Tag Archives: college

I Brought This On Myself

Fall semester one year ago, I took what I to this day believe to be the worst class in the world.  It was an environmental science class.  Science is not my forte to begin with, but the concept sounded interesting so I went with it for my science gen-ed.  The last class before our first exam, the professor passed out a sheet labelled “Exam 1 Study Guide.”  Common logic would assume that the things on the sheet should be studied for Exam One.  Rather than stick with my normal study habits of flashcards and highlighting/annotating the textbook, I decided to study the study guide instead.

It turned out that absolutely NOTHING on the so-called study guide appeared on the exam.  And for the first time EVER I (literally) failed a test.

I grew incredibly frustrated with the course.  I skipped quite a few days; I stopped paying attention in lectures that I did attend, except when I had to take notes for a friend who was absent.  I didn’t really study.  I got A’s on the homework, but not on exams.  The course gets the honor of my one and only B minus.  I don’t believe I’ve ever had one before, in college or even high school.  The thing is, I brought it on myself.  I gave up.  I stopped trying.

*

I am mad at the world right now, and it’s bleeding through into my life.  I have heard the phrase “you brought this on yourself” one too many times, and I’m officially feeling horrible.  There is a difference between bringing things on yourself and having them happen to you.  As much as it hurts, and as much it feels like it sometimes, we really aren’t magnets.  The excuse was made that it’s men and that they don’t know any better.  That isn’t true, and the idea is a shit show.  I KNOW that there are men out there who know better.  I know.

I can count the number of people I legitimately trust on one hand.  For real.  I tried to let a new person into this circle (though only because I was forced to.)  He asked me a series of questions.

“How was your day?”

“What brings you here?”

“How do you sleep at night?”

“You lost a child?”

“How was your relationship?”

I answered in one-syllable answers.  Fine.  Sleep.  Okay.  Yes.  Meh.  And then.

“Tell me about the sexual assault.”

I took precautions to make this work; I asked for the things I needed like I thought I was supposed to do.  The door was open.  I could see out into the hall; I could see that I wasn’t in trouble.  But hell if it didn’t feel like I was going to die.  Because there is no one-syllable answer for that question.  There is no one word that can sum up my feelings.  There aren’t twenty, or even a hundred.  It isn’t possible.  This is as close as I come to accepting these things as part of my past.

I didn’t answer.  So he filled the silence.  He asked if I knew that I need to be “normal.”  I need to be able to be in a room with a man with the door closed.  I need to be able to interact with all members of the universe without fear.  I need to snap out of myself.  “You should be able to do it,” he told me, with an emphasis on the should that implied I was a massive screw-up.  Here I was, proud of myself for showing up at all, and here he was proving my worst fear.

I will never be normal, or okay.

*

There is a guy at school with whom things have become…weird.  He asked me out on a date once, but it became very apparent that I was not (nor will I probably ever be) ready to be in any kind of relationship.  Not only is he significantly younger (ten years) than me, we’re very different people.  This doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with either one of us; it just means that we don’t fit.  I’ve tried to explain this to him, and I flounder at the idea that he doesn’t understand.  I don’t know how I could have made it more clear.  I just want things to not be awkward.  I want us to work together like grown-ups.  But I don’t know that it will happen, and that’s not a fault of mine.  I’ve tried.

Did I bring this on myself?  Because I was hurt in the past and scared and not in want or need for a relationship?  Is it my fault that it’s a stressor now?  Entirely possible.  I know people who think so.  I just wish they wouldn’t say it.  It only reaffirms what is already tangled up inside my head.

That it is my fault.  All of it.  This.  The past.  The assault.  Even the marriage.  All of it.

*

We talked about captivity narratives in one of my classes today, and about fault.  What it means to be captive versus what it means to be free.  The first one in the book (that we read) was by a woman named Mary Rowlandson.  We got on the discussion of why the Indians in these narratives didn’t rape the women.  (Not all Indians raped women; that’s a horrible stereotype.)  The question bounced around the room several times.  The professor pointed out that Mary was bound and not allowed to make her own decisions.  She was captive to the choices of other people and to God.  She didn’t choose to go.  She didn’t want to be kidnapped.  She didn’t bring it on herself.  I cried.  It was short and brief and no one saw.  But I cried.  On day four.  I let myself down.

Did I bring this on myself too, this struggle to handle certain course materials?  I stayed in school.  Does the fact that I actually SPOKE in my classes today balance out the fact that I cried in one?  Is it okay to sometimes be okay and sometimes not?  I don’t know how to answer this.  I don’t know that there is an answer.  I don’t think anyone is normal.

*

By accepting the suggestion that the triggers in the after are brought on by, well, me, I am (at least in part) taking responsibility for everything.  The assault, the loss, the marriage.  I am negating the progress I have made.  And the people who say it, the people who tell me “you brought this on yourself,” they don’t know the implications of how much their words spiral inside my brain.  I can’t be mad at them.  I can wish they would know differently.  I can wish I could explain it.  But I can’t be angry, because part of me knows that the words don’t have a grain of truth in them.  I didn’t ask for any of my past to happen to me.  I didn’t ask to be hurt.  I am not a magnet with an on button that allows me to draw the shit to me.  These things just happened.  They happened to me.  And when people say “you brought this on yourself,” it’s my choice what I choose to do with that, just like it was my direction which way to go after.

Sometimes it feels like I can’t do it, like I don’t fit, like I never will.  And other times I know the answer and I’m me again.  Those confident times are emerging more and more.  I’m pushing through and I’m trying; I’m bringing them on myself.  It is, as always, my choice.

Today, I cried.  Tomorrow, I keep moving forward.

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Reintegration

Today was the first day back of a new semester, at least, the first real day as a student.  I was worried about many things going into today, the greatest of those being whether or not I remembered how to be a successful student.  Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I did.  I know that I’m supposed to have confidence, but I let that get taken away from me and I lacked the nerve required to take it back.  I had a choice.

This quote from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild sums where I was at well:

 

“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.” 

 

Last semester was rough for me.  I reached a point where I couldn’t handle things anymore, where the thing that had to go academically was my voice as a student.  (Or my voice in general—really, I just stopped talking about things).  My brain was still there; I had ideas.  They just adamantly refused to come out of my mouth.  I remember numerous occasions where I would leave a class and wonder what the heck I was doing or why I was even there.  I remember feeling like I didn’t fit in anymore and didn’t have a place.  I didn’t think I belonged anymore.  I remember wanting to quit, and sitting in one of my favorite professor’s offices telling her just that.

I am SO glad I didn’t.  

I, like Strayed, had a choice.  I was bleeding internally, letting the things I had worked so hard for get away from me.  I was juggling a lot; what happened pushed me over the edge.  There were two ways that I could go—the way I had come from or the way that I intended to go.  I could stay in my circumstances and wallow in self-pity, or I could push through it.  I could let myself drown in the things that had happened to me, or I could learn how to swim.  I have never been bothered by a good swim; I made myself a life preserver and took off with the goal of just holding on.  I did that, and I did it well.  But it was merely holding on and coasting on life’s waves, nothing more.  I was taking no initiative to step forward and out of where I was.  

What I did do, in my efforts to process my life, was begin writing my memoir.  And write I most certainly did.  The work is now several essays long and over 200 pages of pure me.  I have tackled the experience I was struggling with last semester, and while I still don’t know how to process everything, I have pushed through it.  I have reached the other side.  But the memoir has been missing an ending.  I didn’t know how to signify the finish to something so life altering.  It really doesn’t end.  It never feels “better.”  It doesn’t go away.  It simply becomes a little easier to think about day by day.  I know that things have happened to me, and I’ve gotten through them.  I’ve survived.  I did not quit.  I won’t.  I’ll be okay someday.

Today was a test for me, and I passed with extra credit.  I exceeded my own expectations for myself and the day.  I’m learning to articulate my thoughts and my needs on my own, without having to use someone else as my mouth piece or apologize for the things that leave my mouth.  This manifested itself in two ways today.  In my first class, I opened my mouth without even thinking about it, not giving myself the chance to overanalyze my answer and shut down what I was trying to say.  What came out was good, making me wonder about everything that I gave up on last semester because I stopped trusting myself.   The second moment was when I went to my next class and quickly realized that classroom positioning and being completely blockaded from the door was going to be an issue for me.  I go straight from one class to the other, and by the time I get to the second class, all of the non-blocked in seats are taken.  The real ticket here, the real notice to me that I was coming back, was that I was able to calmly and matter-of-factly explain my need to the professor in her office after class, a professor that I have never really conversed with much, and she was able to easily come up with an accommodation.  She will save me a seat towards the front and by the door with a book.  And it will be my seat for as long as I want.  Speaking up about what I need to be successful was really not so bad.  Admitting that I have a need?  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  I don’t believe that she looks at me any differently now.  As a matter of fact, I think she found it admirable that I was able to be so upfront about things.  This experience with her has changed how I view my interactions with the people around me; I’m excited at all of the news way in which I can approach things.  I’m reintegrating, putting the old me back in with all of the things that I’ve learned about myself.  I’m glad that I took time to write this summer, to work on myself through putting things down on paper.

This is what I do.  I write.  I survive.  I keep moving forward.  While this may seem small to many people, it’s deeply important to me.  I’m incredibly proud of myself and the way that I handled the events of the day.  Up until today, I highly suspected that good-brain me, for lack of a better term, was gone.  But rather than receive confirmation of that fact, I received confirmation of a different sort.  I know now that I’m overcoming.  Real me is coming back; I’m getting there.  But really, I suppose I’m already there.  I’m back.  

I can write the ending to my memoir now.

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Recovery 2.0

(This is a rewrite of the previous post, which was a draft of the introduction to my memoir.)

When I was twenty-eight, I was in the third semester of my undergraduate career.  I was carrying my typical huge credit load, but it was the first semester I can recall where one class stood out as a hands down favorite.  That class for me was Advanced Expository Writing.  In laymen’s terms, it was a class in the art of writing creative non-fiction.  Writing about myself was not an activity I had done heavily; however, like most fiction writers, a lot of my fiction has a basis in truth.

In this class, we wrote a myriad of different things on different topics, but every single one of my works pertained to my life.  One of the main focuses of the class was to get a legitimate workshop experience; each of the sixteen students in the class would submit two things for workshop over the course of the semester.  The other students were expected to read, mark up, and constructively critique each piece and then return it to the author in class, at which point a discussion of the piece would ensue.  I sat on my couch at the beginning of April, downloading and printing things off of our discussion board.  I didn’t read them, I just printed one after the other after the other.  I took them off of the printer, stapled each piece together, and settled in for a night of reading.  But the first piece was about rape, with some (at least to me) graphic pictures of women interspersed throughout the text.

I set the piece down without going past the first page.  I stared at the dog.  She stared back at me.  It was a full minute before I remembered that I was supposed to be breathing.  I picked the piece back up, ripped it into tiny pieces, and threw them all in the garbage can.  Immediately after, I emailed the professor and asked if it would hurt my grade to take a zero on the workshop.  I was willing to go and sit through said workshop, but if it got to be too much to deal with, I was going to have to leave.  And I would not be able to actually read the piece.  She replied that I had to do what I had to do.  So that’s exactly what I did.

I went to class the next day sans a critique for the author in question, but with my steely mental armor on.  It was my goal to not make a scene.  But I had forgotten that the author would be reading a portion of the piece out loud, and hearing the word was like nails in a coffin.  Rape.  God.  It brought everything back; it made it fresh.  In my head, I instructed myself to remain in my seat, to not get up, to not cause a stir.  Even though I had made previous arrangements, even though it was perfectly okay for me to leave, I grounded myself in my chair.  At least until the conversation began to disintegrate.  The class listened to the start of her paper, and then some idiot made the connection between rape as an act and rape as an herb.  The class started cracking jokes.  And they laughed.  I listened for as long as I could, until I couldn’t breathe.  And then I got up and walked out.  The door slammed shut behind me.

I wanted to scream; I could hear their laughter from all the way down the hall.  I didn’t know if I would be able to go back inside.  I wandered down to the store and bought apple juice, and then came back up and leaned against the window in the hallway outside our classroom.  They were right, at least partially.  Rape is an herb.  The word rape, in botany, belongs to the mustard family; it’s the same group that covers the cabbage, the mustard plant, and the turnip.  It’s used for lubrication, cooking, illumination, and making soup.  To plunder, to pillage.  To seize, to carry off by force.  Abusive improper treatment, a violation.

The crime of forcing another person to submit to sex acts.

And they laughed.  They made jokes.  I couldn’t wrap my brain around it.

Every two minutes, someone in the United States is raped.  Each year, there are about 207,754 victims.  44 percent of rape victims are under the age of 18.  80 percent are under the age of 30.  54 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police.  97 percent of rapists don’t even spend ONE day in jail.  Two-thirds of assaults are committed by someone the victim has met previously.  38 percent are committed by a friend, acquaintance, or spouse.  It’s this on one hand, this horrible indescribable act; it’s a yellow plant on the other.

It’s grapes.

It’s soap.

It’s sex.

I suddenly hated college.

I pressed my forward against the grass and started to cry.  I knew then that what had happened to me would never go away.

This is what it means to be in recovery.  Sometimes, it just hits you like a ton of bricks, that moment when you have to admit that “yes, this happened to me, yes, this is a part of me.”  It can be something small and insignificant that sets you off; it isn’t necessarily a flashing neon sign.  Something as small as a word can remind you of this awful thing that has happened to you, something you would never dare tell anyone.  Something of which you are greatly ashamed.

The word recovery has different meanings depending upon the context in which it is used.  But no matter what the situation, it’s an indication that someone is getting past something(s).  It doesn’t mean forgetting, nor does it mean dismissing the experience(s).  It simply means moving on, and accepting that one can still be a person despite the things that have happened to them.  That person will not necessarily be the same as who they were before, who they were when they started out.  But they are still a person, and they still have value.  We all have value; recovery is when we start to remember that.

For me, recovery includes copious amounts of writing.  Every day.  I grounded myself in the telling of this story; it was literally how I found my way back.  I believe that recovery comes from finding even the tiniest scrap of meaning in what has happened; I believe that our experiences should be used to help others.  But I have a hard time grappling with my experiences.  That is what writing this story is about for me—letting people in and caring more about the message than what they might think.  My dedication to writing gives me strength, even when I don’t think I have any left to draw from.  For me, there is always writing.  Sharing my story is about losing my fear, about accepting all of my past experiences as part of myself, and about realizing that I am still a person.  Writing is taking care of myself, forcing myself to a point of moving past things.  But it’s also a beacon for other people that I hope will lead them to their own path of acceptance and healing.

Cheryl Strayed writes “I make my own stories public for the sake of art.  A painful experience is not art, but art can be made from painful experiences.  Writers are truth tellers…Often that means we need to write about the darkness within.”  Writing about myself is a fairly new adventure.  I think of it as a purging experience, a shedding of the bad feelings that allows me to incorporate my real self back into a life devoid of choice and feeling.  I have had a lot of darkness in my life; I have had a lot of experiences.  That darkness is still deep; I lost a son, I lost a marriage, and I had my identity completely stripped away.  I lost my place, but my writing has remained a steady placeholder.  Some things are too awful to ever fully put into perspective, but writing lends a small edge to the task.  Even when there are things I have trouble talking about, I can write about them.  I’ve found a method in which I can discuss things, even when I can’t physically talk about them.  The how and the why and the where don’t matter; what matters is that I have found a way to “speak.”  And through writing, I am teaching myself how to literally speak again.  Writing is helping me to take my voice back.  Perhaps reading it will help you gain the courage to find yours.  I’m not a girl; I’m not a woman; I’m not a victim.  I’m a survivor.  And I’m a writer, confront the demons that have taken up residence inside of my head.  I am here; I am alive.  And that is more than good enough.  I’m writing, and with that writing, I am giving one hundred percent commitment to my recovery.

Recovery is different for everyone; everyone is recovering from something at some point, and everyone is different.  Some, like me, are not good at talking about things.  But I hope that everyone can find some way to accept their experiences, and to begin moving on.  If reading my story can touch one person, that it has done the job I only hoped it could do.

This story is not always pretty.  It isn’t unicorns and rainbows, it isn’t flowers and chocolate.  But it’s mine, from start to finish.

These essays are the story of my journey, and the pathway to my recovery.

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Writing Tutoring: A Special Level of Teaching All Its Own

Teaching is not always glorious or fun.  There is not always a big takeaway or a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  I have taught piano, voice, cello, and drama, but the hardest thing for me thus far in the land of teaching has been tutoring.  I refer to the tutor position, in my head, as the buffer between professors and students that might quite possibly drive them insane.  I consider tutoring to be a special level of teaching all its own.

Tutees can be categorized into three categories:  those who come because they genuinely want to learn and receive help, those who come because they want the tutor to do their work for them, and those who have no clue.  I had over sixty tutoring appointments last semester.  Of those, probably only a quarter fell into the first category.  The rest landed somewhere into between the other two.  It should be blatantly obvious which of these categories contains my favorite type of tutee.

My first tutoring appointment still reigns as the most special.  I don’t remember his name, so I’ll just call him John.

John showed up late, beginning the appointment on a truly fantastic note.  Because he was my first appointment ever, I stuck as closely as I could to the manual.

“So, John, what are you here for today?”

He shrugged.

All of my previous teaching experience still left me unprepared for his lack of response.  I tried again.  “What class are you here for?”

“Uh…English?” he replied, as if it was the stupidest question he’d ever heard.

If he wouldn’t have been staring at me, I would have rolled my eyes.  I had to fight the impulse.  “Which English?” I pasted a smile on my face.  It probably looked as fake as it felt.

“Uh…the first one.”

I closed my eyes.  There was no hiding my irritation.

“Okay, so what’s the assignment?”

He shrugged again.  Seriously.  Shrugged.

At this point, I wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake him out of annoyance, even though I had only been in his presence for sixty seconds or less.  “Do you have an assignment sheet?”

“I didn’t bring it.”

“Do you have the assignment?”

“No.”

“So…”  I paused and thought for a second.  “What exactly are you looking to do here today?”

“I need to write a paper.”

“On what?” I asked as a last ditch effort.

“I don’t remember.  Can’t you just teach me how to write my paper?”

I wanted to smack myself in the face at the sheer idiocy.  Did he think I was going to magically produce his assignment out of thin air?  I did what I could with him.  I taught him how to structure an outline.  I gave him the main functions of various parts of an essay, the thesis, the introduction, the conclusion…And then sent him on his merry way with instructions to never come to an appointment again without being prepared, and a nicely worded scolding about how he needed to better utilized his tutoring time.  Not to mention mine.

I wondered after that appointment if I was a failure, if tutoring was perhaps not my calling and I should not come back.  But no, I’m told that doesn’t just happen to me.  It actually happens quite frequently, to all the tutors.

In the Tutoring Center, we have a rating system from one to five.  Five is “this tutor was awesome.”  One is “this tutor sucked.”  I had two ones and, I believe, fifty-nine fives for the semester.

I must be doing something right.

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Broken Wings

Life is a series of options.  Of choices.  Or so I’m told.

There’s a pigeon outside.  The view from the office is plain; I can see across the roof, and down to the path that leads to the next building.  It’s still cold outside.  There are no flowers blooming.  

There is always the choice of quitting.  It is an option that is continually available.  Quitting, leaving.  She will help me do that, if I choose.  Do I?  Choose that?  Can I?  It doesn’t seem to be a viable choice, at least not in my head.

Other choices exist, of course.  Take some time.  Come back. 

Someone different is in the hallway, a man.  I stare out the crack.  I can’t keep track of the words he utters, but I am aware he’s there.  I can’t focus on the words she’s saying.

She nudges the door closed the rest of the way.  There are options, always options, and only I can control them.  I control what happens now.  Options.

I don’t have real options, that’s crazy.  I can’t think farther ahead than right now.  I had to make a list to remind me to shower and drive here at the appropriate time.  My only real choices are to either keep going or give up, at least from my point of view.  And one of those is a substantially more easy route than the other.

She believes differently.

How do I feel about that?  What path do I want to pick?

I spin the rubber band around my wrist, snapping it repeatedly.  I can’t quit.  People can’t know.  No.  Never.  Snap.  Snap.  

The rubber band breaks.  No longer a loop, it is a straight line that I hold in my lap and stretch as far as the material will allow.

If I stay, she’ll help me with that too.  She’ll help me with whatever I need.

What do I need?

I can’t answer.  I can’t find any words.  I want to stay; I’m not ready to go.  No.  But something has been taken from me.  Something is missing.  I don’t know how to explain.  I don’t know how to make her understand.  

I need to talk to my professors, she says.  Ask them where I stand.  Ask them to work with me.  She reminds me of my good standing; she reminds me that I am strong, and that I can do this, no matter which way I choose.  The choice to go one way or the other now is solely mine.

I’m broken.  Fading.  I shouldn’t have choices.  I can’t.

I can’t tell people.  

We talk about it.  Who needs to know?  We prioritize, put people in order.  Certain people need to know.  People who are more important than others, classes, things, that are more important.  People who mean more.  Who will be let down when I can’t achieve a certain standard.  When I fail.  I’m going to fail.  

I should quit before I fail.  I can’t tell people.  I can’t let them down.

She’ll help me.  She’ll tell whoever I want her to tell; she’s sure that they’ll make allowances, that they’ll work with me.  I’m not.  I will let them down.  I will let everybody down.

I will let myself down.

I’m scared.

I don’t know how to let her help.

Is this my fault?  Most certainly, yes.  I let this happen.

The pigeon is still outside.  Something startles him, and he opens his wings and takes off into the sky.  I want to fly away too.  I can feel myself lifting up and away from this conversation, from what happened.

To myself:  Come back.

I can’t escape.  My wings are broken.

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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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Major Life Lessons Learned in English 266

The greatest life lessons I learn come from school.

In my life before school, I learned that I was not supposed to think for myself.  My thoughts were not my own.  I let my ideas whither away into nothing.  I was not supposed to have my own opinions.  I was supposed to go along with the crowd; I couldn’t be my own person.  It wasn’t okay to have a wrong answer.  These messages came from everywhere around me, and this conditioned philosophy made school very difficult for me.  I didn’t know how to speak up; I had a very difficult time if I was not certain that there was a correct answer.  I was always the first to raise my hand if I was certain I was correct.  The thing about being in a creative field is that there really isn’t one, correct, answer.  There’s no wrong answers either.  There’s just what you think.  Of all of the things I’ve learned in school, this was the hardest concept that I had to grasp. 

Last semester, I took the first course that posed any sort of a challenge for me academically.  It was a course in literary analysis, the gateway course to my degree.  As I started tackling the readings and the beginning coursework, I got it in my head that I was perhaps not cut out to be an English major.  We were supposed to read and interpret and have our own ideas about what we were reading…and there was no correct answer.  I tried though, valiantly.  And then we got to Lacan and his psychoanalytic theories, and it blew my brain.  I read the words that he had written about the mirror stage, and the phallus, and I got them on a basic level.  But in my head I was stuck on the idea that I had to please this professor, that I had to figure out what she wanted and what the right answers were—and THAT was WAY too hard, because, like I said…no right answers.  I was drowning.  So I asked her for help. 

I distinctly remember the conversation we had standing in her office, just two weeks or so into the class.  I essentially told her that I didn’t get it.  And really, I did.  I had my thoughts and ideas.  But I wanted to be successful, I wanted her to tell me what to think.  Her response?  “Well, what do you think?”  I couldn’t get over the idea that there was no wrong answer.  As I tried to articulate what I thought Lacan was saying, the only thing running through my head was that she would think badly of me if I was wrong.  

As it turned out, she didn’t think badly of me at all.  She thought I had a firm grasp on things.  She said I “sounded smart.”  I took that to mean I was going in the right direction.  I went off on my own and finished that day’s assignment. 

My thinking started to change.  After that, I started raising my hand more.  I started trying to say how I really felt about things.  This isn’t to say I didn’t still freak out about it upon occasion; learning to how to be my own person was one of the hardest things I had ever done.  It wasn’t just academic for me.  It applied to my outside life as well.  I was mending all of the mental and emotional processes that had previously been broken.  

As happens with all upswings, there is always a downswing.  Mine came in the form of our final class presentations.  I was not only expected to form an argument that was completely my own, but I was expected to articulate that argument in front of a group of professors and my peers and alumni…that was a lot to take in.  Of course, it was for a grade.  I couldn’t just not do it.  I never in my life wanted to take an F more than I wanted to take that one, even though I had never had an F before.  I completely panicked.  There would be people.  Looking at me.  Judging me.  Judging my paper.  Judging my thoughts.  And those people were allowed (and encouraged) to ask questions, which I would have to answer on the spot.  My paper, which was an extension of me, was going to be up for debate.  Because I was so close to the work, to the ideas, I knew that it would feel personal.  They were my thoughts.  And I had to share them.  

That was a rough one for me considering that the whole idea of having my own thoughts was a completely new concept.  There were multiple emails exchanged between myself and this professor.  She did her best to reassure me.  My advisor worked with me on how to answer questions if people posed them to me—she told me to just get up there and do what I had to do and get my A.  She told me to believe in myself.  But I was still completely freaked out.  Believing in myself was not a solid concept at that point in my life. 

I dressed up the day of my presentation.  It’s a thing that I do, when I’m scared out of my mind.  I put on nice clothes.  I think my logic behind it is that if I look pretty and appear like I can handle myself, I will be able to handle myself.  So I wore leggings, and an old dress, and I took the advice of my advisor and did what I had to do.  I believed in myself.  I believed in my thoughts.  As I started talking, I kept my hands below the podium edge so people wouldn’t see them shaking.  I played with my feet behind the podium, stepping in and out of my shoes.  I followed the words on the page with a pen.  (I still do that, and I’ve now given several of these presentations.)  But as I was speaking, it started to come easier.  No one was outright screaming that my argument was invalid.  No one was laughing at me.  I don’t remember all of the nightmarish things I thought might happen, but none of them did. 

I gave that presentation, and it was awesome.  I fielded all of the questions that were asked of me, even the curveball question from my professor herself.  I learned something about myself that day, and not in the academic sense.  I learned that it’s okay to speak up.  It’s okay to be my own person.  It’s okay to have my own thoughts, and to say what I want to say.  I learned that I was still strong and very, very capable, despite the things I had previously learned.  Giving that presentation broke all of the previous conditioning that I had experienced.  

The presentation assignment was given to us to give us experience in sharing papers in the event that we were ever asked to share our work at a conference.  But it was so much more than that for me.  It showed me that I was still a person.  I had things to contribute to life, both academic and not.

It taught me how to be proud of myself.   

Who knew that it was possible to draw major, life changing lessons from an English course?

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