I was emailing back and forth with Sarah from The Yachtless the other day, and she mentioned that the photo I use as my avatar isn’t a close up shot of my face. In fact — not only is it not a close up shot, it’s not even of me! And it occurred to me that I had never written a post about why I use the icon I do.
Here it is:
That’s the actress Olivia Williams, playing the teacher Miss Stubbs in the film An Education. I like it as an avatar for me (since I didn’t want to use a picture of real me) because I have dark hair and glasses and, you know, I’m a teacher. And I probably often have that particular look on my face 🙂
But there’s more to it than that. An Education is one of my favorite movies. The plot, for those who haven’t seen it: Carey Mulligan is Jenny, a very bright high school student headed for Oxford University. But she’s chafing at the bit to get at life, real life! And when romantic older man Peter Sarsgaard shows up in a hot car, offering her exciting restaurant meals and jewelry and trips to Paris, she drops out of school. But! in a shocking twist, restaurants and jewelry and Paris, while exciting, are also being paid for by extremely dubious means, and the man of her dreams is not really very dreamy after all, in various ways which I won’t spoil too explicitly. This is one of the “educations” that Jenny gets. The other comes when she realizes that, in order to make something out of the wreck of her life, she’ll have to finish school and get to university somehow. At that point, although she’s worried she’s burned her bridges forever, she goes to see her teacher, who had seemed so buttoned up and downtrodden and boring. Here’s Olivia Williams’s apartment.
She’s wearing pants! Her hair is still pulled back, but she looks relaxed. She’s living a grown up life. It’s not an upscale life; it’s a modest one room for both kitchen and living area, and I guess there’s a little bedroom and bathroom at the back. It’s certainly not getting taken to Paris. She doesn’t seem to have a romantic partner (as many intellectual women didn’t, in those days.) But it’s a quality life. Art, books, piano. You can imagine her having her friends over to drink tea or a cocktail, to talk and play jazz. It’s a life that’s she’s earned herself, through honest labor, rather than getting money cheap and easy either through marriage, or through swindling others out of it. This is the second kind of education Jenny gets: it only takes a few minutes, but she sees how meaningful this other kind of life can be.
Miss Stubbs agrees to help Jenny study for Oxford, and the other reason I love this film so much is that it’s the only movie I know of where the big climactic montage is of a young woman reading books — Jenny rediscovering how wonderful it can be to learn and think, rather than living the glamorous but totally inauthentic life she got sidetracked into. So the third kind of “education” the film suggests is the traditional kind: the kind you get through study and thought, rather than through experience of people.
I chose the icon not only because Miss Stubbs is a teacher, then, but because she stands in for some of the key things about my life, or that I want my life to be about. Being a single woman, being an intellectual, making enough money to live a decent but modest life, but not going after money because I want glamour or just for the sake of it. I know people who really want to be rich. I don’t. It’s important to me to support myself and to have a cozy living space (art, books, maybe a nice stereo instead of a piano). I’d like to go to Paris, sure, and I like jewelry as much as the next girl. But they aren’t the things I’m aiming for in my life.