RSS Feed

Tag Archives: graduate school

Alumni Day

            I graduated with my MFA in fiction thirteen years ago, and I’ve never been to any of the Alumni events held by the school. First of all, it’s too expensive to fly to North Carolina and stay in a hotel and pay tuition. Second, I’ve been busy with other things for the past few years: taking psychology classes, then working on my MSW, and now teaching. But, to be honest, even if I could have made the time, or afforded the trip, I was too scared to go. I didn’t want to face people who had made more of their writing careers, or their teaching careers, or their editing and publishing careers than I had. I can barely keep my ego ticking as it is, and I was afraid that going back into that environment with so little to show for myself might crush me.

“You’re so melodramatic.”

            This year, because of Covid, the alumni programming was planned for Zoom, or something like Zoom. It would just be for one day, and free, and easy to get to, but I was still reluctant to go. I was afraid that I wouldn’t know that many people, and I was afraid that I would see people I did know, and didn’t really want to see again, but most of all, I was afraid that I would fall into a shame spiral, comparing myself to other people and how brave they are, and how persistent they’ve been, and how confident they are about their right to be heard. I was also afraid that the intellectual snobbery thing – we write literary fiction – would leak all over me and make me feel shitty, and my ego strength would return to where it was when I was in that school, and I would fall off an emotional cliff.

Given all of that, it was hard to understand why I was even considering going to this thing. It felt like some perverse way of testing myself, to see if I’ve changed in the past fifteen years. But I also felt guilty for not pushing myself to go to any of the previous years’ events, and missing out on the possibility that someone or something at one of those reunions could have helped me build my writing career. I don’t think I’ve ever really healed from the writing workshops in graduate school: the jealousy, the demeaning quality of the criticism, the conformity of the standards, the daily reality that everything is a competition for scarce resources… That’s why when I run writing workshops now, I try hard to make them therapeutic and welcoming and non-competitive, because my own experiences in writing workshops were so much the opposite.

            But then there was the boy. I think of him as a boy because we were both so immature when we met in graduate school. He’s off on his own track now, married with kids and a good job, and I’m still me. I wanted to see him, but only if he was going to smile at me and be happy to see me; I didn’t want to see him if he was going to pity me, or look down on me. And I didn’t even know if he would be there.

            Maybe most of all, I wanted to see if this one day return to graduate school could help me restart my confidence around trying to get published. I’ve been steely-eyed about making sure I get a blog post written each week, no matter what other responsibilities come up, but I haven’t been as strong-willed in the past few years about working on and sending out my other writing projects.

            It’s just so freaking hard to ignore the rejections.

“I accept you, Mommy!”

            I finally filled out the registration form for the Alumni event, thinking I could still decide not to go at the last minute. I chose a few sessions to go to, and gave myself permission to leave sessions early, or go to more of them, depending on how things went.

            I woke up early on Alumni day, well, earlier than I wanted to, and went to my first event in the living room. The timing of the first session was lucky, because I had my regular phone call with my therapist scheduled for right afterwards. That safety net was reassuring. I flipped through multiple screens looking for faces I might recognize, and then I checked the participants list. I saw a few familiar names from the school Facebook group, but not many from my time in the program, so I took a break for a few minutes, paced the floor, watched some terrible news, and then went back to the computer for a reading by one of the graduates from my time who’d been more successful than me. And I survived. The therapy break right afterwards was a relief, though, and then there was a writing workshop that felt more like a literature class, which is not my thing, and then I slept through a panel I’d wanted to go to, on book promotion, because I was exhausted from all of the zooming by then.

“Can I go back to sleep?”

            To make up for missing the Book Promotion panel, I forced myself to go to the first few minutes of the final event, an Open Mic, despite not having it on my to-do list ahead of time. I actually tried to stay for a while and support my fellow alumni but I couldn’t seem to sit still anymore, and I wanted to start writing this blog post, because I couldn’t really be sure what the day had meant to me until I could look at it in squiggles on the page.

             I was disappointed not to see the boy; maybe he’d gone to one of the sessions I’d skipped, or maybe he was too busy, or maybe he was just as afraid of returning to graduate school as I was, or maybe he was afraid of seeing me. And I was disappointed that I didn’t recognize many of the other alumni on the screen, and that my impulse to send out my work was still in snooze mode. I was disappointed that Alumni day hadn’t turned out to be a great step forward in my life, or a chance to confront deep dark old wounds, or get a great idea for a new book, but, the good news was that I didn’t fall into a shame spiral either. I’d given it a try, and then I’d listened to my discomfort and my own point of view, and I let myself shrug it off. That wouldn’t have been possible fifteen years ago, or ten, or even five. I was able to hear the old thoughts pass through my mind – you’re not trying hard enough to fit in, you’re not the right kind of writer, you don’t deserve success because you don’t know how to give people what they want – and I picked up each old thought like a Daddy Long Legs in the bathtub and I set it aside. And that was it.

            It was an anticlimactic experience, but, in its way, it was a significant step forward for me. I said yes to something that scared me, I gave it a try, and then when it didn’t work out, I was able to just let it go. And then I took the dogs out for a walk, wrote the first draft of this blog post, and watched a Hallmark movie, or two. Not such a bad day after all.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?         

Final Exam Angst

Final Exam Angst

 

My first online, graduate, social work class went very well, except for one thing, the final exam. The materials for the course were set up by committee, pretty much, with one teacher organizing the course in the first place, then different teachers “facilitating” each class, and a team coming up with the review materials and the final exam, making changes each semester.

This, already, was a recipe for disaster, and when I read the conflicting review materials and practice exams I said so to my teacher. I said that, one, the review made no sense and made it unclear what in particular the exam would focus on; two, the course overall did not seem to lend itself to a final exam like this, because the readings were so various and really, a written assignment would make more sense, a test of comprehension rather than of memory; and three, the online testing set up, with a strange proctor watching us through the web cam, was just freaky.

My teacher tried to reassure me that everything would be fine, but he also asked me to let him know my thoughts once I’d finished the exam.

I tried to use the review materials to organize my study notes for the test, but they just didn’t make sense. Either the categories were too broad, or the advice conflicted from one page to the next. In the end, I did what I always do and overstudied. I re-read my notes from all of the lectures and readings, and re-read the readings themselves, and condensed my notes, then re-read my condensed notes, and re-read my original notes and re-condensed them another few times, until I’d stuffed information into every corner of my brain.

Cricket had been doing her best to interrupt studying all week, but she is, surprisingly, much less dogged than I am when it comes to studying. She only understands studying smells, and my notebooks just don’t smell that interesting to her. I was worried about how the dogs would deal with the proctor talking to me through the computer screen, so just before the test, I took them for a walk and then gave them each a chewy, and they were fine.

IMG_0444

“Play with me!”

IMG_1576

“Walkies!!!!”

IMG_0129

“Are you done yet?”

I considered bringing Butterfly with me to the computer for the exam, but I was afraid that the proctor would accuse her of helping me cheat on the test. I might have stuffed notes into her ears, or tattooed answers under her hair. (I actually heard from classmates that each time they moved their chairs, or dropped a pen on the floor, the proctor stopped the exam and scanned the whole room again before restarting).

IMG_0057

“I’m sending you the answers with my super powers, Mommy.”

My exam time was 9:15 in the morning, with my web cam wavering on top of my computer screen, and my microphone trying to slide off the desk. It took fifteen minutes for the proctor to set me up for the exam, with various browser issues and weird noises and blank screens. The exam itself only took about ten minutes. There were a handful of short answer questions, which were easy enough to answer, and twenty to thirty multiple choice questions, which, for the most part, made no sense. There were typos (!) in the exam questions, and words were misused, and some of the questions and answers were so vague that you could have chosen any of the four answers equally.

I was spitting mad. I wrote to my teacher immediately after the exam and said as much, trying not to type out the curse words rushing through my head. He wrote back within half an hour to tell me that I had scored an 80 on the test, and that all of my mistakes had been in the multiple choice section. And because the test had to count for 40% of my grade, I would earn an A- for the class.

This is where the noise in my head got all conflicted. An A- is not a bad grade, so it seems obnoxious to complain about it. If I’d skipped some of the readings, or been lackadaisical about studying, or submitted assignments late, then I would have accepted an A- with gratitude. But I know how hard I worked. I had to sit through sessions with my therapist, for eight weeks, while she criticized me for working too hard for this class.

I wrote back to my teacher and made a very clear and detailed argument for why this test was unfair, and why specific questions should be reexamined, and he took me seriously. He said no one else had complained about the test, but that that only meant they didn’t think they had the right to complain. The teacher believed that my argument deserved attention, and he took it to the chairman of the department for review. We are now waiting for a decision.

I worry that it is selfish to fight for myself, and bother people with my own needs, but the dogs have taught me that this is what you are supposed to do. Cricket worked on me for years, but it took watching Butterfly – the sweet, gentle, accommodating one – fighting for her needs, to wake me up.

003

“You’ve gotta fight for your right to chewies…I mean justice.”

There is no guarantee that my argument will prevail or that my grade will be changed. In fact, more likely than not, I will be ignored, and that feeling has been difficult to sit with, like bees buzzing under my skin. I wish it didn’t bother me so much. I wish my blood didn’t boil and my thoughts run rampant. But the girls have done their best to remind me that life goes on. Walks must be taken, poop scooped, treats given. There must be scratchies, and cuddles, and adventures, and all of that matters more than this one small unfairness.

IMG_0667

“Hi Mommy!”

But still. Grrr!

003

“Grr.”