I stand in the middle of what has to be the hilliest campus in America. I’m lost among red brick buildings with white columns, one after the other, enormous and identical.
My map does me no good.
It’s 2003. I’m months away from 30, and feeling it. The grey streaks in my hair are especially prominent, my dress is wilted from the humidity, and my body and brain are still reeling from the effects of two days and 600 miles in my air-conditionless car. Despite the fact that freshman orientation is concurrently running this week, I’m the only one here holding a map.
In 1992, I wouldn’t be caught dead with a map. My first week on GW’s campus, I studied the map furiously in my room, plotting my way from German class to political science, from the student center back to my dorm. I kept the small piece of paper plotting Funger Hall to Thurston Hall crumpled in my backpack, for subtle peeks – only in emergency cases. No freshman wanted to call even more attention to her lowly status, wanted to prove how unfamiliar her surroundings were. It was bad enough that every evening, I traveled in part of a pack (only freshmen leave the dorms in groups no fewer than fifteen). But going to class in the harsh daylight, there was no safety in numbers.
Freshman year, as I remember it, was a big, paint-splattered canvas of bold primary colors dotted with smaller streaks of black and pastels. College meant change, responsibility, intellectual stimulation, feeling desirable, forming fast and bold friendships that didn’t last past graduation, being both completely aware of the outside world, but intensely self-aware at the same time. There was some pain, and some homesickness, and some longing for the girl with the Little Mermaid bedsheets, but mostly, freshman year was an exhilarating sense of independence, something I must have been longing for my whole life, but never quite realized it until I got to college.
In the eleven years that have passed since that summer, I can chart my progression on a grid, peaks and valleys representing high and low points. I’ve made at least a hundred mistakes that still cause me to cringe when I think about them, but I also have bright moments that make me smile or laugh when I hit upon them unexpectedly. I began my post-college days with my dream job as a researcher on the most coveted campaign in the country, convinced I’d spend the next dozen years working my way up the ladder until I was running someone’s Senate race, while continuing my streak of unbearably short and disastrous relationships. I’d be the successful, single career woman.
Life doesn’t always like plans. Two things happened that year: I decided I hated politics. And I met Joe. I was married at the impossibly young age (to me, anyway) of 27, and my career, if you can call it that, hasn’t exactly caught fire. In fact, I’ve ditched my nice, comfortable, enjoyable but very junior position with an office and great benefits to return to graduate school.
I want to write, and I’ve been calling myself a writer for years, but it’s always felt a little disingenuous. My affair with politics was brief, and my passion for sports doesn’t really lead to anywhere practical, but my writing has always been there, as long as I could remember. Now it’s time to venture forth into the actual becoming of a writer, or at least the best way I could, by attending an MFA program in creative writing.
The University of Maryland sweetened the deal, by offering me tuition in a stipend in exchange for teaching Freshman English. MFA programs are pretty much the opposite of law school or medical school or business school, where some financial windfall follows a successful completion of one’s studies that allows for the payment of student loans. When people ask what comes after an MFA degree, I answer gleefully, “Poverty!” Unless one is named Jael McHenry or can snag a Dave Eggers-sized book deal, MFA degrees rarely lead to any sort of monetary success.
But, a girl’s got to follow her dreams. I figure I’ll give it two years, taking the advice a former teacher passed along to me (“you have the talent, you just need to make writing a more central part of your life”) and give it a shot. If it doesn’t work out, I can always go back to an office job, editing other people’s writing.
Not that I can think about that now, or even consider a world that doesn’t contain about a zillion boxes stacked throughout my new apartment, or the paper due next Monday for my summer class that’s supposed to be preparing me to teach 44 freshmen in the fall. A few days ago, I said goodbye to pretty much everyone I loved in Boston, my friends, my family, my job, my co-workers, my writers’ group, my cat, my house, all within a span of about 48 hours. I adore my house – we moved into it two years ago, just before we were married, and there wasn’t one single day that I wasn’t happy to live there, or longed for anything else. It’s been a painful realization that I’d have to leave it – until after six hours of trying to load its contents into a moving van. I hit a point on Saturday night when I couldn’t wait to be done with it.
The same, however, cannot be said for my parents. The one time I cried this week is when I said goodbye to my mom and dad. After seven years away from them, I’ve now lived within a mile for the past four years. A highlight of my twenties was establishing an adult relationship with my parents, who have become more than just family, but good friends.
Eleven years ago, I cried when they left me at GW, too. Freshmen year was exhilarating and amazing, but not the first day. I remember thinking that 500 miles was just too impossible to imagine, wondering if I could make it through one semester before transferring to a school closer to home. I was painfully, incredibly homesick -- but luckily, for only a short period of time. Some of my new friends suffered longer, and dropped out within the year. I’d gotten to the point where I couldn’t imagine intentionally leaving school.
And now I’m back at school. Sometimes I feel as if I’m too old to be doing this again, other times I feel like I’m just the right age, carrying the perfect amount of experience and maturity to embark on this career as a writer. I look at the freshmen around me, whose cocky attitudes can’t hide their confusion – or their parents trailing after them, asking about the schedule. Some of them will be in my classroom next fall.
And I’m the one with the map.
Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw
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8.6.03 @ 12:19a
Kudos for going back to school. I couldn't do it. I always did well in school, but only some of it I actually enjoyed. I don't think I'd have the discipline to really study - although I think teaching a class would be great fun.
8.6.03 @ 1:23a
Yay! Yay for Michelle! I'd love to be a student in your class. You're going to be a stupendous instructor.
And if you need back-up goons to intimidate your unruly, Mulderesque, pelvic-model students, you know whom to call.
8.6.03 @ 12:27p
I think it's wonderful that you're going back. What a great opportunity to expand on an already wonderful experience! And not for the money? Major kudos.
I always thought I'd find myself back in school at some point. A year ago, changing the schedule I've been accustomed to and going back felt really hard to do. Slowly, it's starting to sound better and better. Maybe I'll do it yet.
8.7.03 @ 1:24a
Good luck, break a student, all that congrats stuff. I wanted to go back, but life had different plans for me as well.
And now go change your bio.
And here's the advice I was given by one of my former teachers when I did some substitute teaching several years ago. Never turn your back on 'em, and never let 'em see you laugh.
8.14.03 @ 2:29p
yes... good luck to you going back to school. I always think about going back but then I remember that I have a condition that prevents me from doing any sort of homework/studying. Probably part of the reason that I had an average of 18 in one of my classes at Latin before I left. :)
And I still long for Little Mermaid sheets but my therapist says it's normal. :)