I don’t harbor many… any? fond feelings about getting a Ph.D.. Maya Angelou said
People will forget what you said
People will forget what you did
But people will never forget how you made them feel.
I remember my mantra from the time. “Get out of the building before you start to cry. Get out of the building before you start to cry.” Often, I would only make it onto the staircase. I remember wanting to kill myself. I remember wanting to hurt others because I was hurting so badly. A Ph.D. is the highest degree of education you can hold, and sadly, I know I am not alone in that my Ph.D. left me feeling like a failure. And full of shame for not having been able to do better than what I did.
I got done; I got out, and I certainly never expected to go back into an academic career. Which is part of the reason why this past year seems so surreal.
My mentor is off at mathematics meeting this weekend, while I am at a teaching conference. She won a well-deserved award for service to students, and, while there, met my thesis advisor. Who was so happy to hear I was starting a tenure-track position, and regaled her with stories of my antics while in graduate school. One thing I was good at was pulling off practical jokes—not dissertation worthy, but an underappreciated skill, nevertheless.
It’s strange to think of him remembering me fondly, when my memories of him and of that time are anything but fond. Even the aftermath, getting the work published, didn’t leave me with good feelings.
I know that this experience has informed my teaching; when students are failing at an activity, I know I do not want them to feel like they are a failure. I want them to leave knowing that I believe in them to find their path, to do better, to change direction if needed or to figure out what is needed to move forward.
I know too that a student’s failure is not a teacher’s failure. I hate to see students do poorly, but I know it isn’t a reflection on me or my teaching. I can care for them no matter how they do. So maybe to my advisor my struggles were just that, my struggles, not a reflection on him. In fact, nothing to do with him.
I don’t know how to fit this in with my story of who I was and what was at the time. I am trying to process and trying to understand. Even after 15 years, my feelings are raw and hurt. I have tried to face my shame and air it. To move forward and to find my identity as a teacher and a scholar. I know in some ways I have succeeded at putting this behind me. I know, too, that I will always carry it with me.
I am at a loss for the story my mentor told me. I can’t make it fit with what I remember, with what I think, with what I feel. Not even looking at it wearing my instructor hat, and trying to see it from a completely different perspective.
I know one thing, which is that if there is one thing I want for my students, it is that not one, not ever, will experience that shame, that hopelessness, that sense of abject failure under my care, on my watch. At least not coming from me. That if they are trying their guts out to learn or do something and not learning or doing, I want to deal gently with their spirits. I want to turn them in another direction, to give them a chance to excel at something else. Because they will find their path eventually. They will be worthwhile human beings even if they are nothing like me.