Last month, I turned in my deposit at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. I bought a sweatshirt that I now don at school as a walking advertisement. I’m currently holding in my hand a purple and white “Northwestern Wildcats” pen. I have a tendency to break out in “I’m going to Northwestern” cheers in the kitchen. When I’m feeling particularly obnoxious, I remind my mom that she didn’t get into Medill—26 years ago.

A couple of nights ago, I found myself planning out my freshman year classes instead of studying for my physics final. Despite my current enthusiasm, I know it’s going to be a long, hard—and bitterly cold, I’m reminded by dad—four years.

My hands will likely be frostbitten through winter quarter, and smeared by the lead and ink of my Reporting and Writing class. These hands have braved everything from mastering the runs in violin concertos, cutting up a sheep’s heart, and memorizing a zillion dance mudras. Will my hands measure up when I fly the coop this fall?

To know my hands is to know who I am. My long fingernails still get me in trouble with my violin teacher. “How can you play the violin with those claws, Pavithra?” she snaps, proclaiming that her four-year-old “pre-twinklers” have more discipline than I do. And my hands know too well the reason for the violent eruption of volcanic pimples on my forehead. The long nails that terrorize violin strings surreptitiously pick at every pimple on my forehead, carving craters and canyons that only now have begun to level out.

My hands aren’t attractive. My fingers are too short, my knuckles a tad hairy. The skin below my fingernails peels, decorating the bottom of my nail with an asymmetrical fringe. Right now, my two-week old French manicure is fading away, leaving behind specks of white along the tips of my nails: Alaskan icebergs caught in global warming chaos.

With these imperfect hands I put pen to paper, fastidiously forming my letters and ensuring that my “h” doesn’t shrink into my “n.” I cross my “t”s and dot my “i”s and, depending on my mood, I either loop the long end of my “y”s or leave it straight as a pin. Apparently, my handwriting looks like print from a typewriter.

“Ah, I’ve missed that perfect handwriting … and you, too, I guess,” my friend Anisha teases when she gets the chance to see me.

I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands. I’ve threaded countless beads through copper wire and elastic threads. I’ve used paint pens to label my sock drawer, my penholder, and my jewelry cases (this is a family that labels underwear drawers just because). I used to buy jewelry-making kits, twisting paper clips into earrings and necklaces and, occasionally, scraping my fingers on the jaws of my needle-nose pliers. Using the Klutz Twirled Paper book as a guide, my hands pinched and twirled thin strips of paper into penguins and butterflies. My bookcases still overflow with cardstock and vellum that I’d buy from my favorite scrap booking store, Keepsakes, to cut and paste into pop-up cards for friends’ birthdays and make my own memories through scrapbooks.

Two years ago, I found that my hands hadn’t lost their touch when I designed two large kolams to decorate the tables in the lobby at my arangetram. I calculated the angles between various points of the kolam, holding a ruler and protractor to ensure that my hands wouldn’t slip as they glided along the thick, clear plastic that I was decorating.

These same hands have often slid across the black fingerboard of my old French violin, skating fluidly from the seventh position back down to first position, shocking even me. They have a mind of their own? My violin teacher watches my hands in awe, telling me that my left hand flies up the strings of my violin faster than even hers would.

My hands are also quite the worldly pair. They’ve stuck with me even when I carelessly put them on a pile of bird poop in Paris in spring. They’ve wiped away the sweat of sultry summers in India, touched the pyramids of Egypt, and caressed the tulips of Amsterdam. In a third-class train compartment in India, one hand brushed off the dirt and grime of the public toilet, while the other pinched my nose to save it from the stench of crusty urine. Last summer, as I walked through the 1000-year-old Hoysaleshwara Temple in Karnataka’s Halebidu, my hands threw caution to the winds and stroked the soapstone friezes depicting battle scenes from the Mahabharatha. See how they rebel?

But will these hands rebel to help me evolve?

During my visit to Northwestern, I met with a student panel from Medill. Each student stressed the importance of getting out of one’s comfort zone, telling prospective students that, whether we liked it or not, Medill’s curriculum would force us to go into the Chicago community to get the story. And sometimes, that could mean waiting around at a bus stop in Chicago in the howling winter wind to interview homeless people.

I want my hands to continue to rebel against my all my preconceived notions and perceptions and to force me to take risks. I want my hands to go on, learn anew from mistakes past, and become the best at the crafts I want them to practice in my next decade: those of a surgeon and writer.

Dr. Atul Gawande writes in his book Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, “Attending surgeons say that what’s most important to them is finding people who are conscientious, industrious, and boneheaded enough to keep at practicing this one difficult thing day and night for years on end … Indeed, the most important talent may be the talent for practice itself.” .

I dream that these hands will learn to write and cut—and edit and cure—with precision and artistry. I dream that my hands will continue to define who I am.

Pavithra Mohan is a freshman at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

 

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