Don’t we as distance students sound a bit like Pinocchio, with our study-minded conscience as Jiminy Cricket and our benefactors as ol’ Gepeto? The pine-based puppet, like our digital avatar selves, promised, “I will study, I will work, I will do all that you tell me, for indeed I have become weary of being a puppet, and I wish at any price to become a boy” (Collodi, 1883). Pinocchio’s life journey echoes our mission to grow and learn and be real pupils. In fact, our desire for authenticity is shared with brick-and-mortar students who also seek to experience life-affirming education from their institutions. We get what we give, not what is handed to us by our superiors. Unlike buying real estate on the moon and calling ourselves pioneers, we can’t purchase a diploma; we have to work for it and, like Pinocchio, avoid too many dalliances with our personal equivalent of the Pleasure Island.
For all of us, too, lurking in the darkness behind our eyes is a dominant superstructure of culture and ideals. Core beliefs, often unspoken, pull a lot of strings in our lives and if we become puppets of our dogmas, we lose the will to learn with an open mind. Our essential drive to overcome inanities of external influence is what furnishes a sense of critical thinking; this is why our tutors typically accept any point of view in an essay so long as we argue with quotes from textbooks and course material. Nevertheless, as life unfolds, we are forever yanked, hauled, and drawn in varying directions.
Katherine Hepburn: Breaking the Tethers of Social Expectations
Enter Katherine Hepburn, one of the most iconic independent spirits in classic Hollywood, whose individualized identity illustrates the best about AU as a solitary and edifying life pursuit. In a film titled Holiday, she claimed that “we’re all grand at seventeen and after that the sickness sets in” (Stewart & Buckman). Maybe we’d be wise, when defining our personal expectations for authenticity in our academic journey, to reach back to our late teenage selves for some inspiration. At that age, for instance, the strait-edge (ie. no dope, no booze) punk band Minor Threat exclaimed “go to college, be a man, what’s the f*ckin’ deal, it’s not how old I am, it’s how old I feel!” To be sure, the older we become the more valuable our sense of youthful joviality becomes. The weight of the world is not something new either; memes simply reflect our natural tendency to look outside ourselves and, at times, see a long list of problems to be solved and rights to be wronged. When the world becomes a project like our identities there’s no end to fixer-upper issues to address. At AU too, there’s a perpetual plethora of assignments to work on when we could otherwise be lollygagging through a meatball day of random pleasures. Just like Pinocchio. To really find our groove we need to see the light at the end of the tunnel of blue screen laptop light.
There’s a reason that wisdom often harkens back to our innocent halcyon days of yore— when life was a shimmering blissful sequence of momentary pleasures: ice cream, water pistols, and running hither and yon, for instance. Truly finding meaning in our lives and our futures involves transcending the here and now and remembering that, at some level, time gives only a warped view of our progress, and that includes the present. The present can’t be our only concern because, given our imaginations and memories, we also live always-already in the past and future. Like a rainbow or a thunderclap, inspiration can be made, retained, and grasped and then just as rapidly whisked away into obscurity. Knowing this is to know that we can be content during each phase of our life’s journey. Life doesn’t have to be a struggle for meaning, at least not perpetually.
John Kabat-Zinn, perhaps as a rejoinder to those who feel that they must somehow always go somewhere in their being and with their lives, stated unequivocally that “wherever you go, there you are” (1994). So, as we proceed with our studies and the larger weave of our life, let’s remember to enjoy the journey. While we were never quite as wooden as Pinocchio nor as fleshy as our newborn selves, nor even as real as he comes to feel (well, maybe metamorphically), we can always be aware of those ephemeral strings that tug and yank us in myriad directions and may hamper our sense of being in the now and in the future.
Obscured motives and meanings abound in university life, from choosing our disciplinary major to picking our whimsical electives, to deciding how to justify our existence to others who ask whether AU is a real university. Hanging over us is the query many hear about whether AU is a real university akin to, say, the University of Alberta (Go Golden Bears!) or University of Calgary (Go Dinos!). Possibly a solid nickname for imagined sports team (Go AU Auroras?) would help matters but, in the end, what matters most is our individual sense of achievement as we slog through coursework. My Italian-Canadian wife reminds me also that Pinocchio may be an exemplar of the LGBTQ+ community; his saintly journey is hinted at by his name which, although referencing the Pine wood of his makeup, might also be a reference to Italian slang for an effete, homosexual, male: one who is a bit finocchio (2023). There’s even an accompanying hand gesture. Of course, nowadays we can be a real version of whatever gender we feel ourselves to be!
“What are you going to do with that?” is a phrase, regrettably, that haunts our studies in a far more substantial way than it does when a culinary interloper notes that we haven’t eaten the pickle on our plate. In the end, though, all of life depends on how we account for ourselves to ourselves; yet, AU can no more give us purpose that any other vocation, hobby or career. A healthy perspective on our studies surely includes a narrative leading us to an ultimate goal: a sense of ourselves as an authentic version of our intellectual identity. After all, we may fool some of ourselves some of the time (by, for instance looking busy by typing furiously) but we can’t deceive our heart of hearts and brain of brains all the time. Like Pinocchio, to be our best version of ourselves means to fit our personal definition of a real pupil.