oh dear

I hate it when students cry.

I can handle the surface level tears: feeling overwhelmed with work, upset over a grade, unhappy over a break-up. I can read how to manage those tears.  Usually, I offer a tissue, offer some sympathy, followed by some tough love, and we’re back on track.  They feel better for getting it off their chests; I feel like I’ve provided a little help.

It’s the real tears, the ones that come from dark places, that leave me flustered.  I’ve had students cry from real pain – loss, identity conflicts, terrible choices – and I feel so helpless. I can’t offer any wisdom; I can’t do anything to help.

And it’s even worse with boys.  At least my female students do cry.  However helpless I may feel, they have an outlet in that moment to lose a little of their pain.  My male students don’t cry; they come close but they rarely let the tears fall, and somehow that is more wrenching than waterworks.

Today, I asked a student a perfectly innocuous question after class.  There was a mistake in an assignment; I wanted to make sure he wasn’t going off track with a bigger assignment.  It seemed out of character, so I opened by asking if he was feeling overwhelmed, given that he’s carrying a heavy courseload this semester.  And then I see the tears pushing against the lash line as he pauses before telling me it’s been a rough year.

I always tell students they don’t have to tell me anything they don’t want to share.  I can work with generalities; it helps simply to know a student is struggling with something.  I can be a little more flexible, extend office hours, let class participation slide.  My expectations don’t drop – I still expect good work – but they do alter.  So, students can get some support without having to tell me anything private.

The student today said the word “funeral” and my heart sank.  I said I wouldn’t pry and, somehow, that opened the door: his mother passed away this spring, both grandmothers passed away in the last month, and he wasn’t able to concentrate on the assignment because he was at his grandmother’s funeral over the weekend.

So, what would you do?  Standing in front of a 6’2″ male student with tears in his eyes who’s really just a motherless boy?  Right or wrong, I asked if I could give him a hug.  I told him how sorry I was, I gave a brief embrace, and I stood there with my hand on his shoulder while we finished talking.

I’m not exactly the touchy-feely type nor do I consider myself excessively maternal.  I swear in class; I have a fairly sarcastic sense of humor; I don’t share my personal life.  I care about my students, of course, but I’m their professor, not their counselor or their RA or their mom.

But when I see them struggling with real pain and loss and bewilderment, when they’re fighting back tears because they’re all grown up and aren’t going to cry in front of a professor, all I can think to do is reach out and touch them. Maybe it’s for me more than them, but it seems like, in that moment, the only thing to do is connect them to another human being who understands pain, too.

in an attempt to explain what’s in my head

It turned out to be a busy weekend, between a full day of work on Saturday and a shopping trip to the big city on Sunday.  Between being alone and being in the car, I had some time to parse my hyperbolic assertions of Friday night.

When I look at my life here, a frisson of terror crawls up my spine.  That probably seems a bit excessive but I think it captures the actual response. My self-diagnosed abandonment issues don’t help matters any; the men I love have a very bad habit of leaving me (and I’m way past boyfriends with that statement; you don’t want me to catalog the deaths I’ve endured) and that happening will always reduce me to the little girl who doesn’t understand why they went away.

I don’t want to become a caricature and I’m so afraid that’s what I’ll be if I stay here.  Why I think a change of location will make such a difference, I’m not sure, but I can’t shake the feeling that this is it.  What I have now is what I will have a year from now, five years from now, when I retire.  Maybe that’s true, but I want to choose that or at least feel that I’ve had a chance to make it end differently.

I’d like to think I’ll be ready to date again at some point in the future.  I don’t see how that will happen here, though. I’m serious when I say there is a dearth of eligible men in this town.  This isn’t an area for single people; we have a hard time retaining single academics, for obvious reasons; and most of the men I see in my age range are married. I’m a social person, fairly vivacious when I’m out with friends, but I haven’t attracted attention from men since I was in college.  It doesn’t make for a positive outlook in my mind.

I wonder if my friends are part of how I see my problem, which sounds like an awful thing to say, I know.  Two of my closest friends here are also single; they have been ever since I’ve known them (about nine and seven years, respectively). We do a lot together, given our similar schedules and availabilities, and we talk a lot, about many things.  We don’t talk about relationships very much, though.  They joke about not having been on a date in ages, they mention that they should probably try internet dating “again” but it doesn’t often go much deeper than that.

You would think this would be a comfort: look at these fantastic single women who have great lives! But what I see isn’t really comforting.  They’ve settled into life here, going along with the flow, not kicking up a fuss; it’s like they’re existing in this strange complacent calm, not quite happy but not quite sad.  One is continuously upset about something with her family; she’s too far away from them and she hates it.  One frequently mentions that she hasn’t ruled out having kids; perhaps she hasn’t but biology almost assuredly has.  They both agree when I laughingly offer to set up dating profiles for them but they never actually take me up on it.  I’m not trying to analyze them; I don’t know what’s roiling beneath the surface when it comes to past relationships and current issues.  And it isn’t simply that they’re single.

What gives me pause is wondering if this is all I get.  Will this version of my life be enough for the next 20, 30, 40 years?  Interacting with my colleagues, teaching my students, having dinner with my friends, traveling as often as possible – will this satisfy me?  Will the calm and individualism and lack of romance create a life for me that I’ll enjoy?

I want a crystal ball, I suppose.  I want to know that I’ll be happy with where I am, who I am, what I’m doing if I keep to the path I’m on.

At the same time, I have to figure out my path.  I don’t want to exist; I don’t want to drift.  I want something to look forward to; I want hope.  But my mind is practically blank when it comes to seeing any sort of direction in my life.

So, it’s easy to point to my single status as the root of all despair.  It’s not, though.  I was wandering even before SG left (and that probably contributed to the downward spiral), even if I didn’t quite realize it at the time.  SG was my goal, though; he was where I was going to end up, however I got there.  Now, I’m not sure of my direction, much less my goal, so I focus on the one thing that clearly shows up empty: my love life.

here’s what I notice

This is the first Friday in a long while that I’ve been out on the town, so to speak.  A girlfriend’s birthday was last month; we never had a chance to celebrate; so we finally had a girls’ night out to celebrate.

I had a six hour meeting today (ugh), then came home to write a conference proposal.  I did my primping before we went out: put on the new dark jeans and the blouse with the low V-neck; took some time with my makeup; pulled out my fun red leather shoes.

And I had a lovely evening.  We started in one place, with very tasty drinks, and then meandered to another place, with very tasty food.  We laughed until we cried – seriously, shrieking with laughter; it’s been a long time since we’ve had so much fun with each other.

But there was one point in the evening where the conversation had moved away from me; I was sitting there and sipping, just taking it all in.  And it occurred to me: it’s just us.  We’re all dressed up; we look great; we’re having fun; four of the six of us are single; and we have absolutely no expectation of interacting with a man tonight. Absolutely none.

I realize I’m not 20 anymore; I’m not exactly a hot commodity at the local bar in this college town.  More importantly, I value time with my girlfriends more than I can say; I had a great time tonight – wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Tonight just brought home to me the unadulterated fact that, if I stay here, I will stay here alone.  I may have a good life; I may do very well professionally; but I will do it completely by myself.  There are no single men here.  Forget the university or the grocery store; even in the bars and restaurants, there are no unattached individuals of the male persuasion over 30 to be found.  There’s no one to attract, however tight my jeans or bright my lipstick.

I may shudder at the idea of dating.  I may reject the concept of starting a new relationship.  I may feel that I deserve to be alone.

However true that may feel right now, I also know that I will never have a relationship if I stay in this town. There are too many “mature” single women competing with single undergrads; there are too many single women, period. If I ever want to consider having another relationship, I have to get away from here.

Because this town, this location, this life guarantees that I will be alone for the rest of my life.

how quickly we forget

It’s the third week of the semester and I am neck-deep in papers and meetings and manuscripts and research and proposals. I’m starting to think the school year is like childbirth: we only do it again because we blocked out what it was like before.

My first set of papers from both classes came in this week. Both were short assignments that required feedback rather than grades; that lowers my time expenditure and frustration level considerably but it’s still hours worth of work. I’ll have something coming in almost every week from here on out – ridiculous in terms of my own productivity, perhaps, but useful for my students’ development. Thank goodness they are starting out strong and engaged, if the first efforts are any indication.

Just this week, I’ve agreed to serve on a search committee and join a faculty committee. Even knowing service work is a female-dominated time suck with little professional reward, I’ll do it, mostly because of who asked (I respect these people). It’s worthwhile work in terms of outcomes but I’ll likely complain in the doing.

Projects requiring my immediate attention have seemingly appeared out of the woodwork. I wasn’t going to apply for a college-level grant due Friday; my department head caught me after a meeting yesterday to make sure I was applying – so I wrote that last night. I wasn’t going to bother with a proposal to a conference I have to attend anyway in a leadership capacity; one of my current projects is a perfect fit for a colleague’s session – so I wrote that the other night.

It’s always like this. I know that. But the sheer amount of work comes crashing down every year. Then again, it’s a familiar wave, one I know I can survive – now – and enjoy to a degree, strangely enough. Busy isn’t a bad word to me right now.

bittersweet dance

It seems that I’ve lost 20 pounds since May.  I’m rather stunned to even write that sentence.  

Interestingly enough, I don’t really look that different.  I may have lost the pounds but my shape hasn’t changed, so it isn’t some drastic alteration.  Maybe that’s why no one has noticed.  Seriously, only two people have commented: the assistant in the departmental office and a colleague at the conference last month (who hasn’t seen me in the past two years).  So, I can be happy at losing some unhealthy flab, not suddenly become svelte.

The happiness is bittersweet, of course.  I may have lost a few pounds due to my constant activity in London but the majority of this came off because of the break-up.  I stopped eating for about a week, so my stomach had a chance to shrink; once I surfaced out of that hole, I found that I wasn’t as hungry anymore.  Less food was enough food. Now, I’m doing my best to watch my calories, eat decent food and stop the mindless munching in front of the television.  

I do think I look better: less pudgy, more defined.  Of course, that’s bittersweet, too. One of SG’s issues was that he wasn’t attracted to me anymore.  Well, I didn’t find myself particularly attractive in the last year or so, either, so I suppose I can’t blame him.  Between the weight gain and the depression, I felt – and looked – frumpy, lumpy and dumpy.  Now, I’m managing the depression, I’ve lost some weight, I’m feeling better about how I look in the mirror – and SG is nowhere to be found.  I know, his loss, but it is a half-hearted victory.

On the funny side: I have no pants.  Everything I own is patently too big for me, and since I don’t own a belt, it’s probably best not to tempt fate.  I did buy a pair of black dress pants a few weeks ago, but mostly I’m wearing dresses and skirts when I leave the house.

I did splurge on two pairs of jeans this weekend – well, my level of splurge, since I’m not willing to pay $100 for a pair of jeans.  I decided I deserved some name-brand jeans this time – and I must admit, the cut is better.  Trust me, I realize that labels don’t mean anything but, you know, that little girl who grew up in hand-me-downs and generic clothes will always get a thrill at wearing something with a label.  Sue me.

the story of my life

In continuing my attempts to get out of the house this semester, I went to a faculty social event today.  I put on a dress, I spruced up my hair and makeup, and I headed out to interact with some new people over a glass or two of wine.

Only there was some event happening downtown so there were no parking spaces, which meant I drove around much longer than expected trying to find somewhere to put my car.  And when I finally did find a place, it was several blocks away so I ended up walking much farther than expected.  Which meant I was both late and irritated when I finally arrived at the venue.  And since I can’t regulate my body temperature anymore, I proceeded to get hotter and sweatier after I slipped in and sat down.  Which meant my makeup washed off, my dress was sticking to me and I was left wondering why I even left the house.

And this pretty much sums up my life.  I try to make a change, to think positively, to remind myself that I’m pretty darn awesome.  But then it feels like the planets align to intentionally throw me off.  There’s always some twist as soon as I get my balance, some curve as soon as I start moving.  I want to be cool, with-it, well-dressed, interesting but I just end up being a hot, sweaty, frumpy mess.

I might know what I’m doing by now

I decided to take part in a writing group this semester through a faculty organization on campus.  The organizer took names, created groups of 5-7 based on available times and provided a structure we should follow for our efforts this semester.  I’ve never actually taken part in a writing group; we had a standing meeting at the local coffee shop in grad school but, even though we tried to trade work, it was mostly for support.  So, I figured anything that gets and keeps me writing is a good thing, and perhaps I would meet some new people, as well.  

We had our first meeting today, essentially an organizational meet and greet.  Three of our seven members were there, so we’ve already blown the available time element.  I can’t say much, since I have conflicts the next three weeks, thanks to late-scheduled faculty meetings and an extended trip out-of-town, but it isn’t a particularly shining start.

Talking to the other two women today, though, I had that moment of, “Oh, I’m the grandma of this group.”  They’re both assistant professors and relatively new to the tenure track; I know two other members are in the same situation and one is recently tenured.  Still, I’m the experienced one here.  I may not have published a stunning amount but I’ve been consistently writing for the last eight years; I may not have been awarded huge NSF grants but I’ve managed multiple small grants over the last eight years.  More than anything, I’ve been doing this for eight years now.  At this point, I suppose I actually know what I’m doing.

It’s a strange feeling, really.  I suppose when you’re working so hard to get somewhere, it’s easy to miss it when you get there.  Somewhere along the way, I became one of the “older” professors.  I’m not new and shiny anymore; even if I were to take a new position, I still wouldn’t be new and shiny (I’m actually rather battered and scuffed at this point).  I’m experienced; I’m slightly knowledgable; I know how things work and how to work them.  I had that moment with a grad student the other day, too.  As I corrected her on something in her methodology, I could hear myself talking and I actually knew what I was talking about; without thinking about what I needed to say to her, I was saying the right thing.

I’m sure I won’t ever kick the impostor syndrome completely but it’s nice to think I’m making some inroads on all that insecurity.