Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Change of Priorities

Another unedited excerpt of Wrecking Ball

A Change of Priorities

Parts of college and grad school run together and cannot be easily separated in my mind. I finished up my undergraduate degree in May, then immediately began applying for schools where I might obtain my Master's. I wanted to be a college professor of history. Schoolwork had often come easily to me. I was a good student and thought pursuing a career where perpetual academic studies were an understood part of the deal would work for me.

Applying to schools is time-consuming and expensive. Every school requires its own particularly lengthy paper trail, a fee for processing one’s application, and requisite letters of recommendation from professors. Because of frequent hospitalization and illness, I’d ended up with an overall B average. This eliminated me completely from the most selective schools, so I decided to apply to three or four out of state public universities.

A primary motive was to escape Alabama, hopefully forever. I very nearly was accepted at the University of Maryland, but was eliminated at the last stage. No other university bothered to reply back. My adviser tried every way he could to dissuade me from taking this course of action. His main argument was that I’d toil in poverty for years until finding gainful employment. If my own daughter wanted to follow in my footsteps, I would have her disowned. Strong words.

As it turns out, the only school that accepted me was UAB (University of Alabama at Birmingham), where I'd just received my Bachelor's. This was a blow to my self-esteem, not to mention a huge disappointment. But, I accepted my fate, eventually. I told myself that this would only be temporary, and that I’d excel enough to win my way into a doctoral program elsewhere.

I’d become a heavy user of marijuana starting my senior year of undergrad. The classes were more challenging and required a greater focus. I believed I needed it to be able to receive passing grades, especially in the math and science courses that plagued me my whole life. Left-brained studies have always perplexed me. Mathematical formulas always read to me like a foreign language. Pot made me worry less about the outside world and turned more of my focus inward.

I know now that marijuana was probably the worst thing I could have done for myself. Not only did it prevent my psychiatric medications from working properly, it eventually deepened depression and heightened mania. It is darkly amusing to think about all the steps I took to avoid detection, when I’m certain my habit was probably plainly evident to everyone. Not only did I reek of it, the legs of my pants were often littered with ash and remnants of joints rolled and smoked.

Grad school was intellectually taxing and fun. For the first time, I was being fully challenged, implored to push myself to the very limits of my abilities. In several classes, I was one of the youngest enrolled. Unlike the other places to which I’d applied, older adults returning to school for additional education comprised the majority of each class. This pushed me even further.

Of course, I was stoned every class, all day long. I rolled several joints in the morning, and kept one tucked in among the tobacco cigarettes that had been a daily part of my life since the age of fifteen. Pot had become a reward for me. After a competitive seminar, I told myself that I deserved to partake. The instant I reached my car in the parking lot, the process began anew.

The second semester was where the wheels began to come off of the bus. My behavior went from eccentric to highly erratic. Much of it was excused in the beginning, because people acknowledged my intelligence and contribution to group discussion. As is true with many graduate level programs, I took classes with the same ten to fifteen people. And yet, in many ways, we were sometimes strangers to each other, often fighting to make the most pertinent insight, to reach the most prescient conclusion.

By the end, my thinking became so off-kilter that I was unable to complete assignments. I’d started out the semester manic, but the frequency of marijuana usage began to push me into depression. What I’d thought was the answer to my problems only began to create new ones. I wish others would have been proactive in urging me to seek treatment, but they did not intervene.

After all, it’s not uncommon to find eccentricity among professors. Strange behavior can be excused if creative output and basic functionality doesn’t suffer. Even so, I still wish someone had reached out and confronted me. I might have managed to avoid the pain and humiliation of another episode. When I emerged, emotionally stable, some months later, I have to admit that my first impulse was to bury my face in my hands. Not again.

I began to question whether I really wanted to be a college professor. If I had the psychological and physical stamina, I knew it would be difficult to find a job. Adjunct professors are paid slave wages and have no job security. Attaining a tenure track spot with my less-than-elite credentials would have had me taking one of the few positions available. I saw myself eight years down the road, accepting a position at a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere.

I’ve always been a city person. Taking a job like that would be a step sideways, if not a step back for my life goals. Making lots of money was never an especially high priority, but I admit I wanted to teach students with a more urban, less small town perspective. In the process of recovering my health, I began to seriously second-guess myself.

Did I really want to keep company with primarily undergraduate students for an entire career? I remember how my professors lived to teach graduate-level courses, because they could fully branch out and spread their wings. I wanted to spend my life around adults. To this day, I’ve often been in search of good mentors, people older and wiser than myself. Though there will always be a need for competent instructors to guide young adults, I determined that I was not one of them.

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