Back to school, real school?

August 22, 2006

Yesterday was the first day of the semester at the university where I work and now, finally, where I am a student. A year ago I spent the better part of most days wondering if this was what I really wanted or even a good thing to do, and now I am just doing it and worrying about the consequences after graduation. In my unguarded moments, I am incredibly excited. I was excited picking out my classes (shall I choose the Jewish American Novel or 19th Century British Travel Writing, oh my?) and I’ve been excited walking through the shelves of overpriced textbooks trying to get a glimpse of what my selected semester holds. Still, over the weekend I realized I was a little nervous. I think I’ve done a good job of tempering my expectations, of myself and the school I am attending, but I knew deep down I still had some biggies. Once upon a time in January, I was excited to start the library degree too, and pretty rapidly robbed of any illusions I might have had about getting some intellectual challenge back into my life. It’s school alright, but not the kind I was used to. I’m enjoying working in a library and I’m enjoying the worlds of library blogs and open source software, but I have never been more excited to be halfway done with a degree. It’s my ticket to interviews for jobs that I think I would really like to have. It is not my passion. When I’m being honest, though, this subject matter of this second degree probably is my passion and something I want to be way more than average at. So, much remains to be seen, and as I got ready to attend my first class my main goal was just not to think about it too much and let it unfold as it would.

After finishing up work for the day, I sat down in a corner of the library to pass my last moments of free time reading Donald Antrim’s new book, a memoir, The Afterlife. (Really really good, by the way.) This was a particularly fitting, as the first class I was waiting to attend was the Creative Nonfiction Workshop. I lost track of time and soon found myself walking at a brisk if sweaty pace toward the Arts & Humanities building. I located the room my schedule told me was correct and joined the crowd of waiting students in the hallway outside. All the doors were locked and no professors were on the scene. This gave me time to survey my new peers.

If my sense of optimism about the degree path I was starting down in those first few moments had been charted on something like a heart monitor,  the tape would show a series of peaks and valleys in the kind of rapid succession that might frighten a medical professional. Peak: everyone looked just like me! Clean and dressed with some attention to matching colors but generally a bit disheveled! Well, except for that woman in the tailored suit with the perfect manicure who I later found out was Italian, but that’s okay, she’s Italian. Valley: this guy who looks like he’s pushing 30 is talking about a kegger. Major peak: no one is talking loudly about their manuscript pending at Prestigious Journal Du Jour. Major valley: The Scary Twins! The Scary Twins are in my class!

A word about the scary twins. I started working at the library here just about a year ago, and I had not been there very long before I met the Scary Twins. By “met” I mean “saw,” on a regular if not daily basis. The Scary Twins go everywhere together. They remind you of the twins from The Shining except all grown up and dark haired. They don’t smile, they don’t talk. Their clothes don’t match exactly, but if one is wearing a skirt the other is wearing a skirt. If one is wearing capris and flip flops ditto for the other. They walk side by side through the stacks. One of the comforts of working and attending a large university must be that when you see such people you can remind yourself that there is a high probability you will never see them again, and even if you see them, you will probably never have to speak to them. For a brief valley moment, I entertained the possibility those assumptions were to prove wrong and wrong. This wasn’t scary really, but it did little to bolster my hope that I had finally picked a program that attracted normalish people, unlike the library program.
Peak: the Scary Twins are in class on the other side of the hall!  Parallel universes preserved. My young but assertive looking professor arrived, unlocked the door, and a few hallway dwellers wandered in. Peak: not too many! Valley: of the eight students or so that sat down, four of them were engaged in the kind of insider banter that subtly excludes newbies. I can deal. Next semester that will be me. The real problem is what they are talking about. I’ll try to render it in dramatic form. (Warning: this might be a bit boring for non-English majors.)

Student 1: Oh gosh, do you remember who the father of deconstruction is?

(Sidebar: to a graduate student of any literary variety, this question should sound something like, do you remember who invented the theory of relativity? This is a basic. This is something my teacher felt the need to cover in my junior year of high school.)

Student 2: <slaps forehead> Aaargh. No. And I just did that in Prinicples and Problems.

Me: <keeping mouth shut, not even tempted to open it, someone else will soon enough>

Student 3: I think he was French.

Student 1: Really?

Student 4: Yeah. And I think he wrote science fiction.

Student 2: Yeeaaaah. Oh what was his name?

Me: <in head: if they say L. Ron Hubbard I really will intervene.>

Student 1: Does anybody know?

Me: <in head: Derridaderridaderridaderridaderridaderridaderridaderridaderridaderrida>

Class: Nope. Sorry. <head shake>

Student 1: <looks straight at Me> Do you know?

Me: Derrida? <slightest hint of a question mark, deep sense of relief>

Students 1, 2, 3, and 4: Oh yeah!

Luckily, this valley wasn’t far from a peak, many peaks actually, including a good syllabus and a few funny stories from the prof. By the end of the class I was, very uncynically, excited and sanguine enough to remember that I shouldn’t judge the strength of a whole department on a few of its students, especially its MFA students. MFA students are like the voice majors of the English department, as ditzy as they come, and what’s a French deconstructionist give or take? I don’t even like deconstruction. And while I’m at it, I should remind myself that I just shouldn’t judge full stop. We’re all dumb in some places and smart in others, so I should just get down to the writing and the listening and let the rest just happen.



One Response to “Back to school, real school?”

  1. Moe Says:


    I’m so glad that your first class went well. And I’m awfully glad that you never asked me who is the father of deconstruction, because you would have lost respect for me when I was totally unable to answer. You’d think a former sociology major would know. I missed you during Project Runway last night, by the way.

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