Tomorrow is the first day of the new term for me as a student. Once again, I am terrified. I am taking Human Anatomy & Physiology I, and I wonder if my tired, damaged, old brain is up to the task. I picture myself getting hectored by the professor–a very stern woman about 5 years older and 3 inches taller than me–and I am unable to produce a coherent answer.
But, all I can do is try.
I have no idea what is going to happen. I love that.
If you’re following along regularly, you no doubt think I should rename this blog, “Everything Is Terrible, Including Puppies, Christmas, and the Amish, All the Time, Everywhere.” Actually, when it comes to domestic abuse and animal rights, the Amish are kind of terrible, but I digress. My point is, for me, things are looking up!
Today I registered for my spring class: Introduction to Human Anatomy & Physiology. It took a little doing, because I had to visit an academic advisor in person to get them to waive the prerequisite, English Composition. I brought my transcripts for both of my degrees, but not the transcripts from the other two schools I attended part-time before settling in at my undergraduate alma mater. “Surely a bachelor’s and doctorate are enough,” I reasoned.
The advisor scanned the transcripts quickly and casually, as though he was looking for something specific. I sensed there was a problem.
“Is there a particular class you’re looking for?” I asked sweetly.
“Yes. Something like English composition.” He continued to flip through the pages, scanning, flipping, scanning, with greater urgency as he failed to see what he was looking for.
“It’s been a long time since I went to college, and I don’t really remember how I satisfied that requirement,” I explained. “It might have been AP, or maybe a placement test. I went to two other schools…”
“Do you have those transcripts?” he asked curtly. “Maybe on your phone?”
I found this suggestion wildly hilarious, since course registration wasn’t even digitized when I started college! We would queue up in an endless line at the Registrar, our hands full of paper catalogs and registration forms in triplicate. We didn’t have phones, so we read newspapers or talked to each other. When you finally got to the front of the line, a weary clerk would take your requests, and your alternate requests, and do their best for you. Today, that part felt comfortingly familiar.
“No,” I said softly, realizing that he had lost the forest for the trees. “But… you realize what that is, right?” He was holding my doctoral transcript, which showed a near flawless academic record. “I have a PhD.”
His eyes drifted up to the top of the first page, then he flipped to the end, where the tiny letters affirmed my greatest achievement: a doctorate in the humanities from a research-one university. Surely that would be enough to get me into an entry-level Biology class at a community college?
Just in case, I had my second greatest achievement, my book, in my laptop bag. Plan C was pulling up my faculty bio on my phone. Thankfully, I didn’t need to go that far. The advisor started tapping at the computer, and the prerequisite disappeared.
I always tell my graduate students, “Your degree is the one thing no one can ever take away from you. Your home, your spouse, even your kids–those can be taken away from you. But your doctorate, and the accomplishment it represents, will always be yours.”
If I do this thing–this brave, terrible, crazy thing–of abandoning my scholarly career in order to become a nurse, I will need to start telling myself that too. Because, despite all the frustrations of academia, I am truly proud of what I have accomplished. It is an amazing thing, to have that degree, even if it only gets me out of English comp on this new path that I am following. And no one can ever take that away from me.
After much soul searching, I finally decided to take Anatomy & Physiology I at my own expense at my local community college. There is a class & lab that fit my own teaching schedule, and there are still seats available.
When I tried to register, I was denied. The reason: I have not met the prerequisite, which is placement into Introduction to English Composition.
This is hilarious for so many reasons: I have a doctorate in the humanities. I am a published author who gets paid to write and speak (in English!). I teach college courses to undergraduates–courses more advanced than the one I need to place out of–at a research university. And yet, I have to prove that I am proficient in my native tongue!
It will all work out, I’m sure, once I figure out to whom I submit my transcripts for a waiver. But it’s a little frustrating, in that I would like to cross this task of my to-do list. It’s almost Christmas, and I am unlikely to be able to wrap this up until after the first of the year, plus the college’s website is very opaque about how to proceed. It is going to require some legwork.
In the meantime, I kind of dig this little hiccup, because it demonstrates so clearly the subversiveness of my project. Professors don’t go back to school as undergraduates in a completely different field. They just don’t.
The class I am currently taking is Human Development, a 200-level survey offered in a compressed, eight-week format by my local community college. I took the prerequisite, the standard Psych 101, twenty-five years ago. I was nervous then, too.
I was an achiever, of sorts, in high school, though a recent peek at my old transcripts didn’t show as many A’s as I would have thought. Now, having had a long career as a professional educator, my “independent” assessment is that I was an unusually smart kid–freakishly smart with language–who was bored by high school and intellectually ready for the next step. I was also pragmatic and lazy. I had not exhausted my options for Advanced Placement courses, because I recognized that their curricula and the exam format itself were harder than college classes. Why suffer through AP English when I could take an actual college Lit class that would ask less of me? Of course, I used the opposite argument, that college courses would pose more of a challenge, when I pitched this to my parents. They were able to absorb the cost, so somehow it got decided: I would finish out my senior year by splitting time between high school and the local university where my father worked.
I have fond memories of this time, because it enabled me to do something I love: disappear. (I have perhaps become too good at it, because some days I scarcely exist at all.) In the mornings, I would ride to the university with my father, who would hum the theme to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” every time he accelerated onto the freeway. I was usually still putting on shoes and make-up, as I was never quite ready for our 7:15 AM departure. He would drop me off for my 8 AM class, then park and go to work. If I needed the car after school, I would retrieve it from the staff lot, and he would take the bus home at the end of the day. (I have a very kind dad.) But on most days, I would take the city bus back to the suburbs after class, arriving at school during lunch. The campus bus stop was in front of a McDonald’s, where I stopped virtually every class day, wolfing down a Sausage McMuffin with Egg, hash browns, a cheese danish, and coffee in the fifteen-minute gap. The university was on the quarter system, so I was doing this probably four days a week. Did I mention I got really fat my senior year of high school? Then I would ride the bus home, get off in the little town square, and leisurely make my way back to prison high school for the balance of the day. The spring of that year, I took Psych 101 in the morning at the university, then had typing, choir, and something called “Political Radicalism”–which involved a series of politically amped guest speakers invited by our marijuana-fogged teacher–in the afternoon. It was not a particularly challenging schedule, is what I am saying.
I remember very little of those first college courses. There was a lit class in the fall, which I remember because the instructor was irritated that I asked for dispensation from a pop quiz for a daytime performance of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at my high school. (I was Mrs. van Daan.) I distinctly remember thinking he gave a quiz just to punish me, because he seemed bothered that one of his better students was not yet a high school graduate. I took Pysch 101 in the spring, and I remember almost nothing of what I learned. But I do recall that we had to participate in experiments, as Psych 101 undergraduates everywhere are required to do. (Has the discipline of Psychology ever interrogated the merits of producing knowledge of the human psyche based primarily on study of binge-drinking late-adolescents with the resources to go to college?)
These experiments–or rather, the direct contact I had with my classmates–was a source of some anxiety. I could sit in lecture anonymously, but in those experiments my cover as a high school kid was blown. “I hope no one finds out,” I remember thinking–that I was young, but also that I was smart. I was starting to realize that my intellect–skill with a turn of phrase, but actually very little else–could cause other people to doubt themselves and create barriers in my relationships. This has been a perennial problem, right up through this week. Know that “Indira Gandhi was the first prime minister of India” in Trivial Pursuit at a keg party? Get made fun of for the rest of the summer! Use the word “ambulatory” to describe the victim of a house fire? Get labeled as the Pretentious Neighbor! Make a joke about “The Picture of Dorian Gray?” Watch your date’s interest wane when you’re unable to calibrate an appropriately kind, it’s-so-dumb-that-I-know-this response to the perfectly valid question, “Who is Oscar Wilde?”
“Maybe you use language as a shield,” you’re thinking, “to create distance so that you don’t have to connect with other people.” That is a great insight! Have you taken Psych 101? As true as that might be, it is also true that I can’t help the way I talk–articulate, forceful, with a “you will listen to me” presence and an “Inherit the Wind”-like intensity that is strikingly out of place in arguments over where to eat for dinner. I try to hide it, I really do, but it just comes out, exposing me as a person not just with education, but with mastery over language. Not communication, mind you. Just language.
And now here I am. The precocious high school student pretending to be a confused undergraduate has evolved into a disaffected college professor pretending to be the average adult learner. My dusty, decades old Psych 101 prerequisite was enough to get me into this next-level class, where I am still the stranger, the fish out of water, the imposter pretending to be something I am not and desperately hoping not to be found out.