Recently, I was lurking in a listserv reading about what folks wrote about the tech gap that exists for a lot of students and what that means for students who are in the gap (I wanted to offer up Writing Spaces as one of many open educational resources available to students and teachers to help students save money on books so they could afford the technology we require, but I didn’t want to be IN the conversation, I just wanted to observe it and think about it). I want to be pushy but not this week.
One person mentioned that some professors might counsel a student that if everything was falling apart, a student shouldn’t be in college at this point in her life–go get life figured out and then come back when she’s ready.
I get that. I was one of those perennially challenged students. Some one was always dying, getting divorced, being shot, driving into an elk, and then having to live with me; I had too many dogs, too many classes, too many jobs, and too many people living in my house–always. I just barely managed to get through it all and survive final examinations every term (always with some heinous virus and fever), but I managed.
One final exam week, while I had a fever of 102 degrees F, I got a ticket for speeding to the pharmacy to get a prescription filled, took three exams in one day, had my bank issue checks to someone else with my account numbers (so I ended up with NO money–they fixed it, but there was a day of utter fevered panic), lost one of my dogs, fell down the stairs to my basement and sprained my ankle, and got bit by 27 spiders as I tried to get one of my cats out from a hole in the wall of my garage. So I was hot from the fever, got really sick from the spider bites (ended up sleeping about 20 hours after the week was over), and cried about 18 times that week and 15 the week after because I started taking grad classes the week after the term was over and I had to show up with 27 spider bites all over my ankles–one of which was swollen and bruised, and no one wanted to sit next to me once they got a load of my feet. I mean, would you want to cozy up to someone who looked like they’d recently been really sick and had splotches and bites all over their feet and one foot that look like it had been twisted? I believe I also had an eyelid twitch that week, too, because somehow I felt perfectly ghoulish, and that would have been the just-right finishing touch.
At that point in my life, I did not have three kids and two jobs. I had a lot of dogs, two rogue cats, a broken-down old house with a billion things wrong with it, two and a half jobs, and a truck that would occasionally just stop working while I was driving. I won’t even go into the personal stuff (not apropos for this blog, so I’ll only say this: it was a seven-year battle royale involving an attorney who smoked a corn-cob pipe, the IRS, kitchen utensils, and a 1965 MGB).
I told all my professors what a wreck I was (full disclosure is sometimes a good thing). I asked for extensions; I asked to be added late to classes; I asked to change projects three weeks before the end of a term; I asked for incompletes; I asked for mercy; and I asked for direction.
I got everything I wanted because I worked my ass off as a consequence–so my ethos was solid. I was a mess, but I was viciously determined, and bless them all, my profs knew that. And I do mean viciously determined–I gave up everything when I needed to in order to do my academic work. I refused to go out with friends except on Friday and Saturday evenings and only after 7 pm. I never watched television. For about seven years, I didn’t even own a television. I had one at the beginning of this era, but it broke after it turned everything green for six months (my grandmother’s 140 lb. color television from the 1970s), and I couldn’t afford a new one. C’est la vie.
If I had 12 novels to read in a semester, I did whatever I needed to do to read those books (including, gulp, The Grapes of Wrath, the worst book I have ever read four times… I have a mad crush on Steinbeck the man, truly adore him, but his writing gives me the willies big time). I didn’t go on vacation–no spring break trips. I didn’t even hardly go to the movies unless someone took me out on a date. And when the truck stopped working, I walked to school or rode my old beat up Schwinn beach cruiser (public transportation wasn’t invented back then–and it was uphill both ways and I had no shoes and it snowed all the time).
One professor told me that she thought I might do better if I figured out how to manage my life, then came back to college. College, she said, wasn’t for everybody and perhaps a break was in order. What I couldn’t articulate then, but what I get now, is that college was the only thing keeping me together. I cried, of course, because she had tapped into my fears that I really wasn’t college material and went away feeling unworthy of the college experience. But I was viciously tied to it all, so I dried my tears, figured out a way to manage, and I plowed through her class and made her eat her words. I totally decimated the curve she insisted on using to grade and got the only A in the class. That didn’t endear me to my classmates, but it was a way I could prove to myself that I did belong in college despite the chaos of the world around me.
I also know now that some folks invite the chaos in. Me, for instance. There’s a knock at my door. What a surprise! Look, it’s Chaos. Our conversation goes like this…
[Chaos] Hi. I miss you. Can I come in?
[Me] No. I don’t miss you at all.
[Chaos] Yes, you do. You miss me a little bit, don’t you? C’mon, you know you do.
[Me] Oh for pity’s sake, I miss you a little. Sort of. But it’s been so peaceful. Couldn’t you bother other friends until the end of this one semester?
[Me] Okay, come on in. You can have the bedroom upstairs in the front. No spitting in the kitchen sink, clean up after yourself, no jumping on the waterbed, and you have to help walk the dogs every morning no matter what.
[Chaos] Thanks. You’ll hardly notice I’m here.
Not so much. I always noticed Chaos a lot (he NEVER follows rules) and I still notice, but there it is–that’s who I am: me letting Chaos in. I opened the door. I caved. It was me. I could have done something different. I didn’t. I don’t.
I have friends who are like bedrock. Chaos never gets in. They plan and stick to the plan and find immense measures of success that everyone can quantify easily–classic measuring sticks that everyone recognizes. My measuring stick for success is like a long noodle. Wiggly, uncertain, magnificent, and eventually, something that can be eaten to great satisfaction.
I love this next noodle maker. It’s like a noodle dance. I like to think if I’m using something as tenuous as a noodle to measure the success of my life, then I’d like it to be a noodle made this way, with lyricism and joy.
Or my measurement for success in college or life might be more like Martin Yan carving a chicken in 18 seconds.
I take a giant cleaver and hack away now! Nothing can beat me when I have my cleaver and Martin Yan with me!
When I now talk to students about the chaos in their lives (because they tell me–as their professor), I speak from experience about how to make choices one can live with. If you let Chaos in, Chaos stays in. Now you have to deal with it. Make choices about what you can do every day about your education. If you have to choose between going out with friends and reading the book you need to read: do the reading. If you have to decide between watching a movie and writing the paper that is due: write the paper. If you have to choose between caring for the dying person in your life and doing homework: take the homework with you because dying people sleep a lot, and you can do the homework. My mother wanted me to do my master’s degree work when I was watching her die. It made her happy. She said the sound of the keys on my laptop soothed her. I’ve cared for a lot of ill folks who never resented me reading or writing while I was there. They were proud of me. What I had to do was get over my own emotions in order to keep my mind focused. It’s being vicious with yourself that can do it–there’s a time to get hit by the ball for a walk, and there’s a time to step up to the plate and bunt the runner home.
I took three years off once to work in aviation. I had to go away from grad school–but I didn’t quit. That’s another really important point we need to remember when talking to our students: I went on hiatus. That’s all. Because I was always going to find my way back to school–no question. How we talk about something is how that thing becomes. If we quit, then we quit, and it’s over and done with: fat lady sings. If we go on hiatus, we have a summer off between the hectic schedule of shooting a hit television series–it’s only a break. We name what we do and it is that which is named–I, as a writing professor, as a rhetorician, should be more aware of that than anyone. So I try.
My advice is now always this: find a way because there is always a way. Always. Be open to the way that comes to you, because if you’re the kind of person that lets Chaos in to stay in your extra bedroom, then you need to be open to whatever path the world reveals to you.
(I try to never mention the hiatus–it’s one option, certainly–but it should be a last option.)
When I found myself confronting a whole chicken one day in my apartment and wondering what the hell I was going to do with it, the electrician fixing the wiring in the living room told me he was finished… and asked what I was going to do with that fabulous-looking chicken (it was gorgeous–I bought it from a meat shop thinking I would roast it, but I had no idea what I was doing). I said that–I have no idea what I’m doing; I’m crashing and burning right now. He said, “Well, miss, it just so happens, I used to be a butcher.” I thought I would cry. I had guests coming in an hour and the chicken had thus far defeated me. He cleaned up, took my cleaver, and whacked my chicken apart in less than a minute, started the whole dinner for me, wrote down the directions for the best chicken stew ever so I could finish and make a great overall meal (and look like a star doing it), and off he rode into the sunset.
Now my cleaver is a valued kitchen tool and chickens no longer vanquish me. Neither do noodles, long or short.
And I made it through college–several times.
If students want advice and help from me, they’ll get it. I tell them: there’s always a way.