At the beginning of March, I hit an academic wall. Having coasted through two months at St. Andrews with relative ease, I suddenly found myself bombarded by deadlines for essays, my thesis proposal and my application to Georgetown’s accelerated graduate program. I was floundering, and I couldn’t seem to shake the fear that my grades would plummet and never recover.
This fear sounds dramatic, I know. But as someone who has always loved attending school and writing essays, replacing my passion for English study with thoughts like “Why am I even trying?” or “Maybe I just can’t do this” shattered me. Having lost my drive, I wanted to call it quits and head home — almost.
For the past month, I have been reading Nan Shepherd’s 1928 novel “The Quarry Wood,” which follows Martha Ironside on her quest to pursue higher education and gain independence despite the setbacks she faces. Martha is the black sheep in her family, who do not fully appreciate her desire to leave home and attend college. In pursuing her passions, Martha must choose herself over her family.
While reading, I was struck not just by the lengths to which Martha goes to further her education, such as biking to and from her university in gruesome weather conditions, but also by her exuberant attitude toward learning. She has an insatiable curiosity, which Shepherd describes when she writes, “She had the control that comes of purpose; her purpose was the getting of knowledge. There was no end to the things that one could know.”
For Martha, the acquisition of knowledge is worth every sacrifice: every disparaging comment from her family, every bike ride and every lost love. At the beginning of the novel, Martha is trapped in a spiritual quarry that stifles her progress; in the end, she ascends from the quarry with a newfound maturity and intellect.
In light of International Women’s Day, which took place earlier this month, it is fitting that “The Quarry Wood” also tells a story of feminine resilience in the face of social pressures. Martha was expected to take care of her family and get married, but she defied those expectations to seek what made her, not others, happy.
Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to attend Georgetown University, which was not a fully coed institution until 1969, when there are women around the world who are still fighting for this opportunity. I may be tired and dejected at times, but I am at least at university thanks to women like Martha and Shepherd, who fought for their seats.
Like Martha, I found myself trapped in a mental quarry earlier this month. I was stuck in a pit, and rather than search it for minerals or gems, I dwelled in its darkness. But Martha’s journey inspired me to stay curious and let the pursuit of knowledge guide me, rather than constructed measures of success.
She helped me once again see school as a place to explore my academic interests and not simply as a necessary stepping stone to financial security.
Once I ascended from my quarry, I could see that things were, and still are, perfectly fine. Later that week, I received marks on my first essay for my Renaissance literature course and breathed a huge sigh of relief because I did better than I had hoped. I narrowed down my thesis topic and successfully submitted my proposal on time. I wrote this column, after almost a month out of print.
I know my academic quarry, like any pit, will not disappear overnight, and I will likely fall into it again. However, “The Quarry Wood” reminds me that learning is exciting and knowledge is freeing. Like Shepherd writes, there is no end to what we can know, and I am realizing that college is only the beginning.
Kathryn Baker is a junior in the College. Novel Ideas appears in print every other Friday.