Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bump in the Road

On President's Day I drove up to Kansas University to visit with an old professor who had recently job there. The last time I had been to Lawrence was for summer camp when I was thirteen, and my only memories of the place were how every single building in the town seemed to be at the top of this big giant hill, and no matter where you went you had to go up. I drove in through artfully planned "quaint downtown" part of the city and stopped for lunch at a regional landmark, Local Burger. If you're ever within driving distance of Lawrence, I highly, highly recommend stopping for food there. Best veggie burger I have ever eaten in my life, and the rainbow slaw and vegan smoothies are fantastic.

I wanted to visit this professor to talk about possibilities for doctoral study, and to find out what I needed to do to be attractive for the admissions committees. I posted a few weeks ago about seriously considering law school, and how I had already bought LSAT test prep materials, and I was really working hard on the test, and researching admissions statistics, and figuring out what kind of personal essay would make me seem like I had more to offer than the ability to wipe the noses, tie the shoes, and button the jeans of 15 kindergartners while singing "All Around the Buttercup" and never dropping a beat. (I chalked that up as multitasking. Also, high tolerance for snot, which I'm sure is obviously a big prerequisite for high-paying corporate jobs) But the more I looked into it, and the more I got into playing the numbers games and comparing myself against other applicants and all of that, the more I realized that's really not my bag at all. I admire people who are attorneys; I respect their ambition, and the discipline it takes to throw yourself into a high-stress job, and I really like their money. But it's not me. I don't really have that kind of desire to climb the salary ladder, or to beat out other people for recognition or promotions. When it came down to it, I think I wanted to be a lawyer for the money, and honestly, even the prospect of an entire closet full of Louboutins and fifty dollar underwear is worth doing something I'd potentially hate.

So, after realizing this and being okay with it, I moved on to my other idea of going to back to school for a doctorate in some kind of education-related field. It was exciting, because since the competition for education degrees is so much lower, the chances I would've gotten into a really good school were higher, and there were all kinds of programs at places like Teachers' College in New York and Harvard that I was interested in. And the following part is the only reason I'm posting about this, because otherwise it's not a huge deal:

When I started looking at colleges in high school, my test scores, grades, and extracurriculars were strong enough that I had a pretty good chance of getting into schools like Harvard or wherever. And I wanted to go, although not for really good reasons so much as I just wanted to be able to say I got out of our little pissant town and did that, because it doesn't happen very often. But when my parents and I sat down to have our first talk about schools, they told me there wasn't any money. Not for tuition, not for trips out there for campus visits, not even for the application fees to the fancy schools. We simply did not have the finances to look beyond Missouri for college, and I needed to go to the school that gave me the best scholarship package, and that was the end of it.

And that's what started a very long resentment with my parents about what happened with my education and my future, even though I finally realized I was really just angry at myself for not ever trying to prove that there were alternatives and ways around the huge costs of going to school. I didn't know we were poor enough to qualify for grants and Ivy League poor people scholarships, and I assumed they had researched those things themselves. When my school guidance counselor told me to stop applying for scholarships because it was rude to take money from other people who needed it, I listened, and I was embarrassed for being greedy. I still told reporters and adults in town that I was planning to go to Harvard to study political science, but I secretly knew that the farthest east I was going to go for the next four years was Mizzou, and that was the end of it.

The same thing happened with my husband, who told me I couldn't go out of state to get a graduate degree, because that would separate us. One of my professors tried valiantly to get me to move on, even making a last minute phone call to a dean of her alma mater to see if they'd accept my application late and under the table. I kept refusing, because I thought it was my job to stay here and make money so my husband could go to school. So I stayed in Missouri again, and had an okay time, and did a good job, but all with the terrible feeling in the back of my mind that I was slowly boxing myself into a life I didn't want with every single day I kept saying "Yes, okay" to other people.

My brother, who is eight years younger than I am, and who took notes while all this was going on with me, ended up going to Yale. My parents did the research that time and found out college was completely affordable in the Ivies if you're poor and Midwestern, and my brother just kept telling people what he wanted until he got it to happen. And I watched all of this and just kept silently building bitterness, mostly at myself, until my whole life was centered around being resentful of my future versus his. And it was just one of those things I had to let go, you know? Just like the being angry at my husband, and the being angry at the people who've hurt me...all those things. I had to finally get over it after two years and just plan to find a way to exploit my potential on my own terms from now on.

So the reason I wrote about that wasn't because I've gotten accepted to Harvard or Columbia or anything. In fact, my crappy day last week was because during my meeting with my old professor I found out it's not even advisable to apply for a PhD in education programs until you've taught for five years in one district (which is a long way off for me). I just wanted to write about it, because in the course of breaking the news to my parents and holding my breath for their reaction, they totally came through. They told me they didn't care where I went or what I did, but that they wanted me to do SOMETHING more with my life. That they were sorry for holding me back, and that they'd support me in whatever I chose now. And it was a big, big deal for me, because I really thought I wouldn't have been happy without some sort of pretentious diploma, but really all I wanted was their blessing to get one.

I also figured out that I'm not going to let other people stop me from getting what I want, and I know that I need to get away from this place next year. And I've found some pretty promising options that I'll write about in the future as they pan out, or don't. Or I may end up serving out the rest of my tenure here in Asshatville because I figured out a Ph.D. is the smartest option for me. Who knows?

The sweetest reward in all of this, though, isn't the prospect of Fullbright scholarships or a bigger salary. It's that no matter how much I screw with my future in the coming years, I'm going to be doing it on my own terms this time.


Nory Roth said...

Yay you!!! It's nice to have direction and goals......on your own terms. It took me until, let's see, I was, um 43??? Still working on that one! BUT, life is infinitely more interesting when we start to trust ourselves to make our own decisions.

Anonymous said...

if we are trusting our own judgment and making our own decisions why are we falling into the same old trap with this old professor? are we really going to push our life back five years?

step #1 of grad school is correctly identifying faculty as obstacles

Vickie said...

You had a very good post on rumination - perhaps a month ago or so - I looked for it this morning - but couldn't find it - do you remember where it is???

Loved your post from today. . .

Erin said...

Anonymous, that was my point. I'm looking into things I can pursue next year instead of waiting, or I may decide that waiting for tenure is the most sensible choice. In either case, it'll be my decision.

Erin said...

Vickie, I skimmed through my archives and couldn't find it either. Do you remember anything about it? If I figure it out I'll post it here and send you an email.

Lori said...

Erin, I just got an email from someone about an interview I have this afternoon. It's my dream job except it's not full time with no benefits.

Here's what he wrote:
Remember think positive, visualize what you really desire, and move towards it! Don't ask me how, but it works!

Concentrate on the goal!

Don't worry about the path.

It might not be what you expect, but it will be what you want. :)

That's my $Million pep talk!

He's right. And you're already on the road to taking care of yourself. It is easy to get caught up in a box and do what's expected by others. The trick is to gain the confidence to do what we want to do in a way that's honorable and truthful. You're so inspiring, Erin.

Shauna said...

this is one of those "woohoo outloud while reading" posts. it must have felt good to hear your parents say sorry and that they want to support you. sometimes just hearing an acknowledgement makes it so much easier to move forward. all the very to you, erin. you rule!!!