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Doubt, Failure and Rejection

If you follow me on Twitter, or even here on Black Girl Does Grad School, it’s evident that I’ve been in a bit of a funk for a little while. Okay, a lot of a funk and for a long while.

The truth is, it happens and it happens frequently. Grad school is just like that: some weeks you are fine, you feel like you are killing the game, you’re writing, you’re reading, your productivity is through the roof. And some weeks (or several of them…in a row) are about opening rejection emails before you’ve even left your bed in the morning, blank word documents, institutional drama, and the increasingly depressing feeling of trying to keep afloat in the middle of the ocean, knowing that any moment it could swallow you whole.

In particular, rejection letters really have the ability to drown me when I’m already barely afloat. On a day when I’m balanced, feeling healthy and whole, surrounded by love and support, rejections barely cross my radar. On a day where I’m already irritated and isolated (often self-imposed) due to circumstances outside of my control, rejections take me out. Negative self talk is already the soundtrack of my day, I’m feeling like my writing is particularly weak, and then bam– the worst sort of confirmation.

I sort of came to an understanding with myself. I stopped trying to fight the labels that academics were using to make me legible. I instead focused on simply doing work that fed my soul and that I felt was a direct expression of me walking in my purpose, worrying less about categorizing it and making it marketable, and more on making my words fly. This mental shift helped me prioritize, focus on and execute my work in a way that was meaningful to me.

And it worked.

Until it didn’t.

I now believed in my capacity to produce substantive, rigorous and complex work; I was focused enough to write it; I was becoming brave enough to submit it but nobody seemed to believe in me as much as I now believed in myself. It was enough to crack even the strongest of foundations and then the doubts seeped in. The worries that I had finally managed to shake reached through those cracks, grabbed ahold of my soul and squeezed. As often as I jokingly recount the tale of how I became Peanut Festival Queen of Suffolk, Virginia, the nagging thought that follows like a bad aftertaste is, Did I peak in high school? It seemed that making your dreams come true was a concoction of ambition, consistent hard work and a dreamer’s heart, but I lacked that dash of magic that seemed to be the key.

When all is said and done, I know I usually like to end my blog posts with a neat bow. I am nothing if not a (somewhat performative) optimist. I like to believe that even if I haven’t yet, I will overcome adversity and the fruits of my labor will be rewarded. And while I do have faith that everything will work out for me, I’m still living in a moment in which I am constantly stewing in a stale pot of doubt, failure and rejection, instead of perfecting my recipe for Black Girl Magic. I’m learning to live in the space between my imperfections and my potential, coming to embrace the harmony that failure and resiliency produces. Practically speaking, it means I honor my feelings, because even if I know that my future is bright, today’s forecast is overcast and rainy. It means that I take a moment to be transparent in my writing about what this moment is for me, instead of hiding from it, as if it doesn’t exist.

And perhaps…the answers that I have been hearing are not a no.

It’s an implied not yet.

Misadventures in TA’ing

One of the things I most looked forward to when I found out I was going to grad school was teaching. After spending my last semester of undergrad at UVA teaching my own self-designed course, I was eager to get back to the front of a classroom, maybe breaking down some literature with first year students or offering writing support during office hours.

But my dream situation got put on hold. There were several factors: I was now at a relatively small(ish) liberal arts university with overall tiny class sizes, which reduced the need for Teaching Assistants (TA’s). While we were guaranteed to teach at some point, if we wanted, TA-ships were not as easy to come by as I had originally imagined in this setting. Then there was the unspoken understanding that often times, first year students weren’t always placed in TA-ships. In terms of the content I wanted to focus on in the classroom, my university didn’t have graduate programs in English or Africana Studies; so in addition to the small class sizes, I wouldn’t really have an opportunity to TA where my heart was (unless, of course, I managed to snag a course cross-listed with English, which were few and far between).

So I pouted, but in spite of all of that, the prospect of TA-ing still appealed to me. I was placed in a programmatic graduate assistantship my first year with the Omohundro Institute; then with the Lemon Project, which I stayed with for my third year as well, much to my surprise. I loved working for the Lemon Project, but my desire to teach was flaring up, as well as my concern that it was getting to be so late in my graduate career and I hadn’t had any formal teaching experience, aside from leading workshops with Lemon and Course Instructing for Keio.

By the time I actually got a TA assignment, I was headed into my fourth year, almost formally dissertating. With only the prospectus standing in my way, I had moved past wanting to TA, and was ready to teach my own course, for which I had created a well-developed and, frankly, exciting, syllabus. However, due to an undocumented “policy,” I was denied my course and placed in a TAship that I had spent my first three years daydreaming about.

The circumstances under which I was placed in this position certainly marred my enthusiasm, but even so, as I gathered my thoughts about my teaching philosophy, and grand ideas for my first discussion sections, I was inflated by the prospect of being surrounded by gifted thinkers whom I got to help guide.

My cute little bubble of hope and optimism slowly deflated as I attended meetings and prepared for the start of the semester. Things were not shaking out as I had expected and, most importantly for me, I was already feeling like I couldn’t make my own decisions about how I wanted my classrooms to run, and by extension, feel. I was confined by more limitations than I had anticipated. The inability to put my own personal stamp on the two little classes I could call my own, and really express the fullest version of myself as an educator had me feeling claustrophobic and honestly, jaded.

There’s a part of me that understands this is part of the process. You learn to follow the rules before you can make your own.

But there’s another, much larger part of me, that has never particularly subscribed to this manner of thinking.

When the first day of discussion sections rolled around, I was even more nervous than I had reason to be. The professor for whom I was TA-ing would be there on the first day, mostly to talk about the syllabus, but also to lead the class in an exercise.

It felt strange, not being able to set the tone the way I wanted on the first day, and I felt myself shrinking, trying to take up the least amount of space possible. I left after my first set of classes, relieved that they were over, but also feeling an undeniable urge to cry. It had been so long since I had actively attempted to make myself small. I hated the feeling, but more than that, I hated myself for complying.

I wanted badly to get back in the classroom this week to restart, but due to the hurricane (which was more like a very windy drizzle), the school was closed and the students, and I, were off the hook.

I find myself deeply conflicted, but also very aware that it’s only been two weeks and I have plenty of time to turn this experience around. I’m conflicted because I finally get the opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do, but it seems like I keep stepping into one misadventure after the next. I love teaching– I always have. I very rarely played with my cousins on Sundays and holidays in the backroom at my grandparents’, preferring to read on the floor at my mother’s knees, but when I did, it was guaranteed to be a game of school, in which I got to be the teacher. It was an easy enough role to slide into, when most of the adults you knew intimately were educators. My mother was a fifth grade teacher, two of her sisters were teachers, her friends were teachers. I grew up drenched in questions of pedagogy and learning what was good practice based on which teaching policies my mother fumed about or praised while trading war stories with her sisters on the phone after school each night.

I knew from listening in on those conversations that teaching was not easy. It was a headache and it drove you crazy, but as I grew older, I realized that those conversations would not have been so heated if they were not fueled by a love of their job and their mission. My mom, her sisters, and their friends took educating seriously. Educating and education mattered. And I knew it was worth it every time she ran into a former student in the local Wal-Mart. She may not remember their name, but she remembered their face– a feat I’ve always found astounding given how much people change from when they’re ten to when they’re, say, twenty. The former students always want to stop my mom to show her they turned out okay; that they’re in college, or they have a family, or they have a great job.

Over my life, watching my mom and her sisters not only teach, but also care for students, has given me a model for how I want to approach teaching. Educating is as important to me as researching.

I think it’s important to remind myself of that from time to time, especially when I feel like my first experience TA-ing has been nothing but a series of misadventures. It may not have been the perfect timing for me, but who knows? Maybe there’s a student that will change my life. Maybe I’ll change one of theirs. Whatever comes next, I’m going to try to write as much of the story as I can.

Week 11: A Critical Self-Reflection on my Fighting Spirit

It’s time for some critical self-reflection.

I’ve always been a self-starter, and a little loud, probably to the chagrin of my mom, who had to work at the school where I was always doing something. I distinctly remember mobilizing the entire third grade to sign a petition against soggy cafeteria trays, which in my eight-year-old mind, ruined the sanctity of the chicken nugget. That same school year, I remember coming home determined to write my Black History Month report on the first Black woman involved in civil rights who wasn’t Rosa Parks that I could find: Angela Yvonne Davis. Then, at age ten, I decided that my fourth grade class needed a school magazine. So, naturally, some friends and I organized a bake sale, the proceeds of which went to the annual fair when the plans for the magazine proved too difficult.

By high school I had only gotten louder; spending a great deal of time fighting against the initial structure of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program in Suffolk, Virginia. As my class would be the first through, we dubbed ourselves “The Guinea Pigs.” I wanted more flexibility (at the time I wanted to do the Governor’s School of the Arts, which I was waitlisted for classical piano, and IB); more class offerings, including an IB music class; and I wanted to keep our IB director, but budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. I spent a great deal of time ranting in our IB director’s office, to my friends, my teachers, at school board meetings, to anyone who would listen. We lost student after student during the pre-IB years (freshman and sophomore year) until we were down to the sixteen that crossed the stage together in 2012.

I used to be loud, I used to demand change, I used to fight hard.

My fighting spirit came and went as I ran the gauntlet that was the University of Virginia (UVA). I spent a year on the Black Student Alliance executive board, and, disenchanted with the bureaucracy and male domination despite the female majority, promptly resigned the summer before my third year. The often hours long meetings in which I had to take ruthless comments, being talked over or ignored had finally taken its toll on me. So I left, determined to find another way to make a difference. To be sure I found ways: I became a leader in the language house community, eventually making my way up to RA of the French House; I took point in helping organizing my scholarship weekend in the spring of 2015 and 2016; I took on more responsibility in my position as an intern in the Outreach Office of Admission; and I became stage manager of a show that was more of a movement, the Black Monologues.

I’ll be brutally honest, UVA beat a lot of the fight out of me. Between the constant pressure to perform, the isolation that came with being the only Black person in many of the classes and spaces I inhabited, and the severe depression that I fought most of my four years there, it was nothing short of a miracle that I made it out of Charlottesville alive. Living there was rough. My class lived through the disappearance of Hannah Graham, the Rolling Stone article, and the Martese Johnson incident. It felt like I spent most of my upperclassmen years at rallies and vigils, condemning racially motivated brutality and sexual assault, then alternatively mourning the loss of classmates. In addition to all of these horrifying events, I, the golden child of Suffolk, Virginia, was learning for the first time what it meant to fail spectacularly at UVA. I will never forget the string of rejections I got my first year there, one after another, until I finally got a rejection in January 2013, which prompted a panic attack so severe I ended up calling the counseling center for an appointment that day.

It’s my third year out of UVA, and I think I’m still undoing some of the damage to my thought processes that happened while I was there. I don’t think I could pinpoint the moment that undid the fight in me, but I know when I recognized how broken I was: when I did Black Monologues. Black Monologues was a salve to my soul, my chance to simply be. To make art, and to be moved by it. To be in a community with Black people who understood me and loved me. Pouring myself into words for the first time in years, building something, saved me. It healed the wound I didn’t even know I had. Black Monologues gave me back my voice, and even amplified it.

Black Monologues built me up just enough to send me into the world armed with at least part of the confidence which UVA had stolen from me. But I’m realizing now, even with part of my confidence restored, I am still not the girl who demanded change from her school board. I’m not even the girl who mobilized the third grade.

Somewhere in that journey, I decided my moves would be in silence; that my calling was teaching and writing, and those would be my contributions. I decided to use my “self-care card” to self-preserve rather than fight back, but this week in particular has me questioning how I feel about that. I don’t know if I like that I’ve become a silent, but engaged observer; intervening only when particularly provoked or when I “have the time.” I consider myself to be strategic with my energy, picking and choosing my battles with care. Mental health wise, it’s been the right decision, but I do have to ask myself, am I being true to myself– am I feeding my spirit?

My tactics have changed and so have I. William & Mary has brought me to the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, where I do a lot of work educating people on enslaved labor and Jim Crow segregation at William & Mary. I work with and teach students; help put on programming; run our social media; but most importantly, I learn and share. And when I realized the Academy might not make room for me, I decided to write my way in on this very blog; working countless hours to make sure that BGDGS became a space where Black women could share and fellowship together. I may not be making statements at school board meetings anymore, but I’m still working, moving slowly and intentionally.

Sometimes I wonder if my sixteen year old self would be proud of the person I’ve become.

I think she would be. I’ve taken my fight to paper, armed with a pen. I think she would be glad to see that I transformed my fighting energy into building.