I was 27 when I re-entered academia. I left a career I loved as a broadcast journalist (public broadcasting, folks) to attempt a career I'd dreamt of since my first college class -- that of professor.
And, here I write, a little more than 10 years later, in Sweden doing some preliminary work on a possible future project after presenting research in Finland. I had a moment, a few days ago, where I was like, "What the hell am I doing here?"
It wasn't so much imposter syndrome -- I know how hard I worked, and continue to work, to be where I am -- but it was simply the absurdity of where I am in life.
My father was a person of color who didn't finish high school. Though accepted into college, my mother never realized her dream of going. Both of my parents pushed me to embrace my intellect, to read as much as I wanted, to be curious, and to be unafraid to go where my brain took me. They supported me as I left for Ohio University in 2001 and happily rushed emergency funds and supplies to me when I called home crying, not even a week (I think) into that first quarter.
I am now a tenure track assistant professor at a school that I knew I wanted to work at as soon as my interview was over. I have survived my first two years, getting some publications out, presenting my research, networking. Figuring out who I am as a teacher and as a mentor. Doing everything I should be doing.
And yet, there was a moment standing in that Stockholm square, where I felt so alone and lost.
Graduate study, good graduate study, teaches you how to manage research and teaching with as much grace as you can muster. What it does a less great job of doing is helping you figure out how to manage that on top of everything else.
For instance, how to navigate the minefield of your child's early teen years.
Or the death of your beloved father.
Grieving & Grades
My father had been ill for years. In fact, his first major health crisis erupted as I was in the midst of my first year as a master's student.
It threw me into a tailspin. I had given up a job I loved to pursue my dream of a PhD and here was my dad, virtually a cripple, and I had to decide whether to continue on. I did, but it wasn't easy. I carried a lot of worry on my shoulders. My father and I had always been close; to see him suddenly so ill, so not himself, was really difficult.
What we worried was an acute illness was actually chronic and he and my mother learned to manage it until the last few years when he seemed to be in a slow decline he was having difficulty pulling out of.
In February, not long after my spring semester started, I got a call from my mother saying my dad was in the hospital and so I rushed down to my parents' home and spent about five days with my mom. Every day we'd pack up and go to the hospital and sit with my father. The first day I walked in, Dad didn't know who I was, but the day before I left we got to take him home. He seemed better. I think there was a sense of relief that he'd made it through this crisis and hope that, with the new medications he'd been prescribed, he'd be on the mend and back to himself.
About two months later I sat in my office, beginning a day of one-on-one meetings with students immersed in work on final projects, when I got a phone call from my mother. I thought, perhaps, Dad had been ordered back to the hospital.
I was wrong and my world hasn't been the same since.
I was gone for almost a week this time, home with my mother as she took care of arrangements, spending time with my brothers and mother as we all sat with our loss; sat with the new emptiness we found in our lives.
I finished out the semester. I got my students through their final papers and final stories. I got their grades turned in and then I left for Finland.
I survived, somehow, what was my most difficult semester as an academic.
"I grow old ... I grow old ..."
The thing about death is that no one knows what to say to you. There are awkward questions. There is your attempt to engage, to be honest, but not too honest. Your failure at this.
I'm lucky. As soon as they heard the news my colleagues contacted me, asking how they could help, what they could do.
Nothing, was my response.
Because there was nothing. No one can do anything to take away the sorrow, the pain, the anger, even, I feel. In regards to my classes -- my students' final projects were all personal things they'd been working on, that I'd been coaching them through; there was no way anyone else could slip in and get them through to the end. So, keeping in mind my dad's adage that "someone else always has it worse," I got us through to the end.
And then I curled up in my bed, listening to the birds chirping in the woods behind my house, and sobbed. And then I sobbed talking to my husband. And then I sobbed in the shower. I sobbed after talking to my mother on the telephone. I sobbed after my daughter left with friends to go do something. I sobbed in an airport bookstore after picking up what seemed like an innocuous title that, when I read the back cover, was about the death of a parent.
I have sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed.
I sobbed on the morning of what would have been my father's 71st birthday just a few days ago. I stood alone on the back of the huge ferry that had taken me across the Baltic Sea from Finland to Sweden and watched the sunrise and sobbed as I remembered I wouldn't be able to tell my dad (who served in the Navy and loved nothing more than to be on the water) how beautiful it had been, how quiet, to be at sea as the sun was waking up.
My father's favorite poet was T.S. Eliot. Something we shared. He had a bad habit of stealing any copy of Eliot I'd come home with from college. When I finally took back my copy of the book that contained both The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, I opened the little volume to find it filled with my father's marginalia and underlinings. Aggravating upon first discovery, I find it comforting now, to have that book filled with his thoughts about something we both loved.
The lines, "I grow old ... I grow old ... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled," from Prufrock have always reminded me of Dad for some reason. It might have been his obsession with discussing what kind of old man he'd be and the fact that, for most of my life, my dad wore painter's bibs. I have the memory of watching him roll them up, which I'm not even sure is real, but I think the things together, and his obsession with water, might explain the reason those lines stick with me.
I can hear him reciting them to me over the telephone, while making one of his huge Sunday morning breakfasts, as a reminder to me that he, and I, were aging.
I feel, therefore I teach
I teach because I believe in the power of learning and of education. I embrace barbaric yawps (I know there's some academic out there who is going to tell me how terrible Dead Poet's Society is; I don't care, both Dad and I loved it). I embrace feeling and emotion.
I am not a distant academic. Who I am walks with me into the classroom. I probably curse too much. (My dad was a sailor, I come by it honestly.) I talk about my kid, my cats, about pop culture things I love, why I think journalism is amazing, and my deep, and abiding, love of tacos and corgis.
I don't give tests, generally. I make my students read and write and talk. The talking sometimes they resist, which is fine, I did too when I was in undergrad (and sometimes even when I was in graduate school). But I want them engage with what we are learning -- and what we are learning is not always to be found in the readings they've been assigned for that day.
I end almost every semester with presentations. The final day, I try to carve out about fifteen minutes for myself. I show them a short animation of part of David Foster Wallace's This Is Water and then go into some soppy spiel about how education is about more than grades and memorization; it's also, and I would argue most importantly, about giving you the material to decide who you want to be in the world.
Your grades matter now, I tell them, but what matters when you leave here are the choices you make about how you treat people.
This last day happens after I've gotten them to complete student evaluations. I do not want to make some sappy speech about the importance of living a full life before I ask them to grade me as a teacher.
This was especially important for me this semester because I decided to tell them about the death of my father. He'd been gone only two weeks at the time and, while I managed to make it through my morning class without tears, when I was talking to my freshman later that afternoon I could feel the tears welling up.
"I don't want this to be maudlin," I told them. "My father always said, 'There are assholes everywhere, all you can control is whether you're going to be an asshole, too' and if you take anything from this class, I hope it's that salty seaman's mantra."
I teach because I believe in what I do. I believe in curiosity and kindness; empathy and intellect.
I stress to my students to not get so caught up in what's coming tomorrow, of whether they should study abroad or do that internship or take that class three years from now, that they lose sight of the beauty of the moment they are living in.
I believe assholes are everywhere and my choice is to not be one and so I share and I'm open, even when I'm tired and sad and angry and want nothing more than to sobsobsob my guts out listening to Leonard Cohen.
Graduate school prepared me to handle rejection and research; it did not teach me how to navigate that while dealing with the emotional tsunami that comes with being a middle aged adult with aging parents and a sassy-mouthed child.
I choose to be both human and academic, I just wish there was a Google Maps for how to do this.
*My apologies to The Killers.
(FTR: There is no one way to be an academic or a teacher. This is who I am. There are countless, valid, ways to be in the world. This is the way I've chosen.)