Clippings: New efforts bring risks and lessons

Before this December, my mother knew very little about Shakespeare — and almost certainly not enough to teach Shakespeare.
She was forced to confront the Bard by the will of a higher power. The faculty at Centre College, in my hometown of Danville, Ky., had decided it was her turn to teach Humanities 101, a year-long whirlwind introduction to the Western literary and cultural canon.
I spent the holidays with my parents, both Spanish professors. From my arrival in Danville until my return to Middlebury just after New Year’s, I found myself over and over again talking with people who were confronting challenges they weren’t quite ready for. These tasks weren’t just difficult but uncertain, surprising and risky.
We all have to bump up against these kinds of challenges. As a new intern at the Independent (itself an exciting challenge), I thought I’d reflect in my first column about how people surmounted — or at least anticipated — some outsized challenges during my stay at home.
Though my mom’s background in Spanish literature prepared her well for parts of Humanities 101, analyzing symphonies and teaching Shakespeare were both decidedly outside her comfort zone. My dad decided to try to make preparing the course more enjoyable; his Christmas present to her was a DVD set of “Playing Shakespeare,” a TV series from the ’80s in which members of England’s Royal Shakespeare Company worked on scenes and discussed how it felt to interpret and perform Shakespeare’s plays.
Just like me, my parents are intellectually curious (not to say we’re nerds), and ended up immensely enjoying watching the series and preparing mom’s class together.
There is something to be said for doing things for which we’re a little under-prepared.
Whether we succeed or not, we may surprise ourselves and learn about how we react to situations about which we’re less than secure. In addition to leaving our comfort zones, sometimes (whether we like it or not), we have to leave the wider “success zone” and enter a place where failure looms as a real possibility.
I don’t want to glorify the Peter Principle or argue that we should throw ourselves at problems without any preparation. But sometimes doing something we don’t think we can quite handle is the way to learn, and to experience the exhilaration of complete engagement.
A larger-scale confrontation with a risky challenge was also taking place while I was home for the holidays. Earlier this year, Danville’s city council finally ended a controversial, multi-year battle for the legalization of alcohol.
For decades, mine had been a dry town: No alcohol sales of any kind were permitted. A few years ago, Danville went from dry to “moist”; alcohol was allowed in restaurants of a certain size that made a certain proportion of their profits from food. No sales were allowed on Sundays.
Finally, this past year, the town became completely wet. Since the decision, more beer and liquor stores have sprung up than the local economy can logically support. I was in favor of the change, but it still felt surreal to see beer in Wal-Mart.
The wet vote was both a challenge and a wildcard. A few elected officials got voted out this fall. The effects on Danville’s economy and culture are still shaking out. Yet, in a larger analysis, the risk was worth taking for the town’s future.
Another risky challenge is on the horizon for my family. Compared to many of my friends’ parents, my dad is old. I’ll be discreet about his age, but suffice it to say my father has back problems, hearing problems and heart problems. He’s on a rainbow of medications.
As I wait for GRE scores, he waits for the results of a four-hour battery of memory tests he took last week. Though he jokes caustically about his “deterioration,” I know he feels a little helpless and insecure. No one is ever really prepared for old age and the fears and uncertainties that can come with it.
I’m not ready to graduate from Middlebury College. I’m currently scrambling for clues about what to do after May 22. I’m probably not quite prepared for an internship with the Independent. But here I am, a little nervous, doing my best.
I want to learn more about and give back to my chosen community here in Middlebury. It will be a challenge, and I’m not sure if I’m ready. But maybe that’s the point: Sometimes the best way to learn is by doing.
J.P. Allen is an intern at the Addison Independent and a senior at Middlebury College.

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