Friday, October 14, 2011

My Year, Part 1: The Big Test

It's February. I am sitting at a computer desk between two male PhD students, a poet and a lit guy. The literature student is into anarchy and probably thinks the big shampoo corporations are evil. Both men emit an odor of clothes worn for three days, bodies unwashed in the same span, and stale cigarette smoke. The computer lab where we've assembled to take the five-hour first year PhD exam is muggy, and as I stare at my computer screen, arms cramped into uncomfortable acute angles because the chair isn't adjustable, I know that I will not pass this test. I am barely pregnant, or about to be, and I don't yet know what kind of year I'm about to face. I only know it hasn't started all that well. Ken and I have realized in a few short weeks that we'd rather commute to Stillwater than be stuck here (it's too late of course--we've sold our condo). The weather has been especially brutal, and I am not enjoying my teaching assistantship one bit. I've spent most of January and the first few weeks of February avoiding. Because that's what I do when I'm anxious. Anxious about grading my students' work. Anxious about this test. Anxious with indecision about school, career, life. Anxious. How many times has God brought Philippians 4:6 to my mind? How many times will I need to remember it this year? "Be anxious for nothing," as the NASB renders the verse, can be read in two opposite ways, and though I know it means not to be anxious about anything, I often become anxious "for nothing," for no good reason. 

In the weeks before this exam, I've spent about three days studying, if all the little snatches are added together. My peers have been fretting over this thing for months--memorizing poems, boning up on theory, but I am paralyzed by anxiety, and I procrastinate. I play word games on the computer, become fascinated by economics and Scientology ( provides hours of horrifying reading.) In short, I don't prepare, and I don't know why.

I end up finishing only two of the three questions in five hours. After a few weeks, I receive a letter in the mail informing me that my exam has been thrown out since I did not answer all three questions. Turns out, five other people are in the same boat. I find out later that there is a huge controversy. Several of my peers have written two superb (in their opinion) essays, and it is only necessary to pass two to be accepted into the program. The problem? None of our essays are even graded. The faculty has determined that there is some sort of conspiracy to only answer two questions, and they take the unprecedented step of having us all retake the exam.

When I get the letter, I have already decided not to teach in the fall. I am now several weeks pregnant, and my extremely emotional and exhausted self is behind in a class (Intro to Grad Studies) for the first time in my life. I will not catch up, and my teacher will not grant me an incomplete. Before the semester is complete I am sure that my graduate school career is over.

My Year

Ever wish you could start a year over knowing what you know now? It's not that I want to go back and correct a lifetime of mistakes--for better or worse, they've made me who I am. But this year is one that could use a fresh start, a fresh perspective, a rewrite. I know that God is building something in me that might not get built without the stretching and stress of this year, and I am painfully aware that some friends have suffered during this same time beyond my capacity to understand. But it's been a tough one.

I haven't blogged in a long time, so I realize that the audience for these stories is extremely small. But for the first time, I'm getting it down in writing, and that seems important somehow. In the next few posts, I'll be sharing several chapters of my 2011 with you.