The Toronto Star

This article got me into a lot of trouble. I'd asked the Star to publish it under a pseudonym, but they published it under my real name. They also encouraged me to write more for them. But after this, it was some time before I had anything else to say that might be meaningful to a Canadian audience. I remember my father commenting that 'now I'd gotten it out of my system.' I don't think he or my mother ever quite understood why I wrote this.

The Toronto Star, Mar. 5, 2002

Dreams on hold

Life plans unravel when a student's university major puts logic before passion

Michael Kanert


I had a very simple, logical plan: I would go to university for four years, get a degree that would land me a respectable job, and then safely pursue my true passions knowing that I had something reliable to fall back on when I needed to put food on the table. It was watertight – so watertight, in fact, that when my resolve melted and I tried to escape a year and a half later, I was completely powerless to do so.


I was an academic juggernaut in high school. I was the top graduating student in my region with a near-perfect average. I loved English, art and drama, but I also excelled in math and science. So when it came time to choose a university degree, I decided that I should enrol in a challenging program that required a high academic standing and opened as many doors as possible. Law and medicine didn't appeal to me, so I chose engineering. I didn't even consider the arts. I sadly acknowledged that living through creativity was just a childish dream, and I couldn't justify paying tens of thousands of dollars for a degree that wouldn't provide any return on my investment. My parents agreed that this was a rational plan, and off I went with a sizeable scholarship to gain the skills that would propel me into my triumphant future.


Things went a little downhill from there.


I struggled through my first year. It wasn't that the work was unreasonably difficult; I simply lost all interest in studying. In high school, arts and science had balanced each other in such a way that my work in one had seemed to be a refreshing break from the other. But there were no such breaks in engineering, and while the arts came naturally to me, science required a dint of effort that I hadn't previously recognized. I would often work for hours on assignments without plodding an inch closer to a solution, and while I had once graciously brushed aside acclamations of my academic genius, I started to avoid studying simply because I didn't want to be reminded of my inadequacy. I always worried that I was falling behind, so I felt that I couldn't spare any time to write, draw or act. I stopped caring. I worked, but I took no pleasure in it.


My marks plummeted. I could barely force myself to muddle through enough of my assignments to put something on paper before going to a classmate for the solutions. My brain simply shut down when I opened a textbook. And while I wanted to pour my soul into a passage of literary eloquence or a heartfelt soliloquy, I could find no beauty in an equation. But I needed to maintain a high average to uphold my scholarship, so I kept forcing myself back to the books, ramming my head against the wall again and again, forbidding myself any fulfilling diversion.


I could have transferred. I wanted to transfer. But I would get a good job when I was done, and it would be worth four years of misery. Employment was the carrot at the end of the stick that was leading me on.


Two months into my second year, I realized that I didn't even want the carrot. It wasn't that I simply disliked my courses – I didn't want to be an engineer. Every aspect of my education had been a struggle against my passions and inclinations. Was that how I wanted to spend the rest of my life?


I tried to escape. I filled out the forms to transfer into English. I didn't care about getting a job any more. Logic was no longer a factor. I just wanted to get out. I was flailing wildly as the water seemed to be rising around me.


Before submitting the paperwork, I went home to explain my intentions to my parents. I was making a dangerous decision, and as it would limit my ability to find summer jobs that paid well enough to cover my expenses, I would need both their financial and emotional support.


I received neither. I was buffeted with the same logic that had hitherto held me to my course: Why pay for a degree that wouldn't get me a job? They threatened to stop supporting me if I transferred, and that stopped me dead in my tracks. I had no rational counter-argument. I didn't have the experience or perspective to make informed decisions. Second year was always the hardest. Just two more years. When I was done, I would be glad I'd stuck with it.


I hated my parents for that, and I hated myself for giving in so easily. I felt like a wounded soldier being sent back into the trenches. The problem was, I wasn't failing. I wasn't working myself into the ground. There were no external signs that something was wrong. I just felt like I was trapped in a jar, but I couldn't explain it in such a way that it sounded important enough for my parents to take me seriously.


So I told them I had considered killing myself.


That sent them into a frenzy. I had to pretend I'd been kidding just so they'd let me go. It wasn't so bad. I'd be fine. They didn't need to worry about me. It was just an emotional outburst.


The entirety of my life could be defined as a sustained emotional outburst.


But I went back. Lacking any taste for the carrot, the stick on which it dangled served only to thrash me, and I sank deeper into resentment for a hopeless situation. I gradually grew numb to the once-intolerable rebuffs of fruitless effort and lacklustre performance, and I was actually relieved when I lost my scholarship at the end of the year. It removed my only remaining external standard. But I became intolerantly bitter, and I hated my course of study for making me so. My wonderfully positive attitude eventually helped push away my girlfriend of three years.


But I persevered. I stuck with it. I graduated. And while I doubt that much of my engineering knowledge will survive the year, I did learn several things that will stay with me into the future. I learned persistence. I learned humility. I learned that I have undeniable limitations. I learned many things of which I would rather have remained ignorant.


But I also learned that I cannot deny my true passions.


I thought I would grow out of my childish dreams, but I can't. The words, "I want to be an actor or writer" sound so infantile, but every play I see makes me want to leap onstage, every book I read drives me to write and create. I don't think I can stop myself from pursuing the route of artistic expression. Perhaps I had to wrestle a mighty enemy at the crossroads for four years just to be sure of my determination to follow the right path.


Michael Kanert is now teaching English in Japan.

Letters to the Editor

This article was published back in the days before people could  'comment' on every piece of writing online. I was quite flattered that the Star gave my piece space for three letters to the editor.


Follow your dreams

Re Dreams on hold, boom! March 5.


I was distressed after reading Michael Kanert's article regarding what he went through in university. We often hear from our parents, "You should do what makes you happy. Follow your dreams!" A few years later, when it is time to choose a career path, that advice seems forgotten or it is pushed aside by the pressures of having to make money.


I suffer from these same pressures but I still have the time to make the right decision - that of doing what I love to do, and see myself doing 30 years from now with the same energy and passion.


But kids these days rarely think like this. To many, the goal of financial return outweighs that of personal and professional fulfillment. I will not accept this. I regret having to go against what my parents think I should do, but this is my life at stake.




Learning the hard way

Re Dreams on hold, boom! March 5.


Shakespeare's words, "To thine own self be true," are surely the moral to Michael Kanert's cris du coeur. Sadly, Kanert had to learn this lesson the hard way, but we can hope that his story is instructive to all. The idealism that ignited the hippy generation of the '60s has been displaced by the establishment mentality of today's young generation, which sees value only in material success and hard-nosed efficiency. What will it take to awaken us from our pragmatic slumber? Perhaps a wonderful play or novel by the likes of articulate, refreshing and passionate Kanert.




Reinforcing stereotypes

Re Dreams on hold, boom! March 5.


I was disappointed to see Michael Kanert take one stereotype about engineering, the guarantee of employment, and use it to reinforce another one, namely that engineering students have no venue to express their creativity.


I was involved in the arts in high school and within the first few weeks of arriving at the University of Toronto, I found myself completely immersed in its culture. Since coming to the university I have played in the Lady Godiva Memorial Band, written for the engineering newspaper, served as vice-president of Canada's largest student newspaper, and served on the executives of two campus political organizations.


If Kanert had been intent upon "pursuing the route of artistic expression," he would have felt at home in a number of engineering musical ensembles.


If Kanert thinks that engineering puts logic before passion, then he has totally missed the point. Engineers create using numbers and theories but the end product is no less creative or inspired than a poem or symphony.