud of wood on wood, grace is muttered in Latin, a mallet bangs, and we sit again, our murmured conversation echoing from the high arches of the ceiling.

I have always envisioned an affinity between Oxford and the stars, and even carry an image of my 14th-century counterpart adjusting his astrolabe while attempting to unveil the secrets of the heavens.

I cannot help praying, then, that a benevolent cosmos might know of the yearnings — my own and those of the other applicants — sympathize with our plight, and sweep our destinies into her swirling compass.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, when we invite in a guru to help us sort out some of the misconceptions our site has been propagating over the past few weeks on spiritual quests.

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img: Charlotte Day surveying Trafalgar Square in London

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