Okay, so we left off at the end of last week with me getting ready to get back in the ring, dukes up, ready for round two.
Well, I also got my butt kicked in round 2.
All of the positive energy I got from hearing a talk from a Black Shakespeare scholar on Monday drained right out of me by Tuesday, when I heard about Charlotte. By Wednesday, with the weight of a dead Black man hitching a ride on my soul, I was not ready to learn Black legal history from a white woman. I just wasn’t. I was so tired that I was ready to go straight home right after class, but instead, I sat myself down in a chair in a conference room to listen to my two friends give a presentation on what home is at William and Mary in light of its racial history.
These two scholars, as kind as they are brilliant, have been a large part of my support system since (and honestly, even before) my arrival at William and Mary. Both minorities in their identities, the pair seemed to me the best people in the program to be presenting on the topic at hand. And as expected the presentation was bomb.
What was not, was the guy in the back, who though well intentioned, kept making the conversation A) about what white people have done for Black people at William and Mary and B) about his own hurt feelings.
Talk about Missing the Point 101.
There’s no question about who was more annoyed, me or the black guy giving the presentation, but I definitely think I came in at a close second.
I left the room, got in my car, vented to my dad, texted my pseudo-advisor from UVA and all but said: “LET ME COME BACK.”
I was so done that I walked into Omohundro for work and essentially turned around and walked back out. One of the kind ladies working in the office could see in my face I just wasn’t mentally there.
I tried to take care of myself as well as I could that evening, and I managed to make up those hours the next day, but by Friday, the weight of Blackness had gotten heavier and heavier to the point where I had all but stopped being productive for nearly three days. Coupled with a few personal issues that have plagued me for almost a year creeping back up to punch me in the face and a few ill timed rejection letters later, I was absolutely down for the count by Saturday morning.
BUT, I did manage, at least, to finish the paper that’s due on Monday.
Call it my perfectionism, call it my coping mechanism for dealing, but for some reason I do my best work while emotionally hemorraghing. First, despite being a deeply emotional and sensitive person, I pretty much am unable to deal with anything deeply upsetting to me more than like once every couple of months. I’m the type of person who pushes potentially emotional conversations until the end of the semester, because I can’t deal with it while I’m working. The type of person who reads Marivaux in the family car on the way to a funeral. The type of person who has only once in my life dealt with something personal before a final exam, and I justified it because I wouldn’t be able to have a clear head to write if I didn’t deal then.
My academic work, my pristine field of carefully cultivated academic excellence, is my coping mechanism.
With impeccably regulated time management regime and a dedication to arming myself for battlefield that is the classroom, I look forward to preparing my work each week. It gives me a sense of control. I have a finely tuned recipe (2 parts time management to 3 parts execution to 1 part rest) for academic success, that with the occasional tweaking, has gotten me through 17 years of education.
When I can control nothing else, I can control the quality of my work.
But in the last few years, I realized I was missing a crucial piece of the recipe. An ingredient so subtle, you almost miss it: self-care.
I can’t control the quality of my work, if I’m not being kind to my body. When I’m sleeping regularly, taking the proper medication, taking time for doctor’s appointments, eating as healthy as I can, getting regular exercise, my body is more prepared, and more willing, to handle the rigorous mental strain I’ve been putting on it for years.
Still, even what that being said, my best semester of work at UVA was actually a semester in which every other aspect of my life spun wildly out of my control and I was not taking care of myself the way I should’ve been.
There’s a difference between being successful and happy and just being successful.
While I can’t fix all of the problems that were sprung on me this week, I can isolate a few and come up with possible solutions.
1. The feeling of isolation due to a lack of Black people in this space can be resolved by:
- Attending the Africana Studies Open House
- Working to start a Black Grad Student Union
- Finding groups in the greater Williamsburg area to join, like the Black Lives Matter chapter
2. In order to cope with the enormous emotional struggles of being a graduate student, I can
- I can take control of my work
3. In order to take control of my work, I can start by:
- Being kind to myself.
Admittedly, being kind to myself is extremely hard. As you might imagine, years of rigorous academic course work cultivated in me a deep seated work ethic, that while effective, was not based in kindness. I still remember every grade lower than B I’ve ever gotten, what grade I was in, what the subject, the topic of the assignment, the teacher….I still resent not getting valedictorian in high school, five years and a couple degrees later.
In truth, no one has ever put more pressure on me to perform, than me.
I’m trying to break myself of that, little by little. That process has meant taking more emotional support than I’m used to accepting, and not relying on my work as my only method of coping, and deeming my grades my only value.
I’ve leaned on so many people this week: my parents, my amazingly emotionally supportive friend at UVA Law, my cinephile soul sister, a friendship that’s withstood almost 7 years and a lot of bumps, my “adoptive” mother at UVA, the professor who finally convinced me to apply to grad school, an incredibly kind graduate student at UVA, a black future lawyer from W&M law and the crew of the four other Black American Studies grad students. And that’s not even counting some really great allies who have intentionally had my back at every turn this week.
Somehow, I got it in my head that to accept help is weak.
I believed that I was only strong and in control if I was the one giving help.
But now I truly believe that the real strength is in knowing when to stretch out your hand.