Graduate school started not with a bang or with a whimper, but with the slow fall of a scarf down my head and over my eyes.
Three things terrified me about my arrival at Brown University. First, that my acceptance had been a mixup. Second, that I wouldn't know how to behave at the cocktail party/dinner that was scheduled for day one. And finally, that I didn't know how girls dressed in grad school.
The latter concern was particularly pressing and complicated by the fact that I'd spent the final, neurotic, and troubling year of my undergraduate education cozying up with loaves of French bread and pints of cookie dough ice cream that I'd ordered my then-boyfriend to fetch me from the corner store. This limited my shopping option to the local Lane Bryant or Fashion Bug Plus. In search of something "cool" yet professional, I pawed through racks of tent-size, part-polyester tunics organized, depressingly, by pastel color.
Loathe to make my first appearance on campus looking like a waddling tub of rainbow sherbet, I went with something I already owned -- the outfit I wore to my grandpa's funeral only a few months before: A matronly, long black skirt patterned with soft blue flowers, a black tunic, and a matching long sheer scarf with more of the aforementioned flowers. Now this scarf was meant to be worn around the neck, but I chose instead to wrap it around my head. I had my reasons. Since childhood I had a stress tic -- hair pulling -- which occasionally left me with small bald patches on my head. The scarf did what it could to help.
Dressed and anxious I went to my first official appointment with my first-year advisor. A smart and kind man, he immediately put me at ease, asking about my undergrad professors at Buffalo and asking reasonable questions about what I had been working on before my arrival. Trying to sound as calm and erudite as possible, I launched into a passionate monologue about my work on Anne Bradstreet and several lesser-known women writers of the 17th Century. As I spoke, the scarf on my head began to unwind. Words continued to come out, "monstrous births," "maternal impression," as the scarf slid down, down, down. I didn't stop, I couldn't stop, because the room was spinning and I thought that this indeed was what it felt like to be tied to the tracks with a train barreling toward you. A message played over and over in my head: "I do not belong here. This is a mistake. I'm a mess. He's going to see my bald spots and know I'm a lunatic." It's only when the scarf fell over my mouth that I paused to remove it. And then the kind professor let me go on my way.
I ran out of the English department office and behind the first ivy-covered building I could find. It was only 9:30 a.m. on my first day as a graduate student, and I already had found a hiding spot for on-campus crying.
It's hard to remember the rest of the day. I got to know my cohorts a bit. There were ten of us, and when I found out from a professor that only five percent of applicants were accepted into the Ph.D. program, I was ever more certain that they'd made a serious mistake. I went to a state school, and I was working class, and I'd never even read Moby Dick. I couldn't properly accessorize, and my parents weren't curing cancer or publishing papers about their archeological finds.
Oh, but the day was not to be done until the dreaded hour of the cocktail party/dinner. Oh, oh, oh.
The only professor at the party was the host -- an aging medievalist with a cloud of white-gray hair and a tribe of similarly fluffy pets. My contribution to the meal was a box of Entenmanns' chocolate chip cookies (I'd purchased two boxes but wisely left one at home for post-party stress eating). The meal was nice but unmemorable. The other students and I noticed the bread knife at once -- a giant, ancient-looking blade better suited for decapitations than bread slicing. Together, we stifled a collective laugh. Together, the guests turned on the host. I don't know why we did it. I felt bad and awkward, and I wanted to go home. The night wore on, and the stifled laughs became more obvious. Everything seemed absurd to us: the pet-hair-encrusted slipcovers, the oversized metal tools on the walls, the dust, and the professor herself -- the fact that she was clearly not in touch with us and our studies and our time and our theoretical practice. At the expense of a kind, very possibly brilliant woman, we asserted our right to be at Brown. To be the minority who made it and would prove our worth over the next five or six or seven years.
Before the evening ended, the professor (hopefully, hopefully just a little oblivious to our rudeness) asked us to go around in a circle and answer some questions: Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? What do you study? What do your parents do?
What do my parents do? How was that relevant? I thought that the question would be sidestepped by the others. But it wasn't.
Parents were professors and teachers and doctors and lawyers. Nary a blue collar in sight.
And when it was my turn, I explained my background and my parentage. "My dad is an operating engineer — he works on cranes. My mom works for our local town government."
The white gray-haired professor looked at me kindly. "People like you do well here," she said. The color left my face, and stress sweat poured off me out onto the matted carpet of pet hair under my feet. "What?" I managed to squeak out. "You know," she said. "People who...you know. I'll bet you'll do well."
And I suppose I did well enough. I earned my masters' degree and then I left, right before losing myself to a full-blown nervous breakdown.
A loop of that dinner played in my head from the first day forward. If I could have shaken it, if I could have stopped feeling as if I didn't belong, if I had looked ahead and not behind, if I could have gotten through Moby Dick, if I'd worn better outfits and not eaten so much ice cream — well, I just might have made it all the way.