From cocktail waiter to Cambridge

  • June 28, 2013
From cocktail waiter to Cambridge

Justin Park dropped out of school at 16 and worked as a cocktail waiter, but is about to start a PhD in Anglo Saxon studies at Cambridge.

Justin Park dropped out of school at the age of 16 to be a poet, but is now heading to the University of Cambridge to study Anglo Saxon and Norse with the aid of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

From this autumn Justin [2013], now 36, will study for an MPhil in Anglo Saxon, Norse and Celtic Studies focusing on Lantfred’s text on St Swithin and on whether his interest in the concept of sanctuary for criminals and slaves was a social critique of Anglo Saxon laws and showed how ideas on social justice from Charlemagne’s France were crossing over the Channel.

Justin’s achievement in winning the scholarship is all the more impressive given that he never liked school, although he was always fascinated by books. He found the way he was taught about subjects at school was very boring and much preferred to educate himself and spend his lunch hours reading in the school library. His love of books was in part fuelled by his mother and father, who separated when he was young. His father was an artist then nurse who had a wide interest in learning. “My father always had a library of books on an eclectic mix of subjects, from philosophy to medieval alchemy. I fell in love with the medieval period very early, with the tales of King Arthur and the knights,” he says. By the age of 12 he was reading Plato. “Literature was an imaginative world I could immerse myself in and where I was not in a group of people being judged,” he says.

He soon got into the Romantic poets and decided poetry was where his future lay.
When he was 16, his mother was about to remarry and move to Oregon, but Justin did not want to leave California where he had been brought up. His family had friends in San Francisco and Justin said he would move there from Sacramento, where he was born and raised, and go to high school there. However, he found himself skipping school and going to the beach to read. Soon after he dropped out and began working as a dishwasher in a restaurant.

A series of odd jobs followed. He thought he was following in the footsteps of the great poets, but soon discovered he was more in love with the romantic idea of being a poet than the actual reality. Much as he liked reading, writing was something he found an effort. He decided he needed to travel and experience the world so he could have enough experience to put into a novel. So he joined the navy.

In the navy

After boot camp, he was posted to Japan and toured south east Asia. It was just before 9/11 and the world was relatively peaceful so he was able to soak in different cultures, read lots of Japanese literature and meet a huge diversity of people, including other “dreamers and romantics” like him. After four years his ship returned to the US and he decided to leave the navy. He moved back to San Francisco and got a job cracking crab for tourists. He hung out with poets on North Beach, but slowly realised that writing was not for him. He moved into bar work, working as a bar tender and waiter in high class cocktail bars, but by the age of 29 he decided he wanted more from life. “I wanted something bigger in my life than making an excellent cocktail,” he says.

He decided to start community college, although he was worried about returning to an education environment after his experiences at school. “I thought maybe I am different and maybe school is difference and that I should give it a chance,” he said.

His course included career development which helped him to focus on what he really wanted to do with his life. He decided in “a lightbulb moment” that he would like to teach. He poured himself into his course with support from the state government as well as from his father and his mother, an NGO administrator who had herself gone back to college after separating from his father.

After three years Justin was able to apply to transfer to a university. He was advised to apply to Berkeley and, much to his astonishment, was accepted. In his first semester at Berkeley he studied the poetry and history of Anglo Saxon England and found it “strange and different”.

“I was drawn to the idea of using the past to interrogate the present and how that could help us to see our world in a new light through the mirror of Anglo Saxon literature,” he says. “There are so many myths about the medieval era, but it was intellectually rich and a very complex period. Distinctions were not made between philosophy, literature and history as they are now. These artificial specialisations did not exist in the medieval period.”

He became interested in languages and took a Latin course and enjoyed reading in many different fields. “It is necessary and encouraged when you are studying medieval literature,” he adds.

He admits to feeling slightly intimidated when he started the course since in one class he was older not only than the other students but also than the graduate student who was teaching the class. However, he was also part of the Cherin mentorship programme, which was just starting up, and this brought him into contact with other English major students who had come from community colleges and had a similar background to him.

PhD

During his course he did some in-depth research on an eighth-century saint and that made him realise he could do a PhD.  His director of medieval studies suggested he apply to Cambridge for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. “I looked at Cambridge and thought how could I think of studying Anglo Saxon literature without going to England,” he says.

For his masters he plans to study Lantfred’s 10th century text on St Swithin. His main interest is in tracing his views on how the church should act as a sanctuary for an underclass of slaves and criminals. “His interest in the lower class is a departure from the norm of this kind of text,” says Justin. “I am curious about how he articulates a new relationship between the law, the church and the underclass.”

He says Lantfred came from a monastery in Carolignian France and that Charlemagne’s law code drew from an earlier code which protected slaves and criminals who had been mistreated asking for sanctuary from the church. “One of my interests is in the intellectual movement of ideas and in whether Lantfred’s text is a social critique of Anglo Saxon law and how it was received by those who read it,” says Justin.

Picture credit: David Castillo Dominici and www.freedigitalphotos.net.

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