I am not academically gifted. I am academically jammy, which is fair compensation. I lucked out with wonderful teachers in secondary school, who shouted at me as Gaeilge until I was able to shout back, or stayed after-hours to give extra lessons in maths and French. There were Saturday study sessions too, during which I would feverishly write things unconnected to my schoolwork: screenplays about teenaged thieves, short stories about substance abuse (I was reading a lot of Melvin Burgess at the time). Nevertheless, my teachers’ pains taken led to my scraping together enough points in my Leaving Certificate to secure a place at University College Cork studying Arts. Participants took four subjects in first year, of which we were to choose two for subsequent years. I decided on English, Geography, Sociology and Psychology.
Six weeks after I turned seventeen I moved the hundred miles south to attend UCC. I started out diligent about my coursework, comprehensive in my reading. Textbooks had an esoteric, foreboding scholarly depth, each one a little Necronomicon; I would bury my nose in the pages and inhale. Arriving early to lectures, I found others who, like me, were new to freedom, whose faces couldn’t hide the many minute blisses of pristine adulthood. We clutched folders, tapped pens off our teeth, made eye-contract, ventured witticisms. Outside the lecture halls of the Boole Basement I found other young men and women who would walk with me to buy paper-cup coffees and take flyers for cheap club nights and stand in queues at the university bank for grant advances. The air throbbed with all manner of excitements: longing, bass, traffic, dashing steps.
But I made time to be alone, to pick my way around Cork City. I learned the bus routes and the landmarks – the red brick in Shanakiel, Father Mathew’s statue, Sir Henry’s, Fitzgerald Park. I learned the split courses of the Lee and the layout of the English Market, which clubs played which musical genres, and, as I was still too young to legally drink, the names of relevant bouncers and barmen. I got a feel for the place. I fell in love with the place. I fell in love with the place and out of love with my studies.
It is not necessarily conducive to academic learning to expand your brain; in fact, in the wrong head (mine) the two are mutually exclusive. The wider my sky got, the stronger my voice became, the surer my feet fell . . . the less captivating academia seemed. I decided which two of my four subjects I would drop: Sociology and Psychology, which I found interesting as a source of ideas for post-club conversation, but otherwise kind of pointless (being seventeen, I assumed I already knew everything about Life, Love and Social Mores). English and Geography felt more vital, so when I had to work I worked on them. And over Psychology and Sociology I chose the physiology of Cork City.
The teeming Arts I student body couldn’t fit in on-campus examination halls, so we were directed all over the city to sit our end-of-year exams: to the Neptune Stadium in Blackpool, the Silver Springs Hotel in Tivoli, and other places. I didn’t have the money to pay for the arranged busses. My mapping of the city came in handy; I could just walk. So it was on the day of my Psychology exam.
But it occurred to me, as I set out, that maybe I might have paid a little more heed to the subjects I’d chosen to study. That maybe I was being a bit cavalier. That I didn’t have the bus fare because university was an expensive pursuit. I resolved to work harder in second year and do UCC’s various fees justice. Free of Sociology and Psychology, I would knuckle down. I would have both: the streets and my degree.
I reached the venue and sat with friends, waiting on the bell, going over notes.
‘My biggest worry,’ said one buddy, ‘is the question on cognitive psychology.’
‘Cognitive,’ I said. ‘Cognitive is what again?’
‘What d’you mean, is what again? It’s a module. The middle one.’
‘There’s a module in cognitive psychology?’
My friend dug out a timetable and jabbed at it.
‘How,’ he cried, ‘could you miss an entire module?’
But how could I not, in my urban rambles and diggings and viewings? In my delight at being grown and untethered I had managed to overlook the entire middle section of my Psychology course (ironically the section that deals with attention and memory). And now I had ten minutes to prep for regurgitation the behemoth of human knowledge that is the study of the processes of the mind.
Cognitive psychology also deals with problem solving and creativity.
These I understood well enough after years of academic jamminess. Frantically, I theorised that I could pass Psychology if I was sufficiently glib on the page; I’d spent all those hours at Saturday study writing fiction; this was just another application. Without a way around it I battled through it, as a desperate explorer machetes her way through the rainforest. I sat in that exam hall and vomited one thousand words of bombastic gobbledygook. I camouflaged my ignorance with common sense made to seem erudite by assuredly applied palaver.
I passed that exam, and so the module, and so the whole first year of college. I passed on pretence and brass neck, by the seat of my pants. I am still not entirely sure what I might learn by studying cognitive psychology, but I know what I learned by not studying it: how to find myself in the city, and how to write my way out of anything.