Ozymandias and Me

So there I was, face and eyes into a chemistry degree. Until I switched. Full focus on biology. Until I side-stepped. Equal parts biology and psychology. Settled. Embryology, bacteriology, bio-chemistry, genetics (my favourite), abnormal psychology, behaviour modification, cognitive processes, sensation and perception. Lots of good stuff.

I needed an elective, and at one point, I took an English course. Turned out I was the only science student there, and I slipped into the small classroom, found a seat in the back corner. Struggled with the gnawing sensation that I didn’t belong. That I was setting myself up for failure.

Then, during this course, two things happened. They were two very small things, but even all these years later, I remember them with a lovely clarity.

The first occurred when the professor read a poem by Keats, a poet who died at the age of 25. The poem began with the following lines:

When I have fears that I may cease to be Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain…

As he was reading, his voice cracked. When he finished, he was silent for a moment, pinched the bridge of his nose. I watched him as he removed his glasses from his face, and wiped each eye with the back of his hand. My mouth was probably hanging open ever so slightly. He said something to the class, but I have no recollection what it was. All I know is even though he’d likely read that poem dozens of times, it still moved him. And witnessing such emotion moved me.

The second small thing involved another poem. Part of the course required choosing a sonnet and analyzing it. I chose Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, and I had a long conversation with my father about the meaning of these two lines:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

A couple of weeks later, the professor called me into his office to return my paper. On his desk, my work was open, and a paragraph near the end was circled in a ring of red.

“What is that?” he asked.

I was honest and explained that I discussed the sonnet with my father, and his interpretation made more sense. So, I highlighted his idea, and added my own as a possibility. A little offshoot. That was all. Barely noticeable.

He frowned, closed the paper, and in a gentle, encouraging tone, said, “You should have trusted yourself.”

I walked to the other side of campus, into the biology lab, checked my agar plates, wondered how I could describe the bloom of bacteria. And I thought about the precision of science and the precision of words, and I recognized a contradiction inside of me.