27 November, 2008

What's a Girl Gotta Do To Get Some Instruction Around Here?

I knew that moving to a new country along was going to be hard. I knew that the fashion program at St. Martins was incredibly difficult. I knew that I would be lonely, that the weather would be crappy, that I would be a broke student who would have to choose between food and art supplies. But I've run into so many difficult things that I never could have anticipated. It's all of those things that add up when I'm not looking.

I had a complete meltdown the night before last. I swore I was going to leave school and move home. I believed myself as I said it, and I said it a lot. I said to to a classmate. I said it to my boyfriend. I said it to all my room mates, one by one, and then again as a group over dinner. I told them that CSM could go to hell, and that I had known from the moment I was accepted into this school that it was the wrong decision. I kept on saying it until I passed out curled up on my bed. I wanted to wake up back home and pretend this whole mess never happened, because I was so furious at my school and my tutors.

Before I continue, let me explain something that I just figured out myself. Here at St. Martins there is no equivalent to what an American school might call "a teacher". We don't have classes either, instead our schedule is project-based. On some days of the week, we have a tutor in to meet with us individually. Our tutors are the head of our program, and they are not there to teach us, but to offer guidance and critiques on the conceptual/design level. They also grade us. On certain days of the week we also have technicians in. Apparently technicians are either there to assist us with sewing/drafting/making difficult things, or to (get this...)do it for us, if it's too difficult. Yes, you read that right. Technicians are there to help us sew things that we don't know how to sew. Because CSM isn't training seamstresses, they are training designers... That's a mindfuck for me. (At my last school if they found out that another student, much less a hired professional was helping you do your homework, you failed the project.)

So we have Tutors and we have Technicians, but the gap in between that in my experience should be filled by a Teacher is left empty. Instead, St. Martins is all about making the students teach themselves through trial and error.

Ah, the dreaded trial and error...

There seems to be a certain artistic disposition that lends itself to creative experimenting. These are the kinds of people that couldn't think inside the box if they tried. They will try anything to get the look they want, no matter how strange or silly it may sound. These are often the people who make it in a business that is always looking for the next innovative thing. These are the sorts of people that end up at CSM.

I am not one of those people.

I am an idea person. I have no patience for the actual construction of a garment. I hate sewing (I have been known to fall into fits of rage while trying to sew) and I despise the problem-solving aspects of pattern drafting. I understand how these things work, and I am very good at helping others find solutions to the problems in their work. But when it comes to my own work, I have no patience for the process.

Maybe I'm just lazy...?

So to clarify, I am a person who designs, understands how to construct and make the design, but needs help making it, or have someone to make it for me. Because when I run into a problem I cannot solve I am not the kind of person to experiment over and over until I find the solution. When I hit a wall, I call in a specialist (read: a teacher) to help me break down the wall.

And this is where all the trouble started the day I nearly got into a fight with my tutor.

At our last meeting, my tutor had suggested that I try a brand new technique to make my design. Excited at the suggestion I immediately went out and found five different books at the library on the topic. Over the weekend I browsed the books, bought supplies, did a series of tests and experiments, and felt confident that I could make this crazy idea happen. All I needed was some help coming up with a way to work around one problem I couldn't solve.

I went into the classroom that day with some very specific questions. I wasn't entirely sure where to begin with this project. I asked the pattern drafting technician for some advice, and that is when the trouble began. Her answer was, "I don't know. I've never done this before."

I couldn't accept that solution so I reworded my question to be more specific. She told me that she had no idea and that I should go buy supplies to experiment with.

Frustrated but determined, I spent the next three hours running around the city blowing my food budget on supplies. When I came back to school and began working I was optimistic. But each technique I tried was failing and I wasn't sure how to proceed, and every time I asked someone for help I was given nothing but suggestions on ways to spend more money on things that may or may not work.

All I wanted was some god damn help from a teacher. I had done all the research and work to teach myself how to do something new, and now I wanted some educational support from the institution that I pay huge sums of money to. But no!

Through this ordeal what I discovered is that at CSM, they do not teach you anything. No, at CSM they assist you in discovering things on your own.

So I stormed out of the classroom feeling as though I had just moved halfway around the world to attend a school where they do not teach us anything. And now that I have finally made a pathetic excuse of a home for myself, I was going to have to pack up my whole life AGAIN and move back home to finish a degree at a pathetic technical school.

I was so furious and miserable that day. I needed to talk to someone who would understand where I was coming from- someone who wouldn't try to solve the problem for me, but sympathize about how much effort it takes to just LIVE sometimes when you've just moved to another country. I wanted someone to agree that the whole CSM system was shit and that I had left everything to come here for no good reason. I wanted someone to agree with me, and to come fly out here to help me move home. Or maybe I wanted someone to just fly out here to give me a hug and let me cry on their shoulder for a little while. I just needed a friend. But I don't know anyone in London well enough to show them this raw, exposed side of me.

I wanted to call my best friend back home, but it was the wee hours of the morning. I don't have an international calling plan on my new phone yet, and I haven't been able to talk to her since I moved. I didn't want the first conversation we had to involve waking her middle of the night to cry in her ear. So I texted my boyfriend, who listened to me bitch and cry and swear that I was moving home for hours, until he decided I'd indulged in enough of a pity party to need a verbal slap upside the head.

I wish I could say that he shook me out of it, but he didn't. Instead I curled up on my bed and hugged my knees, sobbing until I passed out. I woke up an hour later shaking from the cold and crawled under the quilt, feeling ashamed of myself and miserable.

Needless to say, not my best day.

But I did learn something about how I have to approach my education here. I realize now that if I am this stressed about a single project, I need to rethink my approach even if it means I fail again. I decided to scrap everything my tutor suggested and do something entirely different, whether or not he likes it.

As a result of this decision my mood has been much more upbeat. I am incredibly stressed for time as I am starting over on a project most people began a week before, but I feel better about what I am trying to do. I am experimenting with fabric and trying to teach myself some new things.

And as a sort of penance for being such an emotional mess the day before, I went into school and spent a lot of time helping many of my classmates with their patterns. As one of the only students in the class with any drafting experience, word has spread that I can offer some sort of advice. It made me feel better to know that although I am struggling to keep it together, I do know something about fashion.

More than that I realized that I love to teach. My classmates suggested that I look into being a class helper for first year students for pay. I would love to do that, if I could. It's so satisfying to work with someone and solve a problem. Although I do not know the conventional way to do things, CSM shares my opinion on pattern drafting: if it fits, and it looks the way you want it, it is correct and bugger the rules.

So teaching is good. But I've found that what I like best about it is working with another designer to make something. Which made me think that I would like to try my next project as a team project. I plan to find a partner to design with before informing our tutor that we are a design team for this round of the game. That sounds like a recipe for success, in my opinion.

So CSM and life in London is turning out to be a lot more difficult than I expected, in ways I couldn't have anticipated. It takes so much out of me just to stay afloat that I feel very brittle of late. But I am trying to stay optimistic. I've spoken with a counselor at school about my concerns, and she informed that almost every international student at CSM starts to feel this doubt and depression at the three to five month mark. She also assured me that it will get better.

It will get better.

I was worried that going home for the Christmas holiday would make coming back to London harder. But now I cannot wait to go home and I wish I could change my flight to go back next weekend instead of the 16th. I am hoping that being with my friends and boyfriend and family will recharge my batteries for my next round in the ring against CSM.

I just have to keep reminding myself that it will get better.

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