Tag Archives: academics

Sometime, the World is Shit. But Sometimes, It’s Not.

I said to myself “I am not going to write tonight. I am going to drink and watch ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and feel sorry for myself.” Well, here we are. Drinking, watching “How I Met Your Mother.” And touching the laptop we promised we wouldn’t touch.

It was a weird week for me. I had a dream, in coming to graduate school. A dream that I was going to be as good of a student here as I was in undergrad, that I would be shiny and wonderful. That I would become a teaching fellow and eventually graduate and become a professor. All while working to publish the most wonderful essays and numerous books. I knew that this dream might not totally come true. But it’s still hard to realize that the paths I have to choose from are not the ones I thought they’d be. I don’t deal well when thing deviate from my master plan.

*

The first time I “taught” in front of the college classroom, it all went wrong. Really. All of it. It was first semester as an English 101 teaching assistant. I don’t remember anymore what the activity was; it fell sometime during our fallacy unit. The wrongness was a slow build. I starting the class with a journal activity, and no one would talk to me. Not planned. I fumbled around, trying to pull answers from them.

I looked at at my supervising professor for guidance. She didn’t give it to me; she wanted me to figure it out.

I tried to keep going. I plugged my laptop into the projector and turned on the display to show something on my screen, only to realize that the display settings on my laptop were accidentally on dual screen, and that the wallpaper on that second screen was a picture of my dead son. I ripped the plug out, but the picture remained on the projector. The class assumed, totally justified, that he was still alive. There was the usual “how cute” exclamations.

I looked to my supervising professor for guidance. She didn’t give it to me; she wanted me to figure it out.

I told myself I couldn’t cry in front of the class, that I would never come back from it. That I would never come back to that classroom, or maybe any classroom. So I soldiered on, and I plowed through the rest of the activity. Our class, a group that was never horribly talkative, did speak a little. I didn’t cry until I left the class day and was in the relative safety of my car. I cried because I was certain that, because things didn’t go the way I had expected, I had failed.

*

Graduate school is not going the way I thought it would. It’s not all bad. But it’s not all good. My school lied to me, and that really sucks. Teaching fellows are NEVER hired from my division of the school. In the words of the person I met with to discuss my lack of a fellowship, “Creative writing students aren’t needed.”

You read that right.

Creative writing students aren’t needed.

I could totally wrap my brain around that, in the moment. It has felt like, with my workshop professor this semester who I mildly idolize, I can do absolutely no right. I went first through the workshop process and submitted before class even began, so there was so much I didn’t know. I didn’t format correctly. I didn’t bring a paper copy of my revision work to our first office hour. I didn’t bring plates when it was my turn to bring food. I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t. I became certain that she hated me.

*

My second time in front of the college classroom, I was better prepared for things to go wrong. I showed a video and led a discussion. The class still didn’t talk much, but I was more adept at pulling out of them the things that they needed to learn. I helped them to get to where they needed to be in the lesson with relatively little embarrassment on all parts.

I don’t remember how many times I looked at my supervising professor on that day. But I don’t think it was as many as my first teaching day.

*

“Creative writing students aren’t needed. If I was you, if I could do it all again, I would leave this town. I would never go into academia. I would stick to copy editing to supplement my own work.”

The person I was meeting with followed that by telling me to run. Literally. She told me to run. She was filled with advice, but the biggest thing that stuck out to me was that, if I wanted to teach, I should have gone into literature instead of creative writing. In order to teaching with an MFA, I need to publish many books. Not just one book. Many. And publishing books will make me expensive. It’s the ultimate paradox, because no institution wants to hire an expensive candidate.

Jobs in the creatives are slowly dwindling down to a scary sad minimum. They are few and far between. I thought that I was setting myself up, doing everything right, and that I would just … teach after graduation.

I thought wrong. I’m not going to be a teaching fellow, and there was never any chance of my being a teaching fellow. I am now on my own to pay for next year’s tuition, sans teaching stipend.

I left that meeting certain that I had made absolutely every wrong life choice in the book.

*

One of the last times I was in front of the college classroom, I was a second semester teaching assistant. And a total different person. I was more confident, more prepared. I showed a video clip from “The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” and used it to teach the class how to first write a profile, and then a paper proposal. It was a great activity all around. The class clicked with the video clip. They clicked with me; I clicked with them. They clicked with the concepts.

They understood me, and what I was trying to say.

I didn’t look at my supervising professor ONCE during that lesson. As a matter of fact, I think she purposefully sat off to the side so she wouldn’t look at me. I did it on my own, and it was the best that I ever did.

I got to my love of being in front of the college classroom by traveling a winding, occasionally shitty, road. It wasn’t always the road I thought it would be; I thought that I’d be perfect right away, and I wasn’t.

But I got there. Eventually.

*

I’m not as good a student here as I was in my undergraduate. I’m still an A student, but I’m a totally different A student. I’m doing a LOT of other things while balancing my classes. I am holding three jobs (four if you count temporary nanny work) just to make sure my rent gets paid and I get fed without taking an excessive amount out in loans. My old friends all have glorious graduate programs that fund them, so they don’t have jobs apart from their teaching and their studies. They can be the students that they always were; they can be great. It’s hard for me to talk to them, to admit how hard this really is, because they’re happy. Their programs are great. They are great. I’m just here. I walk dogs: I write food blogs; I copy edit all the things. This week, I’m a nanny. And I still barely live on what I have each month. The city is expensive. Graduate school is expensive.

I am worried that I have too many balls in the air. That I’m not great anymore. It’s a scary, occasionally lonely thing, to know that I made this decision, to come here, and that I have to own it, despite the fact that it is NOT what I thought it would be.

I had a much needed conversation with a good friend tonight. It’s amazing how our relationship has evolved; it feels like I’ve known her forever, but it’s only been two years. One semester in her class, followed by two semester where she was the supervising professor to my teaching assistant. Somewhere along the way, she gave me the confidence to come to grad school. To go for what I wanted; to become a writer, and someday, a professor. And today, she gave me confidence once again.

“Have you thought about it?” she asked me. “Next year? Going to Iowa?”

“They wouldn’t take me now. You just don’t turn down Iowa. And it would be starting over, with [debt amount edited to protect my emotional sanity].”

“I wonder if you wouldn’t be saying the same things, wherever you are. If you wouldn’t have regrets.”

This is the most truthful thing I’ve heard all week.

My MFA credits will not transfer if I leave for a different program. I would start completely over, but my debt from this year would come with me. I don’t want this year to be a waste. There are good parts to my program to go along with the boatloads of bad. My workshop is incredibly challenging in that it pushes me to my very boundaries as a writer. And my seminar? It’s just amazing and incredible. For the first time since I’ve been here, I’m being asked to really think. To push myself. These are the good things.

This week, I was told that I will never be a college professor. Maybe I’m not going down the path I thought I was. But who ever is? The path to “getting there” is long and windy and bumpy and takes a lot of detours. I still think I can get there some day, though. And when I do, I would love to send that woman I talked to an email and tell her just how wrong she was.

Sometimes, the world is shit. But sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes, the path is direct. But most of the time? It’s not. And the truth is, we learn more on the indirect path than we ever would traveling in a straight line.

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Meaning and Thought

In my literature seminar this week, we read out loud a poem about a beheaded goat. “Song,” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, is this horrifying work about darkness and violence and a poor slaughtered farm animal. The class had the usual discussion of tone and theme, of the deeper meaning of the poem. Was it about the boys who killed the goat? The girl who owned the goat? Was it about the goat himself, who only gets a gender when he’s with the girl? Was the real meaning responsibility? Growing up? The duties of boys versus the duties of girls? Everyone around me was talking excitedly. I looked down at my notebook, and I had a very difference image in my notes.

The goat had belonged to a small girl. She named

The goat Broken Thorn Sweet Blackberry, named it after

The night’s bush of stars, because the goat’s silky hair

Was dark as well water, because it had eyes like wild fruit.

These lines spoke sex to me. The goat was a metaphor for the girls sexuality, or moreover, her virginity.

Some boys

Had hacked its head off. It was harder work than they had imagined.

The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But they

Finished the job. They hung the bleeding head by the school

And then ran off into the darkness that seems to hide everything.

These lines spoke violence to me. But beyond the obvious violence, there was something darker. The boys took the goat from the girl. They took her virginity. They raped her.

What they didn’t know

Was that the goat’s head would go on singing, just for them,

Long after the ropes were down, and that they would learn to listen …

Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song

Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.

These lines spoke responsibility to me, that the boys would always have to live with what they had done.

I didn’t get it, how no one else could see it. The sexual overtones running through the poem. The great violence of the boys. The passiveness of the girl. The need of the world to protect her from the trauma, to make it better, to get her a new goat with an intact head and pretend it had never happened.

We all want to pretend it never happened.

In my undergrad, I would have run from this text. But I didn’t run. I looked at my notebook while the other students talked about everything BUT what I was pondering. I looked at my notebook, and I convinced myself I was wrong. That I had had a bad read, colored by my own experience. That I was damaged somehow, that I couldn’t see the things everyone else saw. Though I did see why they saw the things they saw—I just couldn’t change my own opinion. I couldn’t unsee what I had seen, but I couldn’t convince myself to speak up when no one else would agree. When I could be wrong.

I wondered why that was my natural instinct, why I’d fallen back on that, the need to have the right answer. It took me so long to learn that there IS no right answer, and now I was defaulting to this behavior, this staring down at my notebook and not saying what I really thought when I was so excited to think it. And then I figured it out. I let myself become complacent. I let myself fall back into my old ways, let myself stop connecting with people, let myself stop using my voice. I hadn’t made an effort to meet people in my new locale. I waited for them to come to me, and they didn’t. I sat alone in my room for ninety-nine percent of semester break because I had no money and no friends to do things with. I told myself I was the same old me.

I’m not.

I started to raise my hand, but the discussion had ended. I missed my chance. I closed my notebook and shoved it in my purse and looked around the room, considering whether I should talk to anyone. Whether I should talk, or put my coat on and sling my bag over my shoulder and walk out of the room like I did every class last semester. I put my coat on and walked out of the room, saying goodbye to the one person I knew. I pressed the elevator button, alone. As I stepped inside and pressed the button for the lobby, another student came running towards me. I normally would have let the elevator doors go, as they were almost closed, but I stuck my arm out and forced them open. I had seen her during class, across the table, and I had pegged her as an older student. A student like me. We walked together to the subway, this new acquaintance and I, exchanging life details.

I went home happy, assured that I was not the same person I had been, that I was still the new me I had worked so hard to build. And I saved my notes, and I saved the poem, and I decided to write my paper on them. Because my thoughts are important, and people should know them.

http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/song

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The Day I Disappeared

Three days.

I should not be here.

The desk is constraining; I can feel its weight around me even in the places I’m not touching.  Words being spoken enter my brain but fail to process at anything more than their base level.  I tap my pen against the enormous hardcover anthology on my desk, but the noise is not distracting enough.  My focus flies away; I twirl the rubber band around my wrist and snap it just to feel the ping against my skin.  

Behind me, the speaker for the overhead system emits a random crackle.  I jump.  

I try tapping both of ends of my pen against the desk.  It doesn’t help.

I love this book, and this author.  His subtle nuances, the way that he says things without saying them.  But that’s at the back of my mind now.  All of the things I love about the stories have vanished in the presence of a word that’s being said over.  And over.  

And over.

The speaker crackles again.  I jump.  People stare. 

The discussion continues.  I keep a tally in the margin of my book, a permanent series of slashes that will live for as long as the book, of how many times the professor or someone else says the word.  I am hyperaware of it; it feels like someone is pressing a taser into my back and every single nerve in my body is electrified.  I am completely lit.  I could jump out of my chair.  I want to.  But I don’t.  

I tell myself I like the professor.  I tell myself I like the class.  Neither of these statements help me.  I lean forward so that my hair falls in front of my face, preventing me from meeting anyone’s gaze.  I lose count of the number of times my pen strikes the page.  I move it to the desk, the noise is much more satisfying.  

Tap tap tap tap tap tap.

The professor is looking at me.  Did she ask me a question?  I’m not sure.  I was counting the taps.  I look up; my eyes meet hers for a moment and then flit away to something else.  Anything else.  I can’t let her see me.  If she asked me something, I didn’t hear.  I can’t answer.  

She is writing on the board.  Someone says something about about adequate punishment, and the word again, and…

Tap tap tap tap tap tap. 

Can I just drop out?  Just leave?  Would anybody notice?  Can I walk out of the class?  I told her that if I came for this, if I came to class, I needed to have the option to leave.  She said that was fine.  But can I do that?  Can I just get up and leave a class?  I’m frozen.  I can’t move.  Breathe in, breathe out. 

Too much pressure.

Tap tap tap tap tap tap.

Class is ninety minutes long.  We are more than halfway done.

It’s just a word.  It’s nothing more than a word.  

I love school.  I love learning.  But I didn’t know how much this would suck.

I remind myself again that I like this class.  I remind myself again that I like the professor.  Peeking out from behind my hair, I accidentally catch her gaze again.  I stare down at my book.  What page are we on?  The words make even less sense than they normally do.  I yearn for regular English.  

This is too hard.  College is hard.  I should quit.

My leg joins the pen.  Tap twitch tap twitch tap twitch tap twitch tap twitch tap twitch.

Ten minutes left.  I can do it.

My teeth sink into the inside of my cheek, keeping the tears inside.  I hate how hard it is to handle some things.  I hate how hard it is to handle this.  

I lean back in my chair, taking care to still let my hair cover my eyes.  I move my pen to my lap.  The slash marks number seventeen.  The discussion was all about that.  I never should have come.  I hide my hands in my lap.  I stare at the board.  I avoid everybody’s eyes.

It is time to go.  I can’t escape fast enough.  I think the professor tries to talk to me, but I grab my stuff and leave the room as quickly as possible.  I run up the stairs towards my advisor’s office, and when I pause in the stairwell to take a breath, a single tear slips down my cheek.  I wanted so badly to do this.  I want to be okay with it.  I hate that I can’t be.

My advisor is waiting when I get to her office.  I push the door mostly shut, sink into a chair, and I can finally breathe again.  She asks how class went; she knew I was worried about it.

My professor is outside.  She knocks; she says something like, “Are you with someone?” I recognize her voice, but can’t see her past the crack in the door.  She is there about me; she is there about class.  I know it.  Crap.

My advisor nods without saying anything, and my professor disappears down the hall to her own office.

I wish that I could hide here forever.  I want nothing more than to disappear.

Damn you, college.

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