When I first read The Old Man and The Sea, I hated it. I truly hated it. I do not think it is fair to make junior high aged students read Ernest Hemingway. But even though I hated the book as a 7th grader, I constantly find myself coming back to that story over and over again in my head. And I think as I started graduate school I found myself relating more and more to the Old Man, Santiago.
I am sure you are wondering how a twenty-four-year-old Black woman can relate to a character written centuries ago by a white American man; however, have no fear I am going to explain.
It is only right that I use a classic novel to explain my struggles as a graduate student. I would even call it ironic because at the age of twenty-three I found out I have a reading impairment, along with two other learning disabilities.
In my first semester of graduate school I had hit a wall so to speak. It seemed like week after week I was unable to pass a quiz in class or even write a decent enough paper for my professors. I literally felt like Santiago who had not caught a fish for eighty-four days. Nothing seemed to be going right.
I knew that I had general anxiety disorder before I moved from Texas to Iowa City, Iowa; however, I really had not had too many anxiety attacks until I started graduate level classes. I even began to question who in the hell told me to sign up for this shit; however, I knew I had goals to reach so I pushed through.
And even with all of my personal perseverance—again much like Santiago—it really did not matter. It actually made me feel like I was not good enough to even be in this program. And to make it worse, I was the only black person in almost all of my classes, so I felt like they were just calling me the stupid black girl in their meetings. (I later found out that they weren’t calling me stupid, but they were saying that I was incapable of doing their work—that’s a story for another day).
I do not know if you have ever had that feeling of something being so close but yet being so far away at the same time. Like Santiago fighting with the fish to get it shore and with every mile he got closer but the struggle also got harder and harder. That is how I felt in every class and even after finding out there was a reason behind why I had been struggling so much, it still felt like I still had so much further to go.
How was a I supposed to process this information about these learning disabilities when I literally have a processing disorder? It honestly makes no sense and if you have the answers, please let me know. All I am trying to convey is that I really did not know what to do even though I was happy I received some answers.
But what does having a learning disability look like in graduate school? Will professors think I am making it up? Will they care? Will they work with me? How do I talk about it and not make it sound like an excuse? Obviously you can see that this new diagnosis caused quite a bit of anxiety in me—and I already had enough. The questions just kept coming of how and what I should do. I finally just had a complete breakdown; and to be quite honest it felt amazing to the tears to flow down my face because it was some sort of release.
Even after that release, I still did not have the answers; however, I knew that I could find them and that it may take some time.
Santiago was very prideful and that is why he did not give up with the fish and I can relate to that; however, I the fight he had with the fish just to bring it to shore left not just the fish but him as well, extremely mangled and broken. I knew that I did not want my graduate career to leave me like that. I did not want my pride to end up breaking me just to prove a point. And that is when I realized that I was going to have to reach out for help and that meant letting the university know about my diagnosis. If I did not tell them, I was going to fail out of school just to not disclose learning disabilities. Honestly, I do not want to pressure people reading this to disclose your personal business; however, people cannot help you if they do not know what is going on.
Learning this lesson was hard to learn. I am not a person who likes asking for help. It felt weird to make a conscious decision to be vulnerable when it came to my schooling. I can write a blog about my struggles with depression and anxiety but I liked people thinking I had school under control (because I had for so long).
I have written about my learning disabilities on my personal blog and I even allowed the university to use me for an awareness campaign and I even was interviewed for the school website. I realized that my pride was not going to not only hinder me from achieving greatness in my academics but it also was not going to stop me from being a voice for others.
I do not think that I will ever read Old Man and The Sea again, but I never knew a book that I read in 7th grade could later be used as an analogy for my life—I guess that is why it is called a classic. I guess the moral of my story is that the struggle has a purpose and that pride can really hold you back.
I hope that this story helps someone and if it doesn’t, it helped me to write about it once again.
Joy Melody Woods, masters student at the University of Iowa studying sociology of education and sport. She is a native Texan and loves all things southern cooking. She is an advocate for mental health and learning disabilities. Her writing can be found on withoutaspace.com and her podcast Morning Joy.