Jun 4th 2012
One day a few years ago I drew a girl drowning in quicksand. She has given up. There is no escape. The only way is down, into the flames and dark forest that appeared at the bottom of the paper. In the sky above her forms tumble, forms that might once have been words, words now disintegrating, falling apart.
You can tell that she has given up because her hands are thrown up into the air; she is not struggling any more. I drew this image when I was trying to extricate myself from the academy, giving up the safety of that which never really belonged to me and daring to embrace the feared unknown. A couple of caveats: I did not flirt with poverty or homelessness, just a life of less, at least less in the terms I had learned to believe were essential. Less success, less prestige, less reward. I do not think of myself as a risk-taker, and it took me over ten years to leave. But over the years, little by little, I no longer expected the place to share its value with me. I wonder. What made it feel so safe? And how did I finally know that it did not belong to me?
Safe. It represented all I was trained for ever since I was a little girl: to be good at school, to be smart. I worked at one of the best institutions of higher learning in the country, and thus gained instant unearned respect wherever I went. “I teach at Duke,” spoken reluctantly, not wanting to brag, but secretly proud. Also safe because I somehow managed to be at Duke without playing by the rules, rules I would surely have failed had anyone thought to apply them to me. I became a whiz at under-the-radar competence and was rewarded accordingly. I did not have to write books, give papers at conferences, apply for grants. I did get to teach and mentor students and for a long time I though that was enough, that I could make a life out of that. Even now I feel sad about the students I will never meet, the growth I will never witness.
So how did I learn that I needed to leave? I started paying attention to my intuition and to the signals from my body. I think that Jane Tompkins deserves a lot of the credit for this, and what I learned from her allowed me to first practice these new skills without leaving the classroom. I loosened up. I learned to trust my initial responses to students’ writings, which had the added bonus of making grading less grueling and less time-consuming. I joined an organization (The Assembly for Expanded Perspective on Learning) that advocates wholistic learning and went to their conferences where I learned about “felt sense” and writing with the body. And the more I honed these skills the more they steered my away from the institution, the more they threatened to carry me into uncharted waters, into quicksand and the unknown.
This month I will finally do it. At the end of the month I will receive my final paycheck from Duke. Already I feel a little unsettled by the loss of that scaffolding. But mostly I feel excited. By giving in to that quicksand I have finally graduated from college.