Thursday, December 6, 2012

Where I Went: Part Two

I'm not going to lie.  I've been dreading writing about graduate school. It was not a blast the way college was.  I wanted to quit most of the time I was there.  In every sense of the word, I was a minnow in a giant pond.  Instead of rising to the occasion and growing, maybe even becoming a shark myself, I shrank and hid.  I could have handled things a lot better.  If I were there now, things would be different and I would be different.  I'd be better.

Most of the time over the ten years since I spent my time on the tenth floor of Anderson Hall at Temple University, I just remember pain and stress and misery, and over all, I think I was there during a weird period for the program.  And I was coming from a really phenomenal program, and I unfairly expected Temple's program to live up to or surpass the program from which I'd just graduated.  Now I realize that I was trying to compare two very different programs with two very different objectives fit into the same mold.

So since I started out writing this series earlier in the week, I've been thinking about graduate school with a sick lump in my stomach, because I didn't want this blog to take the negative turn I've been trying to keep it from taking.  (You have no idea how much of a battle it is for me not to default to negativity... Progress, not perfection.)  I was planning on just talking about my time working for the Honors Program and not even mention Anderson Hall.  On the other hand, it'd be disingenuous for me to gloss over all that poison and be all PollyAnna about my time there. 

I've done a lot of blaming the program for my perpetual angst at Temple, but you know, you get into it what you put in.  I think there were things going on that I'll never know about that might have put the unpleasant taste in the air, but I've since learned that when you're in a bad situation, you make the best of it.  A little humor goes a long way.  You rise above.  I did no rising above there.  I was overwhelmed, out classed, outwitted, out of my league.  I was adjusting to being married.  My husband was a student, too, at the time, at the Dental School, but he was in the clinical portion of his education, past having to read a thousand pages a week for each class.  My whole education there consisted of reading at least a thousand pages each week for my different classes, writing thoughtful analyses of each, writing my own work for workshop, and thoughtfully commentating on the work of my classmates.  I'm glad I got married, and I'm glad I went to graduate school, but I don't think they both needed to happen at the same time.  I always felt I was being torn in two directions.  And then in the Fall of 2001, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and 9/11 happened, within days of each other.  There was a lot going on and it was hard to keep my head in any one place.

But EVERYBODY's fighting a battle, and instead of contributing to the cut-throat environment on the 10th floor of Anderson Hall, I should have focused on being MY best instead of going along with kicking someone else when they were down and grappling to stand on another's carcass to make myself look better.

That's out of the way.  And it's easy for me to dwell on the negatives and forget about anything positive ever happening in a place.  But as I thought about graduate school for the purpose of this post, I realized I DID learn a lot and have a lot of fun at Temple as a whole, and even on the tenth floor of Anderson Hall.  It wasn't all bad!

Because so much of my time was spent at my job as a graduate assistant for the Honors Program, though, I learned as much there (or more) as I did in my actual classes.  And those are the times that will always shine brightest for me when I think of Temple.

Joan Mellen was the first writing workshop I took at Temple.  The first semester I was in Joan's workshop, she was fun and committed and I truly loved her.  She went on sabbatical the second semester, and when she came back the next year, she was angry and preoccupied.  She was writing a book about Jim Garrison.  It's fascinating.  When I worked with her for my second tutorial, she was trying to make me write just like her writing, and it wasn't a good fit.  This is where it's important to choose a mentor with a similar aesthetic.  Do your homework.  It's one thing to admire someone's work and another to try so hard to make your work match theirs when there's just no way.  I should have either been more of a shark to get to work with one of the other instructors for that tutorial, or I should have been stronger and dug my heels in and said "this is the story I'm going to tell, and I'm here to have you show me how to be MY best, not to be a copy of YOU, because you're already fabulous and one of a kind, and I need to learn how to be fabulous and one of a kind as well."  I didn't have the vocabulary or the tact for that back then.  I did have the ability to be sullen and withdrawn.  But I will say this for Joan Mellen.  She was passionate and driven and committed to whatever project she was working on.  She had laser-sharp focus.  And that first semester I was in her writing workshop, I was intimidated as hell, but I loved every minute I got to spend with her.  I really did!

Bill VanWert was another instructor I worked with for a tutorial as well as for workshop.  Bill did have a knack of helping you be your own best.  His work was more of a generalist nature, meaning he could write about one thing for this project, and then the next project would be something entirely different.  He'd go from fiction to nonfiction effortlessly.  He reminded me of Dr. Fincke in that respect.  Bill was also truly kind-hearted.  The day a year or two after I graduated when I found out he passed away, I curled up on the floor and cried and cried.  He gave me some advice, both in workshop, and in his tutorial, that I think of nearly every day.  "If you really hate something, that means there's something in it for ya."

He was talking specifically about reading material for class.  What he meant was if you hate it, it meant there was something about it speaking directly to something in yourself that needs to be addressed; there's something in there that you need to learn from; there's something there that thrums a weakness, and instead of shrinking away, you need to follow it and make yourself stronger.  I think that's right up there with some of the best advice I've ever gotten.

Chip Delaney got to be a professor by kind of an unconventional route.  He wasn't a PhD.  I'm not even sure if he went to college.  But he's a pretty amazing science fiction writer.  Maybe you've heard of him.  Samuel R. Delaney.  I feel like my time with Chip was a missed opportunity.  In his class I learned that if I'm going to swim with sharks, I'd better grow some sharp teeth.  We had a yelling match in class, once.  We were both wrong, but I should have deferred, because he was the teacher.  After that yelling match, we found ourselves (trapped) on an elevator in Anderson Hall for the painfully slow ride up to the 10th floor.  Just him and me.  It was cold in there to start with, but he struck up a conversation, natural as anything, and after that, it was a treat to get to ride in the elevator with Chip.  We'd visit.  Made the long ride shorter.  But the thing I'll always be grateful for is that at one of the readings I had to do, I decided to read something I wrote that was true to me, and not pandering to what Joan or Bill or Alan Singer wanted me to write.  I'd go for funny.  Always felt like a big fat failure in workshops.  But at that reading, while the rest of the writing faculty sat there, stone-faced and at times, perplexed-looking, somebody was laughing in all the right places.  My Honors Family, and Chip Delaney.  Maybe we weren't so far apart on things, you and I, after all, Chip.

For me, though, at Temple, my Honors Family was where it was at.  I chanced upon the Graduate Assistant position.  One of the doctoral students had taken me and another creative writing student for a campus tour, because we'd gotten our scheduling with Alan Singer finished already.  We ran into Ruth Ost, who was the Co-Director of the Honors Program at the time, who said they were looking for a second Graduate Assistant (GA), and that the other student and I should both have our CVs to her that weekend.

I did, and was pleased to get an interview.  I had fun at the interview, but I knew the other student was going to get the job.  I'd worn a disastrous outfit.  I was just a girl from the country who had a lot of growing up to do.  That other student was polished, and classy, and so friendly, and the girls in the program would have LOVED him.  I was just out of my league.

Except.  Ruth called me the Friday before Labor Day to tell me they wanted to offer me the job.  What?  Did they MEET me?  Yes.

My Honors family- there's so much to be said about them. They all came to all my readings at Temple.  They'd help me practice for them.  They'd be my first readers, my sounding board, my soft place to crash.  They were all always there for me.  I hope I was at least a little bit worthy of their time and attention and genuine love.  I could go on forever about each of them.  I say that a lot, but it's true.  And I'll be writing more stories from Honors, down the line.  But, for time's sake today, I'll just pull out a few threads to show you.

Dieter Forster, at the time I was at Temple Honors, was the Co-Director, along with Ruth. Dieter's also a professor of Physics with a German accent-absolutely fabulous.  He'd ride his bicycle everywhere in Philadelphia, rain or shine, hot or slush.  It was Dieter who taught me how to learn Microsoft Excel.  I cannot begin to tell you how useful this is to know.  And nearly every day for lunch, Dieter would go to a specific Chinese truck and get beef and broccoli and regular Coke, not diet, because "I'm paying for the calories, so I'm going to have the calories, dammit!"

Dieter's wife Sammy, while not technically Honors staff, is as much a part of my Honors family as the people who worked at the office with me.  Sammy's an artist.  She makes and sells picture-books.  Actually, I don't think there's a kind of art she cannot do.  And it's all beautiful.  I bought a type writer from Sammy for $35, which she'd bought for $35.  She says when I get sick of it, she'll buy it back for $35.  I love Sammy!

Ruth Ost always taught Death and Dying as well as a class called "Art, Ritual, and Gender."  She was also the Co-Director of Honors.  One day when I was really struggling to get a story written, Ruth gave me a book by Anne Lamott called "Bird by Bird," and a lesson I learned from that book was instead of looking at the Whole Big Picture and not knowing where to start, just look through a one-inch frame, and write about that, then move to the next thing. It's served me well when I get stuck, and even when I'm not stuck.  Also, it was Ruth who told me my writing voice is "this Bitch-Goddess voice...OWN IT!!!" I've always loved that.  "Bitch Goddess."  Yes.  I DO own it!

Another thing about Dieter and Ruth as Directors- they let me work within my own strengths and really run away, creatively.  Working in Honors is the best job I've ever had, because of them, because of that freedom.  This was the right place, the right environment, the right people for me to be with at the right time, Honors.

Our secretary was Jackie, an extremely pleasant, extremely patient woman who greeted EVERYBODY with a big smile, even if she was having a bad day.  I'm not sure if Jackie ever had bad days.  We all do, so Jackie must have too, but you'd have never known it.  She could get people to do anything.  And she knew just what to say to someone who was having a bad day, to get them out of the Bell jar.  There should be more people like Jackie in this world!

Scott was the Assistant Director of Honors, and a few years older than Mel, the other GA and me.  So if Dieter and Ruth were the office parents, Jackie was the cool aunt, and Scott was the big brother.  He was ENERGYANDENTHUSIASM!!! personified!  And classy.  He'd never kick someone when they were down.  He'd always be giving them a hand.  On a field trip with Honors to the Dodge Poetry Festival, Scott was driving the school van when a tire blew on the New Jersey Turnpike.  He deftly steered the van over to the side of the road, and we all got out, unhurt, and wondering what the hell happened.  When we saw, we couldn't believe we were all standing there, unhurt, and that the van hadn't even had any paint scratched.  On 9/11, we all sat huddled in Scott's office, listening to the unfolding events on his radio.  I've met very few people as generous or enthusiastic as Scott.

Mel was the other GA, one semester more familiar than I at all things Temple, all things Philadelphia.  Mel and I went on many adventures together.  She was very much like a big sister to me.  We both went to division 3 schools for undergrad, and sometimes, we'd wear our undergrad sweatshirts for an us-declared D-3 DAY!!!  We were the only ones who cared about D-3 DAY!!! but we had fun nonetheless.  Mel did me a big favor and taught me how to navigate the subway!

We're all about a hundred years older now than we were in 2002, the last time we worked together.  It's amazing how fast things happen and how fast life changes.  We still get together every so often, and when we do, it's like we never left.

I still have nightmares that Alan Singer is going to show up and take back my Master's Degree sometimes.  And I still can't get enough of looking at the Philadelphia skyline.  I always loved that the two tallest buildings, the most prominent, are called "Liberty 1" and "Liberty 2." There's just something about that.  I was sad to leave my friends in the Honors Program, but I'd had about enough of Philadelphia, though, when it was time to move home.  It was good to be there, though, when I was.  I did grow a thicker skin there.  I did grow up some more.  I never would have had that opportunity if I'd stayed home, or gone home straight after college.

But we did move back home, and open a dental practice.  We've put down roots where our roots first grew.  We're here. 

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