Originally Written in 2013
They say into your early life romance came
And in this heart of yours burned a flame
A flame that flickered one day and died away
I have this image of who I want to be that plays in my head. She is a sophisticated lady that looks like a cross between Gabrielle Union and Queen Latifah and owns in a good number of Olivia Pope’s outfits. She exudes a cool confidence, owns a loft in the heart of downtown and can drink shots of 151 while still being classy. She’s driven, smart, and professional. Warm and loving but never suffers fools gladly. When I am feeling at my lowest, it’s usually because I fear that I am straying too far from the track she must be on.
In the fall of 2008 I started my junior year of college. Because of how close this meant that I was to reaching my professional goals, it was also when I began to imagine Sophisticated Lady in hyper detail.
At the risk of getting too personal with you all, let’s just say I’m a generally speaking a “special occasion” kind of shaver. Which is to say I wear pants a lot. But I just knew that Sophisticated Lady was not like me. She was perfect at all times. And unlike dieting and exercising, practices that would wax and wane with my motivation, Nair Hair Removal lets you get rid of hair without much effort. So my Nair obsession started. If I wasn’t going to be skinnier or healthier, I was certainly going to be smoother.
I could also be smarter, academically speaking. I didn’t fail unless I wanted to. Sophisticated Lady and I had that much in common. I took it to heart when my mom told me as a kid that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. It became instinctual for me. I would come across some obstacle in life, weigh my options and decide whether my effort was worth the reward. When it was, I never failed.
I don’t want to delude you, dear reader, into thinking I was some sort of straight-A student. I wasn’t. But I did some relatively impressive things at my time in the Shaker Heights School system (like earn a scholarship to visit Japan for a month and win second place in both the Science Olympiad and a regional math competition). And I don’t want to come across unaware of how much of blessing this belief in my mental skills is. I get that this isn’t something that people just have naturally. All the more reason to use this gift every chance I got.
So when I heard in 2008 that do something called Cross Registration, which is where one can take a class for free at another university if they were full time at Cleveland State, my financially strapped self seized the opportunity.
Then, with disillusion deep in your eyes
You learned that fools in love soon grow wise
The years have changed you, somehow
I see you now
A little background first: in sixth grade I fell in love with the country of Japan. Yes, admittedly this was in large part due to the massive amount of anime premiering on Cartoon Network. But it was also the first time I remember thinking “But what was the rest of the world doing?” when we had to study European and American history yet again in class. From then on, I followed a path of total immersion into Japanese culture which I had thought had to stop when I learned CSU didn’t offer Japanese 201. Learning about Cross Registration not only gave me the chance to take said class but I could take it for free.
The only issue? It was at Case Western Reserve University.
It wasn’t the prestige of the school but rather the students that I attributed this newly formed knot in my stomach to. Sophisticated Lady would have been just fine around them but I wasn’t her yet. I was a poor, insecure nerdy black girl before Aisha Tyler and Donald Glover were popular. Case Western is made primarily of well-off white nerdy guys (or at least that was my perception at the time). I had classes with these same guys in elementary school when I was at Orange (before I moved to Shaker Heights) and while one would think that nerdiness could cross all barriers, the other adjectives I used kept me from feeling included. I was always on the outside around them. The black speck of pepper in a sea of salt. The only one missing a Y chromosome*. The kid from across the tracks. Pick your metaphor but interactions with these eventual Case Western students were all inherently awkward for young Jasmine.
Awkwardness leads to nervousness.
Nervousness into fear.
Fear into intimidation.
But not this time, I thought. Ass was going to be kicked; names were going to be taken. Nothing as small as intimidation was going to stop me from learning a second. I mean, Sophisticated Lady knew at least four languages.
So I walked in to Case a year and two chapters behind the rest of the class because apparently the Case professor, unlike my CSU professor, managed to finish teaching “Genki 1”. I don’t remember how the first class at Case went but I do remember the professor approaching me with motherly concern afterward as she asked if I was going to able to handle this class. Every part of me except my mouth said no. I was way too far behind and I still had to handle my full course load at CSU. But if I put my mind to it I could do it. That model had never failed me; just like how Sophisticated Lady never failed at anything she touched.
So I worked hard. I watched all the movies I had in Japanese with no subtitles. I got tutored by the professor on Fridays. I forwent anything I ever had that looked like a social life.
I was Japan.
You know, when I wasn’t editing films on the professional editing software Avid Xpress Pro, learning film theory, tutoring a Saudi Arabian woman, taking pictures for the Vindicator, working part-time, working out, running a student organization or doing time consuming things like breathing and eating. I had given up on sleeping for the most part.
Looking at what I just typed I should have known that was a lot on my plate. I also should have known that it was not just the melanin deficient rich male students, but really the thought of taking this all on that tied that knot in my stomach. But I knew if I just worked hard enough I could still do it all. Still be all for everyone.
Sophisticated Lady is.
I am guessing that by this point you can tell that this plan didn’t work.
I failed the class. I did all the work and extra credit I could but my papers always came back dripping with red ink. Near the end of the semester the professor showed me some sympathy and I got a delay on taking the final. I can only assume she did this because my eyes sat in shallow graves, my hands were covered in a stress induced rash, and I forgot what sleeping was like. Because of this delay, I was able to finish my CSU finals with high enough scores to stay in good standing.
But I never went back to Case to finish my last final.
I couldn’t. I remember looking at my Genki 2 book as I was preparing to walk out the door and head to Case. I remember thinking I could study a little more on the bus before I had to take the final. I remember trying to conjure up every little Kanji I had studied in the past four months. And then I remember something in me just breaking.
I could no longer see the Sophisticated Lady.
I failed. I put in all kinds of work, I had done everything right and I still failed.
I started this essay the day I walked away from Case and I finish today almost five years later. During that time, I’ve headed down a slightly different path. I always was going to make movies and television shows, but the six grade nerd in me now knows it won’t be in Japan. At least not without a translator.
This was an incredibly hard pill to swallow and even after all this time, it’s still stuck in my throat. My shear will, my drive, my dedicated focus that is so much a part of my being that it oozes from my pores and speaks before I do, wasn’t enough. It was met with something greater. And today I can only guess that this helpless feeling is what one is left with after God closes a door on you, though I still couldn’t begin to tell you why He would close said door.
Here’s what I can tell you: in my attempt to not be myself and instead be this amalgamation of a perfect woman I had created, I suffered from tension headaches, I grinned my teeth and I started having my first bout of thoroughly frightening anxiety dreams .
I also left some Nair on my legs too long one morning during that semester and permanently scarred my legs.
Large pale blotches run down the front of my leg now. They have only just now begun to fade after five years. I am sure they will never go back to the correct shade of brown. The self-hatred I felt back then has manifested in a way that forces me to remember to love myself fully today. I have to remember that this version of Jasmine, the one that isn’t always health conscious, doesn’t own a loft and has several discolored patches on her occasionally shaven legs, deserves all the love I poured into Sophisticated Lady. I also have to trust that while Sophisticated Lady doesn’t fail, Jasmine does because that’s what actual human beings do.
Is that all you really want?
No, sophisticated lady,
I know, you miss the love you lost long ago
And when nobody is nigh you cry
*I wrote this in 2013 before I knew much about trans exclusionary language. I’m not sure yet how to creatively rewrite that sentence to be inclusive but I’m working on it and am open to suggestions.