STAMINA: Spectacled Book Nerds Teach Me How To Fight
21 years old
I toss up a cringing smile in response to the rectangle of disconcerted faces staring me down. I’ve just told my family that I’m dropping my major.
Honestly, I’ve learned more about the intricacies of the Spanish language than I know about English and I’m just…done. I wish we had dance as a major, but I would have to transfer to the Minneapolis campus for that and I have no interest in living down there. That city just does not FEEL right. Not for me. Neither do I have any interest in transferring campuses in my senior year. That seems stupid and ridiculous. It's not even an option, unless I won the lottery.
If we're gonna be even more honest, I wish I wouldn't have let my parents talk me out of staying in-state way back in my junior year of high school. But ohhhhh, the out-of-state tuition and so far from home and if anything happens to you we won't be able to help you and...
And I should have pulled the plug on Minnesota the second I graduated. I should have figured out where else I wanted to go and just bitten the tuition bullet until I was a resident. I had the grades. I had the full package of academics, sports, arts, focus, drive. I'd earned the title of friggin' Valedictorian while I was half-cocked, so I might have gotten accepted anywhere I wanted. Maybe I could have even gotten a scholarship somewhere that had the full gamut of artistic majors instead of the limited supply we have here.
But I never even looked.
Instead, I let everyone around me play to my fears and all their conservative financial terror born out of the circumstances of who they and their parents were in their twenties. The word "debt" has always ranked among the most feared and reviled in our household. But I've been poring over curriculum after curriculum in search of anything my university has to offer me. It's just not there.
I already know that I won't find it at any other campus in-state except the Twin Cities. I've done that dance already. Back when I made this decision the first time, I wouldn't have been caught dead in a religious college, and if I wasn't going to move to Minneapolis, then one state university was as good as the next for what I wanted to do. There'd been no reason not to stay here in the birthplace of my family, in easy reach of people who love me.
I suppose I could do what my fiancee is doing. Kyle ping-pongs back and forth between living with me for a semester or two and attending his dream art school for as long as the money holds out.
But what would I choose? Dance? I started too late for the classical curriculum in any dance academy. I don't have that type of flexibility or the chops to compete at that level. Neither do I have the desire. Even if I had the physicality to be cast in a professional Modern or Jazz Dance company, I don't want to pursue that caliber for the same cutthroat and ass-kissing reasons that I experienced backstage at this little state university in both theater and dance. Especially not for a discipline that will have a considerably shorter lifespan than acting.
I've also had enough of the disparaging attitude about my favorite dance form, but it's not like you can get a degree in belly dance. There aren't even any certifications for this sort of thing.
I don’t want to continue college at all right now. I've wanted to drop ever since losing my once-unswerving aim at pursuing theater. I’d rather just work for awhile and figure out what I want to do, but pushing pause is not an option. By the end of this year, I’ll have burned through my scholarship so I have to make a decision. Fast.
My dad compresses his lips and gives me The Eye. I’ve been dreading that look since about the third week into this school year when I realized that I did not wish to devote my lifetime to the Spanish language. “Well?” he growls. “What are you changing to this time?”
My cringe becomes more of a grimace. One of my shoulders nudges upward. “That's actually the problem. I don’t really know. That’s why I brought it up today. I was sort of hoping...maybe any of you had an idea of what I should…” I give a full-on helpless shrug.
More growls, scowls, looks askance.
Kyle puts his hand on my forearm and gives an encouraging squeeze. “You write more than you do anything. You write even more than you dance, so why don’t you do that?”
My jaw about drops into my cranberries and mashed potatoes.
My palm claps onto my forehead. “Oh, my God,” I groan. “Why didn’t that ever occur to me?”
He flashes me a grin and pats my thigh. “I don’t know. Because you’re too close to the subject? Too brainy?”
"I...well..." I blink a few times, completely astounded that this has never, in a million mullings, been something I had considered. WHY NOT?! Kyle has to be right. My oversized intellect has never done me any favors when it comes to other kinds of smarts. This actually makes more sense than my original Theater Major did.
My parents exchange concerned glances. Those glances ping and pong amidst our other family members, but they're relieved that at least I have some sort of direction again. I can tell in the way some of the strain in their smiles has relaxed.
Me? I'm not relieved. I'm not relaxed. I'm on fucking fire.
The moment Thanksgiving break ends, I make an appointment to speak with the professor who teaches all the fiction writing courses. He’s a bearded, glasses-wearing, forty-some nerd with a girth that stretches his sweater-and-tie number past capacity. His iron-streaked, black hair would be unkempt, if not for whatever is barely holding it slicked in place. I’m pleased to see this. Spectacled nerds and writing tall tales typically go well together.
I should know.
Alas, the university doesn’t have a Creative Writing major, so I would have to do Literature. In fact, the whole degree only contains this professor's two fiction writing classes, but if it gives me a direction and that almighty piece of paper…
“I’ve been writing stories since I could put sentences together,” I tell him. “I won the Conservation Day Essay Contest in fifth grade. I finished a novel-length book by the time I was seventeen, and had a short story published in high school, so I wanted to know if you need me to start out in Fiction 101, because that’s just standard, or if I should register for the more advanced class.”
He nods and flashes my history the look of approval over his glasses, then tells me to get him a copy of my most recent work so he can make the decision.
I hightail it back to my apartment and begin sprucing up the first two chapters of my gladiators. I grin and growl, brandishing my pen like I’m Ishavanni, the Giant Slayer Gladiatrix, about to face off against the Dread Lord of the Arena--RAWR!
The next week, I sit outside Professor Fiction's office, awaiting my appointment.
A mouse-pretty girl in a dove-gray cardigan and waist-length braid opens the door and exits. She definitely looks the part. I doubt I do in my dancer’s leggings, leotard, oversize sweatshirt, leg warmers, and ratty tennis shoes. I have Jazz right after this, so I hope that doesn’t dissuade him of my seriousness about writing.
When I see him through the door, I stand up and beeline for his office.
He steps into the hallway, closes the door behind him, and locks it. Upon finding me right before him, his mouth moves into a smile. It does not register in his eyes. “Ah,” he says, as though that entire syllable should suffice for the name he has certainly forgotten. It rings with shades of a distasteful, “You again.”
I brighten my eyes and put on my best “sellin’ my cans of beans” smile. “Good afternoon, professor.”
His lips purse into a different breed of smile. “Good afternoon.”
“So? Did you get a chance to read my chapters?”
“I did,” he says, hedging away from his office like he’s on a tight schedule, even though the next thing on his schedule is supposed to be me. “The tale was very well written. Very action-packed and entertaining. You obviously possess the gift. But tell me, do you have anything in a more…” His chin angles upward as he looks at me down his nose like he should still be wearing his spectacles. “Classical vein?”
One of my eyebrows lifts.
“You know, contemporary. Something in the nature of Hemmingway.”
The eyebrow lowers, narrowing its corresponding lid to a suspicious slit. The other brow tics up in its place. “No.” I don’t even read Hemmingway, much less write like him. “I do have some literary pieces in contemporary settings, but I wrote those in high school.”
“No. Nothing. This novel is the only fiction I’ve been working on since graduation. If you want something classical, you’ll have to take it from high school.”
“I see.” A third smile--this one is a thin U of squashy lips. “Well, what you’ve written is genre fiction.” He may as well have said, “Prepubescent tripe.”
“Yes,” I enunciate clearly. “It’s fantasy.”
My fingers wrap more tightly around the strap of the dance bag hanging from my shoulder. I’d kind of like to about-face right now. Guaranteed the weight of the bag would fling it out in a nice, convenient trajectory. Instead, I hoist it farther up and ask, “So then? What do you think? Which class do you prefer that I start in?”
“Well,” he says with his own version of selling-tripe-and-calling-it-beans smile, “this type of writing…it’s just…not what I’m looking for.”
This time, both my eyebrows soar toward my hairline. Not what you’re looking for? What the fuck do you think you are? A publisher? I thought you were an instructor of fiction.
His teeth gleam in his Triumphator’s goodbye-grin.
I fire back my best Gladiatrix-glare. “I see.”
And I do. I see that this man has nothing more to teach me that I care to learn.
Two weeks later
“I’m done.” I throw myself back into the chair across from my advisor, throwing my hands up, too. “I’m just…done with the entire thing--and I know. I know all the reasons to stay in college. I know I need the almighty piece of paper to get a good job, and all the ways it’ll help me in the future, blah-blah-blah. I don’t care anymore. I’m more miserable here than I am scared of not finishing. I have no idea what to major in. Nothing is working. None of the options interest me. What I want to do with my life doesn’t exist on this campus and I am not transferring to Minneapolis. I just cannot do this anymore.”
Dr. Selwyn doesn’t move from where he’s kicked back behind his organized-disaster-area desk. Instead, he continues watching me froth the way he has always watched me ruminate on things in his Ancient History classes or in the shop-talking sessions we share at our favorite pizza joint just off campus.
He doesn’t seem inclined to reply. No doubt he gleans that, although I might be done with this college thing, I'm not done venting yet, so I let it all come up my throat like pyroclastic puke. “All I’ve done since kindergarten is school-school-school. All I did once I hit high school was grind-grind-grind. Get those As. Get those stars. Get those awards and leading roles and accolades and that almighty Presidential Scholarship. Yeah!” My fist juts into the air.
“Well, I’ve completely wasted it, haven’t I? I’ve wasted everything. All my highfalutin gifts and talents. Miss Most Likely To Succeed. All the money my parents have given me for books and supplies and putting a roof over my flakey, flighty head. I should have just gone back to waiting tables at Perkins until I could figure it out. Because I have wasted my entire college education and I still have no idea what the hell I’m going to do with my life.” Both my hands fly up beside my ears, fingers wide like crying, “Uncle!” to a mugger. With my most overblown, drama-queen enunciation, I finish, “DONE.”
The final ash-blast huffs out my jaggedy cinder cone of a mouth and both nostrils.
For a long moment, Dr. Selwyn continues watching me. I flash him the cynic-eyebrows and a little roll of my eyes to let him know I’m also done losing my shit.
For the moment.
He’s never seen this side of me before. Not many people here have.
At last, he draws in a breath, scootches up on his fabulous, red vinyl rolly-chair, puts the other ankle up on his knee, and re-laces his fingers across the bottom of his ribcage. Between us lies his conglomeration of books, paper piles, and printer, dotted here and there with tiny intriguing artifacts from his travels and archeological digs.
Between us also lies all the history we’ve made together. I trust him as much as I trusted Mrs. Dietrich, my English teacher in high school who believed in me more than any other. When I declared myself Undecided after dropping my Spanish major, it was a miraculous relief to learn that Dr. Selwyn had been assigned as my advisor. So I calm my mind, calm my breath, and prepare for whatever hard lesson he is about to deliver.
From behind his rectangular wire-rimmed glasses, he peers at me like I’m the archeological find he just knows is buried under that ancient, dirt-covered trash heap. “I’m gonna tell you something about me today,” he says, a casual thrum of engines before stomping the gas pedal. But he doesn't peel out. He delivers his statement in a smirking, lava-crawling, low-volume version of my eruption: “I hate having to come to this campus.”
My eyebrows shoot up above my startled-cat-eyes.
He grins. “I do. I live two hours away from here. On Mondays and Fridays, I teach at the Twin Cities campus. I hate this two-hour drive. I hate having to make it week after week, month after month, year after year. I hate my tiny apartment that I have to stay in two nights a week up here. I hate being away from my family. Most of all, I hate the politics of this place.”
My breathing has grown shallow, and I have to fight getting choked up about the fact that he would confide something like this to me.
“Do you know how I get through it?” he asks.
Tight-lipped, I shake my head, all ears. Because few of my issues revolve around my actual classes. It's the politics that keep driving me out of everything I've wanted to do here as well, and I've only glimpsed a sliver of the iceberg's tip compared to what he must experience.
“When that alarm goes off in the dark on Tuesday morning, I think to myself, ‘You know what? You only have three days left before you get to come back home.’ I repeat that to myself the whole drive up here, if that’s what it takes. Then, when I get to my first class, if I still feel like I can't do this anymore, I think, ‘You only have ten more hours to go before you get to leave this building and kick back with dinner and a nice glass of wine.’ Partway through my first class, if I find myself looking at the clock and feeling like, 'I'm done. I'm just done with all of this,' I say to myself, ‘You only have twenty-three more minutes before this class is over. Then you can get some coffee, take a little break. You can hack it for twenty-three more minutes.’ And I can. Twenty-three minutes is nothing. I can do this job in this place where I don’t want to be for twenty-three minutes while standing on my head.” His arms cross in front of his chest, and he gives a defiant little tip of the head. “That is how I get through my days when I would rather be somewhere else.”
My head quivers in a nod, because I know exactly what he’s talking about. That’s how I got through high school. I kept my eyes laser-focused on completing the goal and chipped away at that calendar day after day.
But that’s the problem. I’ve lost all my goals. I’ve lost my greatest dream. I’ve lost any shred of direction. I have nothing upon which to fire my laser-focus. I'm just...
Apparently he sees it in my face, and he is worth his salt as an advisor, because he grins again and opens what must be the manilla folder of my collegiate debacle. After flipping through some pages, his confirmation comes to rest on his face. He tosses the folder back on the nearest pile.
“You’re done with all your general requirements. You’ve finished your History Minor. You’re almost done with Dance. If you switched to History as your major, you could graduate with your 'almighty piece of paper' in three semesters. That’s it. Three. Not even heavy ones. Take some extra dance classes if you’re bored.”
The hammer descends.
And I do. We declare my new major immediately.
I can hack it for three semesters, especially three semesters with all my favorite instructors, learning something I pursue as a hobby anyway. I do not care that there are only three things I can do with a history degree: go to law school, go to grad school, or get a teaching degree. That’s why I had never switched to it before now. How would I ever use use a history degree to get a job without way more years of schooling I can no longer stomach in a field I don’t really want to pursue?
I do not care. The only thing that matters is that I haven’t wasted four years and thousands upon thousands of other people’s money and belief in me. This will give me the stamped piece of paper, and I can just keep doing office work like I’ve done since my freshman year until…
Until I figure something out.
After graduation, I’ll be moving to California anyway. Not to do bean-can auditions for TV or movies. My fiancee goes to school in Pasadena, and I’m sure they’ll need bookkeepers out there, too. For sure there will be belly dance teachers. Some of the best in the country are in California.
My slitted eyes roll over to that manilla folder stuffed with my failures. What a happily-ever-after for Miss Most Likely To Succeed. But for today, this has to be good enough.
I did stick it out, and I did get my diploma stamped with that groovy cum laude, in spite of all my drowning tomfuckery. I did not bother with commencement ceremonies, because I’d never really felt at home in that place. Not in the Theater Department. Not in the Foreign Language Department. I hadn’t even felt at home in the Dance Department, especially not after I started taking that “just-a-folk-dance” slut-dastardly obsession, belly dance.
No, it was only in the History Department that I felt truly comfortable and like I was with my own kind. But people had told me over and over that there was nothing I could do with history as my major.
Let me assure you, I use everything my history teachers taught me on a daily basis. No. It didn’t get me a job. It certainly didn’t win me a stable but uninspiring career with benefits and a retirement plan.
Nope, the things it gave me are far more valuable.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: THE INCONCEIVABLE - Penis-Heavy ASSumptions About The Gladiatrix
--OR: if you'd like to see how I'm using these lessons this week against my greatest butt-whupper, Traumatic Brain Injury, I blabbed about it on my YouTube Channel amidst starting a new dance project.
--OR: if you're interested in what finally got me into a karate dojo, you can read about that HERE