Monday, November 19, 2007

Identity: Student

From a young age I can recall being told: if you work hard in school, you can be whatever you want to be. I guess that's to be expected when your parents are both teachers. As I got older I also recall being told that I could go to whatever college I wanted as long as I had good grades (that promise deserves its own post, someday).

So, for most of my life, I have thought of myself as "student." While I'm sure nerd or geek would have been apt as well, student is definitely the name that sticks in my mind. At least from this vantage point, I don't have any negative associations of that identity, up until my senior year of college.

When I returned to school that fall I realized that I hadn't registered to take the GRE yet, although I was planning to apply to grad schools. I found out that if I still wanted to take it in time to apply for a Fall semester grad school start date that I'd need to pay a late fee. For some reason this really threw me for a loop. I was taking an Advanced Greek class with a professor who normally taught grad students. We were reading Oeidipus Rex. There were only three of us in the class, one of whom was a hopeful grad student who was trying to brush up on his Greek before applying. Prof. B refused to call any of us by name. When it was our turn to read aloud in Greek meter or to translate, he'd simply say: You. Her. Him. It was really charming.

The GRE thing spurred on a pretty rough semester. I felt like a loser for not realizing that I needed to prepare to apply to grad school over the summer. I can't adequately describe how awful I felt to have to pay a late fee for the exam--I didn't tell my mother for fear of incurring her wrath at such a stupid error. I started questioning whether or not I really wanted to go to grad school. Advanced Greek felt like my albatross. I'd walk to class with my jaw clenched, my body feeling almost magnetically repelled from the building. I started having a tough time eating, partially due to the anxiety and partially due to how clenched my jaw was. I started confiding in my sister and some friends. One week I went to therapy three times (I was already going twice, but that third appointment was an emergency necessity). Finally I decided to drop the Greek class. I didn't need it to graduate, and I was not handling the pressure well at all. It was a tough decision--I am not a quitter.

At some point I realized I was sick of being a student. Erik and I were seriously involved. I wanted to move on, get away from this box I was in. I told my parents that I wouldn't be going to grad school. Oooh, that was not a fun evening. My mom was livid. I just felt relieved. I managed to enjoy the rest of that semester and the spring semester. I spent a lot of time with Erik at his parent's home. I worked hard on an honors thesis with a Latin professor, and had a great time doing research at the main branch of the New York Public Library (you know, with the lions out front. If you are a library lover do yourself a favor: request a book and sit in the main reading room with it for a while. Fun times.).

Finally it was graduation day. An NYU graduation is an amazing event. It is held in Washington Square Park. NYU is not a traditional "school spirit" type of place. However, I think our graduations would make anyone's heart burst with pride--the sea of purple robes, the bag pipe players on the top of the arch, the Tiffany designed NYU torch. It was one of the best days of my life. It was only later that I realized, by wishing away my days of student-hood, that I had squandered some of my time there.

Sometimes I wish I could be that student Jennifer again--when I picture myself, that is who I see. Jennifer with the cool haircut, black tights, short skirt, beloved black suede shoes, funky vintage rain coat. I'm surprised when I look in the mirror and that is not who is staring back at me.

Am I even capable of being a student again? For a long time even the idea of expending effort to study, or write a paper was enough to bring me anxiety. Taking the IBCLC exam this year showed me that I can be a student again, I do have the determination and stamina to do it. Will I be able to have a better balance this time, or will student-hood consume the other parts of my identity? We'll see. For now I think being a student is a part of my heritage, my gene pool. Teachers for parents, one grandmother a poet, one grandfather a librarian. I continue this heritage with my children, sharing the love of learning with them, and hopefully helping them to enjoy the many facets of their personalities.

My first post on identity was about names. I'll be writing about the mother of all identity issues, motherhood, soon.


BipolarLawyerCook said...

You can do it! Anyone who can bring such introspection to bear on things like you write about can do whatever she wants!

nyjlm said...

Can I carry you around in my pocket?
Thank you, so deeply.