Monthly Archives: August 2014

My First Real Graduate School Experience

The first A minus I ever received in an English course was in sixth grade. I remember the teacher … Mrs. H. She didn’t like me; at least, that’s what I thought at the time. She always used to tell me I needed to pay better attention, to stop reading under my desk, to start asking more questions. I wrote a story for her called “Searching for Becca Fischer.” It was 27 pages of pure creative joy that I submitted for a five page story assignment. The character of Becca was my favorite character ever. I worked hard to try and pull her throughout the entire story. My teacher wrote all over it that the character development was not up to par; I still have the original draft that she wrote on. I was crushed by the A minus on the top of something I had worked so hard on. I scribbled across the grade with my pencil. I was embarrassed and ashamed and proceeded to work on rewriting the story in her classroom during my lunch periods, wanting to get it just right. I took the perceived failure as an attack on myself, and I tend to do that same thing even now.

As I watch my friends beginning their graduate school experiences with tours and hours long orientations filled with all of the information, as I watch them making friends and becoming confident, knowing what they’re doing, I look at myself and I realize I know next to nothing. No one here is telling me what to do. It is just expected that I know. It is expected that I automatically bring my best self to the table every day. I always want to get everything just right, and I blame myself when it doesn’t work out. For instance, I didn’t have the greatest first graduate school experience today. I’ve been waiting ever since I found out my literature seminar got switched to find out what the books would be so that I can start reading them. I check the online site where the courses will be loaded several times a week, but there is never anything there. I doubled checked the course catalog, and it says TBA under the required books. So I assumed then that I would receive a booklist the first day of class, this coming Monday.

I went to an orientation/meet and greet event tonight; I got to meet a lot of the people in my cohort, as well as those from other programs. And several second year students. It was a glorious thing, though I still don’t feel like I know what I’m doing. The question kept coming up: “Who are your professors?” I met a really nice second year who is in the same literature seminar as I am, and she asked if I had done the reading yet. I was greatly confused, as I never received any required reading. That’s when I found out that I was supposed to email the professor to receive the booklist. Not only that, but there’s required reading for our first class this coming Monday. An entire book.

I freaked out. I don’t know how to be that person who flies by the seat of my pants. I had my first experience with graduate school tears, and for something that was not my fault. Even though there was nothing I could have done, I still blamed myself. I wasn’t quite right, wasn’t quite to where I was supposed to be. I was the A minus in my own life. I chatted with N the entire train and bus ride home about why I could/could not quit graduate school before I even began it. That I’m a good writer, even though I’m totally out of my element; that my skill does not change just because I’ve relocated.

That new is okay, and that this oversight was an honest mistake.

It was decided at the end of our conversation that Overwhelmed will replace August as the name for this month.

Becca is a character I have always wanted to come back to. I think that’s why I keep the draft around. I pull it out once in a while and read her comments again. I thought when I first got the draft back that she had something personal against me. But now that I’m grown up, and a much better writer, I can see that she only wanted me to be the best that I could be. The A minus wasn’t bad, per say, but rather, a lesson that I would not always be perfect the first time out of the gate. However, my best self will adjust, just like my writing adjusted and grew from what I learned from Becca and Mrs. H. And giving up would mean I would never learn; if I had never come back to “Searching for Becca Fischer,” never revised it, never seriously read the comments, I would have learned nothing. I would never have grown.

Brace yourselves. September is coming. 

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Orientation

I tell people that I’m going into a graduate program at The New School, and I get one of two responses: “What new school?” or some variation of “Holy crap, that school is amazing!” And these two statements are exact matches to the two halves of my brain: “I have no idea what I’m doing,” and “Damn, I’m amazing!” I wouldn’t have gotten in if I wasn’t a good writer; of course, I haven’t written anything of any real worth since I moved. I’m a small town girl in a big city, but sometimes it feels like I was always meant to be in a big city. For every statement, there’s a counterargument or an opposite.

My first day of being an undergraduate…I remember being pretty prepared. As soon as I registered for classes, I went to the campus and walked around to find all of my classes. I familiarized myself with my textbooks and the professors. I had all of the things I needed. And if I do say so, I was pretty damn successful at college. However, tomorrow is my first official day as a graduate student. Orientation. I feel woefully unprepared. I’m not sure where to go. I don’t know where my classes are. I don’t know what to expect in them. Plus, I don’t know anyone. I don’t like that feeling. I’m an introvert who likes my little close-knit group of people. We’re un-knit now. We are spread across the country. I feel like I don’t know anything anymore. But.

I need to love that feeling. Here’s why:

I don’t know anyone here. That means that no one here knows me. I can be what I want. I can write what I want. I can be seen, and I can be not seen. The limitations that being known has put on my life and my writing are gone here. While I might be posing right now in the places where I’m uncertain, for the first time in my life I am also totally free to be myself—whoever that might be.

I am posing in life, sure—there’s a lot I don’t know. And there’s nothing wrong with that. “Fake it ‘till you make it.” But I’m certainly not posing in my writing. A few months ago, right before graduation, I wrote the following: “I live a life of black and white. Good or bad. But perhaps I can be a fish who just swims with the other fish. One who doesn’t get eaten. one who is tough and strong and gets her things done. Maybe I can make my home in a new pond.” I’m a fish, and I’m here. And maybe I don’t look like the other fish, but my writing will speak for itself. I will be just fine.

So, in the morning, I will put on a dress and some nice jewelry, and I’ll do my hair, and I’ll go to Union Square and pretend that I belong there. Until someday, I do.

Because I will.

Different

I grew up in a small town in Southern Wisconsin where my skin color was in the majority. It never really occurred to me that this was the case; it just was what it was. I recently relocated to a riverfront neighborhood in West New York, where I am most definitely in the minority. It’s a weird feeling that, even though I’m only a week in, has made me incredibly aware of myself and my existence in the world. I feel different. I am different.

Many of the menus and products in the area are labelled in Spanish. (Though many are also dual Spanish/English). Many of my neighbors are Spanish. The owner of the closest bodega is Spanish; I was able to have a simple conversation with him. I’ve never been more grateful for all of the years I had to take Spanish in school; as much as I griped about hating the class, it has come in handy. It’s helped me find the beginnings of my stride in a place radically different from where I grew up.

New York is weird to me. There’s no grass anywhere and it smells funny in places. The parks are made of cement and brick; there are very few places where you can lie in actual grass. Even the dog parks are pavement; there are tiny green waste receptacles on every corner so the dog waste doesn’t smear on the sidewalks. There are no major grocery stores. The bus drivers scream into their bluetooth headpieces in foreign languages while driving the bus. It’s nothing like where I came from.

However, there are fireworks shows over the river. A beautiful view of the skyline and the moon that is apparently historically bright this month. Transit that goes everywhere. And hundreds upon hundreds of people in every size, shape, and color. A perfect place to disappear in. Or perhaps disappear is the wrong word. Maybe it’s blend. Because everything here has a place and a purpose, from the street vendors to the doggy waste receptacles. To me. Somewhere. It’s only weird here because I’ve never been here before. And now I live here.

I haven’t been able to write much this week, my first here, because every time I’ve sat down to do it, I can’t think of anything. It hasn’t felt right. Yesterday I walked almost fifty blocks to the only real green space around; it’s a huge park with a lake in the middle and plenty of space to sprawl. I was on my towel reading a book, watching a completely obnoxious pair of children chase a flock of geese and threaten them with sticks. As the geese fled the kids, they drifted closer and closer to where I was reading. I felt the normal twinge of fear I feel when angry geese are coming towards me, but then it clicked.

Home is everywhere.

There were geese all over my undergrad college campus in Wisconsin. There are geese here. Some things don’t change, no matter where you go. So, to me, home is everywhere that I am. Where I am is home. And there’s something to write about there. I am different, but I am still me.

So I’m not a native Spanish speaker. So I’m used to driving, and seeing grass everywhere. So I’m a little fish in a big pond. So my skin is a different color. I’m different, but I’m here—that’s what matters. 

geese skyline

Girl on Fire

Creative Nonfiction (the magazine) is doing a contest/Call for Submissions on the theme of Waiting. This got me pondering the topic; I think I wait for a lot of things. But I don’t know that any of them are essay worthy.

I’m waiting for so many things. I’m waiting for my student loans. I’m waiting to say goodbye. I’m waiting to be done packing. I’m waiting for moving day. I’m waiting for New York. I’m waiting for new writing ideas. I’m waiting for classes to start.

I think that the main thing I’m waiting for right now is for the moment when I am as confident and excited for graduate school as I was for my undergraduate classes. At least right now, that’s being a bit overshadowed by the sheer magnitude of my relocation. I keep seeing pictures of the house on my roommate’s Instagram, and I’m like…holy cow. I will be able to sit and do my homework at night while staring at the New York City skyline all lit up across the horizon. But I will also have to figure out schedules. And finances. And transit. And maybe someday, a social life. In a new place.

The best way I know to gain confidence for myself is to make plans. I’ve Google-Earthed my neighborhood. I think I’ve found a grocery store. I’ve figured out the way transit functioned. I’ve read every single book for each of my new classes. I’ve researched my professors, and I’ve read a great deal of their work. But none of this will prepare me for the newness of the experience. Another way I know to gain confidence is to focus on the pros—number one of which being that I will no longer be censored in my writing. No one will know me, and that’s not all bad; it will be different presenting stories to people who didn’t know before than it was presenting to people who did. Another pro—I will write, all the time, every day. I will be able to write in different places, about different things. I will have the world I’ve been chasing.

I hope this will bring with it confidence.

Someone I respect a great deal told me that if I didn’t cry all the time during graduate school, I was doing it wrong. Someone else told me that it took her at least six months to get into the swing of things. But everyone says that I have what it takes.

I like to believe that’s true. I like to believe I’m a girl on fire. I want to.

Here’s to new adventures.

Oh, and fourteen plus hours in a U-haul with an angry cat.