I am sitting in class and hearing the lettery things go by. As lines sprawling across the whiteboard, they look like a coded language I never learned; as words swirling through the air, they happen to the class like smoke. Coating the tables. Packing the skin without reaching the eardrums; sweeping the lungs without holding the brain. (It's actually called particulate matter.) My breaths come in quiet sighs, thicker as the lesson expands to fill the whole space. I write down the symbols I see in case they mean something to me later. The silence is stony— when it's not, it's bursting. A student's question goes unanswered. Fiddled with, analogized, then bypassed. My head turns. Every eyebrow here is furrowed. I am not the only one who is listening but not understanding.
Study group because nothing makes sense? We meet the afternoon before it matters. Four chairs around the circle table and the rain drumming on the lounge's roof. It feels like we are not supposed to succeed, like there is this arbitrary standard set to rise higher than we are tall. Our complaints intersperse with our efforts, one not separate from the other, each a driven attempt to stay afloat. The subject is elitist; the material is disjointed. We each hold one piece of the puzzle and rotate the pieces until there is an odd little picture telling us something about the universe and we can all say, Ohhh. That's what he meant. Thank goodness for science YouTube and anyone who explains using regular people words. Thank goodness for the people who start from the beginning with you.
I wake up to the black sky coaxing me back to sleep. Don't think about it, you just have to do it. You just have to leave the soft warmth you have before dawn and trust that it won't be so bad to stand. You just have to brush your teeth and grab a snack from the bottom drawer. You just have to remember the blessing in this being one of the worst things right now. And the fuzzy sweater and the dazzling leaves and the wide open horizon. You need music. You need to pour hot tea through your lips and feel it embrace you from the inside as it tumbles down. You need motion. Put on fun earrings. Meet your friend at 8:15 at the South exit. Walk all the way across campus and marvel at the morning mist.
In class I do not berate myself with expectations. I catch the punch before I throw it at myself; I soothe the pressure before it grips me. By now I have worked out a wonderful strategy for this. I start here: My brain is a sea turtle. Pretty and wise and slow as the sunrise. My professor explains something hastily, sounding as if it's something we already know. And I am just sitting in this class with my sea turtle friend. I rush to write it down, but my professor is already onto the next thing. My sea turtle friend is intuitive and compassionate and knows how to ride the undertow. I'm just gonna put a star next to this keyword so I know to look it up later. She has lots of strengths, and it's okay that this mode of acquiring knowledge is not one of them. Oh, this much I remember from the YouTube video. Okay, I'm with you now. I am helping her along through this confusing thing that was not made for sea turtles. My mind wanders and I've missed something important before it finds its way back. I am kind to my sea turtle friend. Confused again. What does this have to do with…? I trust that she is trying her best. Oh god, now there's a whole web of concepts resting on each other that I don't understand. Shhh, sometimes she needs time.
My sea turtle friend changes everything. I think most people probably need one at some point. (I know many people whose minds move more like squirrels— maybe you need a squirrel friend.) There are classes in which the internal frustration of not knowing what's going on is inevitable. These might be completely different classes for you than they are for me, but the experience of it might be similar. Professors in these classes tend to be unhelpful and often dismissive and invalidating. For me, instincts creep in to measure my worth against scores and teacher's approval, to apologize and make fun of myself, and to be disappointed in the things (like my slow processing speed) that make it hard for me to learn anything inside that classroom. These tendencies don't make me any more driven to understand the material and they definitely don't make my grades go up. They just make me wallow. A way out of all this: I would never do that to a sea turtle.
So I start by knowing my slowness. I honor it— or I try— as if it were a famous and forgiven part of the creature I am. No one is judging a sloth, a turtle, or a snail for being slow. Slowness looks good on them. They make it work; it's their whole thing. I would love to allow myself as much grace. I would also love to live in a world that allows me as much grace, but until then, I guide the old sea turtle as gently as I can.
At the same time, I remember the commonality in this. Everyone trying to learn from this class has a different amount of compatibility with this teaching style and no one has very much background in this subject. Sooner or later, we all end up muddling through the muck with question marks on our foreheads. That part is a shared experience. The difference is how easy it is for each of us to sprawl our limbs and find stable ground again.
It's 7:49am. Electric kettle boiling, floor hard and unwavering beneath my feet. The light shifts gradually from the cool, sterile tones of my desk lamp to the warm, unbridled glow of the sun. I've dragged myself awake as an allegiance to the sheets of paper before me. Packed heavy with numbers and other technicalities, the first ten problems seem to wink at me. I have wound my way through enough textbook pages and sifted through enough YouTube videos to learn their code. I have reread and pressed pause enough times to translate their language. I have let go of keeping up in favor of catching up; I have adapted to relying only on sources whose speed I can control. I smile at the subtle victory here. As my tea cools, I wrestle with the last two problems until I can write something that might be satisfactory. Time pressed, it's good enough for now. The eastern horizon outside my window has already softened into a mellow blue.
This is how it works for now: I will go to class today. I will feel frustrated and defiant and lost. I will forgive the flippers, the shell, the iffy ears and sharp eyes of my sea turtle friend. I will promise her rewinds and redemption. Nothing will make sense.
Responses to this Entry
This was great! I was really drawn in and feeling your desperation in my speeding heartbeat.
I’m an Oberlin graduate 1984. I’ve been an Alumni interviewer for over 20 years. I’ve also been a professor of theatre at Bowdoin, SUNY New Paltz amongst others and I’ve certainly seen that expression you describe on students faces. Thanks for a great moment of compassion Enjoy your time at Oberlin.
Posted by: Sîmone Federman’84 on November 4, 2021 12:43 PM
Amazing writing. Thank you.
Posted by: Carmen McFarlin on November 6, 2021 7:11 PM
This piece is soooo well done! Superbly poetic, in fact. I felt like I was with you and your sea turtle friend every step of the way and could relate from beginning to end. Thank you, Minerva, for taking me on that journey!
Posted by: Victoria Hart on November 9, 2021 1:17 PM
Leave a Comment