January 2012 marks my return to a place I prepared for academically but never mentally: teaching university students. I went from undergrad straight into graduate school and then on to finish a PhD. Along the way I lost sight of what I really wanted because of the grumpy academics that lined the walls of the English departments I studied in. Their officiousness (and multiple marriages) were not desirable qualities.
If I had been honest with my twentysomething self, I would have also known that my academic persona didn’t jell with the person I thought myself to be. I was in a small circle of friends who married immediately out of college and began the business of setting up their own households. I had no such prospects in sight: only scholarships for more degrees.
“I’m never going to use this degree,” I said. “I’m getting it because I’m young, not married, and I can do it now.”
None of this was false. Nor was it particularly helpful in building relationships with my advisory committee or the other graduate students who had publicly made scholarship their full time pursuit. The disconnect between how I spent my days and how I saw myself grew so large I left my PhD program immediately after finishing courses.
I went to work full time at a prestigious university, not as an instructor, but in Student Affairs. Now unless you’ve ever been depressed, scared of your roommate, or bored to tears, you don’t even think of student affairs. If you do, you think of it as a stepchild of the university: the place where less serious people go to stay affiliated to academic life. Depending on the institution, you may be a glorified babysitter.
Neither extreme was the case at the two places where I worked. The other professionals were thoughtful people, passionate about their work. But one thing bugged me: it seemed like the best part of their lives had passed them by. They were always talking about students as if they were their hopes for the lives they never lived — the brilliance they hadn’t developed.
I did what I had by now perfected: I went sideways into a career change. From student affairs professional to publishing-know-it-all, I spent hours at the desk working for others. All the while the books, articles, chapters I was writing in my free time (nights, weekends, summers) were piling up. Publications kept piling up: publications I considered my hobby.
Five years went by. And when I decided that I was done working for others, a week after I quit my job, an offer came. At a university. This time on the teaching side.
Here I am: Five years later, many lessons learned, sure. But back where I started, those years I kept emailing drafts to a committee on the other side of the world validating my credentials to initiate others into how to read and write critically.
What have you been running from? What aspect of yourself are you hiding because it will set you apart from those around you?
Don’t take five years to let it burst forth. Turn now, today, to face it. And then see how you can support it.
My only regret is that the energy I put into keeping up the pretense that this isn’t what I wanted, I could have put into getting better at writing even earlier.