Harlequin boots from Williamsburg, rhombus tights, beige balloon skirt, multicoloured belt from Camden Market, striped long-sleeved shirt and black nails.
“You look like a minstrel today” – university lecturer
Eccentricity: ec·cen·tric·i·ty (ksn-trs-t) : defines the shape of the Earth’s trajectory around the sun. The eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit is currently 0.0167, meaning that the Earth’s orbit is nearly circular. Over thousands of years, the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit varies from nearly 0.0034 to almost 0.058 as a result of gravitational attractions among the planets.
Eccentricity is unlikely to change during our lifetime, and thus at precise intervals of time, we will find ourselves floating in the exact same place in space.
Ten revolutions ago, I was 18, starting my academic pursuit and my life as an adult. I found myself behind desks, pen in hand, ready to learn about my species, about myself, where I came from, where I was going. Amid Malinowski, Franz Boas, and Freud, I found life-changing friendships, and played new games, some of which I excelled at, but many of which I wasn’t ready for yet. In February of 2002, I finally found myself between an ashtray and untidy bedsheets, between a starved stomach and a broken heart. Lost beyond recognition to myself and those who surrounded me, I decided my next ten revolutions would be spent splashing in cosmic light. So the planet turned, and I with it. I was determined I would find myself around the next bend and wave goodbye forever to this place on the arc away from the sun.
My lecturer handed me a green pen and a red eraser, which I placed on the pile I had prepared for my tutorial. I made copies of the hominin phylogeny, spanning its 7 million years, all the way from Chad (Sahelanthropus tchadensis) to the world (Homo sapiens), along with a diagram of a cladogram. My articles were printed and a handwritten sign-in sheet was ready to be filled. It was February 2010 and I was five minutes away from my first teaching experience. Feeling more nervous than overjoyed, I checked my notes once more, took the pile under one arm, and carried the green pen and red eraser in the opposite hand as I made my way to room 128 of the UCL Anthropology department.
“Why is this all in pink?” asked one of the students as he signed next to his name. I glanced at the blindingly girlish sign-in sheet, and glanced over my own notes and articles, a pink-ridden mess. I gave off a nervous laugh: “Yes, I seem to have a slight problem with bright colours”.
My relationship with colours had often caused confusion during my first year as an undergraduate in 2000. I was once even labelled ‘politically ignorant’ after wearing a pink top with a picture of an orange at the centre: in Portugal, pink is the colour of the socialist party, you see, while orange is the colour of its opposition, the social-democratic party (I am still convinced that I was in fact the most politically illuminated of all…)
Stepping into my new shoes at the front of the class, I felt lonely and vulnerable. There were twelve inattentive and uninterested heads staring my way, and my task of delivering information for 50 minutes seemed daunting. I realized I had spent so long studying and being interested in this subject of human origins, that its meaning and significance had creeped under my skin and were ingrained in my body, lost beyond words in the depths of my gray matter, to the point where I wasn’t able to formulate in full sentences why I believed this was the most fascinating topic of all. I was not going to teach them any skills, none of my knowledge had real-life applications, I was not about to give them privileged information or any insight of significance, and nothing of financial relevance would be gained from the next hour. It became clear that what was so obvious to me, was not obvious to this adolescent audience and my biggest task ahead would be to give them a glimpse of all the wonder I felt when studying these matters – in essence, to open myself up and show them my world. Looking around upon a classroom filling with teenage girls bobbing their long luscious hair, boys in tight jeans all typing on their cellphones, I slowly resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to be able to express to them my profound excitement for these bones of mine.
My grandfather was a philosophy teacher whose colour blindness endowed him with a knack for particularly eccentric fashion statements. When his students asked him what his teachings were all for, he learned to simply reply: “Well, nothing of course! Absolutely nothing!”
Grandfather Pepe, after whom I was named (Anna Pepe Barros). He was a true Spaniard, a story-teller, a bon vivant. He is not looking particularly eccentric in these pictures (click here for a few more photos)
I started somewhere. I wrote my name and email on the board and pointed out that I was Canadian after hearing whispers about it being “all Americans teaching this year”. They laughed, apologised and congratulated me on my country’s epic Hockey victory.
“The Austrap… Austropi… Australip… ” staggered one student. “Austra-lo-pi-the-cus. Or simply put: the southern ape… like ‘Austra’ in Australia”, I helped. Behind me on the whiteboard there was a phylogeny of human pubic lice; there was also a drawing of Africa, with a line across the Rift; there were arrows depicting human migrations through the landscape, and a crooked drawing of a female pelvis. My legs were crossed as I listened to the students’ accounts of what they read, and felt excited by their questions, which I answered with much gesturing. It dawned on me. I had come around the bend, ten revolutions later, I was back in this place, and I was looking at myself from the other side of the mirror, except I was standing tall in my harlequin boots and on my own, nothing seemed lonely or scary anymore, and I knew how to pronounce Australopithecus and all of its different species backwards and in my sleep. A new confidence blossomed inside me and I spoke about the things that excited me the most. I found myself with a handful of gleaming gazes resting upon me, captured momentarily by the images I was painting with my words.
Facebook status: “I am convinced there is no greater pleasure in life than teaching and being taught.” 7 likes. 3 comments.
“Did it help or was I confusing?” I asked. “No, you made it clearer actually” replied a girl. As they left the classroom, I placed my keys around my neck and started erasing the green mess I had made on the whiteboard. Memories came to mind that I had kept at bay during the last hour as my keys clattered against the New York license plate key chain which read ‘PEPE’, my middle name. There were no ashtrays or messy bed sheets this time, although that familiar starving stomach growled and the heart was starving too. I felt tired and the world closed in on me as the whiteboard became white and empty again. I was truly back here, standing at the exact same distance from the sun, at the exact same place on the circumference of the Earth’s orbit. I turned back around to escape my thoughts and found a few students still there, teasing a classmate about how old he’d become: “Oh my God! You’re going to be twenty years old! We can’t hang out with you anymore, you’re so old!”. I felt so little and young, still trying to fight back those childish tears and the urge to scream for mommy. “See you next week” I said while walking out, and I glanced at them once more, wondering which one of them I would have been back then.
“Hey, there’s a girl in the lab, she’s finishing up, can you go check on her?” asked a colleague who leads the lab sessions with me. Behind the bend around the other side of the room from where our desks sit, beyond the two human skeletons, was a girl in tears hovering over her blue lab book, panting in despair. She told me she wasn’t able to do the exercise because she was anxious and that she now couldn’t focus behind the water forming in her eyes. She begged me to finish next week and wondered how this would affect her marks. She was worried about having made a mistake and now that she couldn’t think, she felt lost and wanted help. I thought: there I am.
In my minstrel-like outfit, I sat down next to her and took a breath. I placed my hand on her shoulder and said: “relax, this doesn’t matter. You need to breathe and have some perspective over this. This counts for nothing for your mark. This doesn’t count for anything for your academic record. But mostly, it doesn’t say anything about you and it doesn’t count for anything important for your life. You can finish this some other time. Just breathe.” She wiped her tears and became calm. Between apologies and thank you’s, she handed me her half empty lab book to be filled at some other time in the future. I wasn’t sure who I had just spoken to: to a young undergraduate student, to myself at 18, to myself now. But mostly, I had no idea what it was I thought didn’t matter so much: the unfinished exercises, others’ mistakes, my mistakes, people, or the heavy key chain around my neck.
I took the key chain from around me and started breathing again, despite not having realized I had ever stopped. Feet cushioned in my harlequin boots clutching pink-ridden notes filled with cladograms and bone diagrams between my black nail-polish, tall, alone, grown-up and with passion in my heart, I realized I was never lost, that I was finally home, that I had been headed towards this all along, and will keep heading back for as long as every spiral, every circumference, every revolution of the earth keeps coming full circle.
And so I found my cosmic order in an eccentricity that keeps calling me back, yelling from the beyond with voracious force and overwhelming liberation: “absolutely nothing matters of course!”, and pulling me in all my shades of colour, my unconfused and unashamed colours, round the next orbital bend to the next revolution, a personal revolution, a revolution from within.
Author’s note: scientific facts aside, most of the stories and dialogues in this post have been modified to cater to the narrative; many did not occur in the stated order.