“The Choosing” by Liz Lochhead is a poem which presents a very common situation and makes you consider deeper issues.
The content depicts two girls who unwittingly make choices in school, unaware of consequences, and, because of them, end up drifting off their separate ways because of such choices, and the choices made for them by their families. Both girls were clever, but only one was allowed to stay on at school. Their paths cross ten years later, their lives totally different. Verse one describes the two girls, who were best friends and intellectual equals: “First equal, equally proud”. “Equal” is mentioned twice in the first paragraph, to show that the two girls were equal in every way, except arithmetic, where Mary led. They both won book prizes.
In the second verse we find out that Mary’s family have eventually moved to a house with a cheaper rent. Mary would not be going to a senior school, as her father did not “believe” in educating girls, uniforms, or any of that “nonsense”.
In the third verse we find out the two girls stayed in the “same houses, different homes”, suggesting that they lived in the same kind of house but their home lives were vastly different. Home was where the choices were being made: Mary’s father didn’t believe in High school education, “especially for girls,” or in “forking out for uniforms”. So her father unconsciously, even casually, narrowed Mary’s future life down.
Some ten years later the two girls meet again. The person speaking suddenly notices Mary on a bus with a man who is clearly her husband; he has “eyes for no-one else but Mary” The poet envies her a little, as she carries her library books home, as Mary has “her arms round the full shaped vase that is her body”, a metaphor for pregnancy. The poet claims not to be jealous of Mary but there’s definitely a trace of it there. The last verse of the poem informs us that Mary’s life has changed radically and she wonders when they made the choices that have caused their lives to develop so differently.
She wonders, “When the choices were made we don’t remember making”. They don’t recall them because it was their family that made most of those important choices for them, as their parents had different aims for them. The two girls, of course, had vastly different lives after these choices were made.
I think this poem is very instructive because it informs young people of the choices that have been made which affect the cause of their lives totally as they mature.
Many intriguing questions are suggested by this poem: how far do choices which are made by us, or our families for us, (consciously or unconsciously) in the course of our lives, at different stages, affect what we achieve or become? Obviously Liz Lochhead would say, “Lots!”
Here we have two girls who, from the point of view of ability and attitude, even physically, are roughly similar. They start off achieving similar results (apart from arithmetic) and tackle their work similarly. The competitive aspect to it all helps. Yet the writer clearly thinks background/environment/ family values and encouragement are equally, or even more, important. Their lives change – why? It’s clearly to do with upbringing: Liz gets all the encouragement she needs – education is valuable; she is encouraged to achieve, to pass, to study, to qualify. Mary has a dad who thinks it’s a waste of time – uniforms and all that – especially for girls, so she falls by the educational wayside. It’s the old argument: which is more influential? Genes or environment?
For all that, at the end, Liz has a moment of doubt. It’s another hoary old question, especially for women: the choice between career and family. Liz has achieved, or is on the road to achieving, most of her educational goals, the ones she chose, or had chosen for her when she was young; Mary is establishing a family and seems blissfully happy, even though she fell out of the educational race years before. Who is happier? And, does a choice between the two have to be made?