school stuff

end of summer by o&poecormier
(photo courtesy of the lovely & talented @BethPJohnston)

a bonfire on the beach on the last night of summer. by next summer, we will have a cottage here. we hope.

for now, sandy feet and salt and smoke in our clothes on an unseasonally warm September night. small bodies racing down the shore into the sunset.

tomorrow, school. tomorrow. already.
what brought your summer to a close?

i wake at three-something because i feel him leave the bed, and i wrest the earplugs from my ears. Posey. she has been waking regularly lately, a froth of nightmares of bats and cows. he comforts her. i am awake anyway, so i go in, pull quilts up around small chins.

we slip back into the warmth of bed. i wrap myself around his back, and try to convince my pingpong brain to ignore the fact that my biggest school presentation of the year is in a few short hours. or that i should still be reading.

we drift. i only realize i’ve fallen asleep when a child pads in an hour later and interrupts a dream. i am blurry, confused. Oscar. Oscar? strange. he crawls in beside me and i move to accommodate. his curly head fits under my chin, and sleep drags like a tugboat.

oblivi….oh shit.

he is retching, shielding his mouth with small hands.

the capacity of the parental body to go from 0 to 60 on the adrenalin-o-meter – even and especially from the desperate fog of sleep – is a blessing and a curse. it is the reason my own quilt is still vomit-free this fair morning. it is also the reason i can no longer sleep without earplugs, because my poor body has been conditioned to flood with cortisol at any bump in the night.

success. we clear the gauntlet of items-that-require-heavy-washing-or-dry-cleaning if spewed upon, and make it to the toilet. i send Dave back to bed, because when Father’s Day falls on the day before your partner’s biggest school presentation of the year and also is the first Father’s Day her father is without his father, well, you get to go bbq at your in-laws’ and that’s as fancy as your day gets.

but the gift of sleep from 4:30 to 6am? a price above rubies, right?

he can’t say i never gave him nothin’.

and yet when i find myself curled on the futon in the guest room with my clammy son, a bucket beside us, him snoring away and occasionally retching; me reading a critique of Butler and Foucault’s failure to account for the materiality of discourse by nightlight and wondering if my own guts aren’t a little iffy, my mind wanders to Dave in the next room and i remember how the light of almost-dawn used to find us still awake under oh-so-different circumstances and i send up a tiny song of mourning for what will not come again, those easy days we took for granted. and i whisper at the wall, in his direction, hey you. i remember.

and i add, i hope you are sleeping. Happy Father’s Day.

and this afternoon i present my thesis project in draft. a three hour meeting. wish me luck. send coffee.


i made it.

the fall unfolded and i unravelled and i began to think i couldn’t do it. i started to fantasize a deus ex machina, some magical absolution which would excuse me from having to continue the round-the-clock, seven-days-weekly slog through assignments and research reports and statistics and paid work, all with deadlines squeezing into the last two weeks of November and the first two weeks of December. it was more than i thought i could finish, no matter how i ground my queer shoulder into the wheel.

but…with a bang and a thump and barely a whimper at the end, i seem to be here. all done, at least til January. and done with my required quantitative research class and the glories of chi-square testing and all those crazy math symbols that made me feel i’d slipped through the looking glass back into the bewildering hell of algebra. finito. sayonara. hallelujah.

i got an 89%, thank you very much. which, if i were crafty, i’d engrave on a fucking tiara and wear on my head.

cue exhale. i am done. feel free to keep buying me drinks until i believe it.

buy Dave a drink while you’re at it. he held us all mostly together at the seams.

i learned a lot this fall.

i learned a lot that wasn’t being taught, a lot that i found traumatic in the processing.

but i also learned some of the language of quantitative research, which came in handy this past week when i found myself at an Annual Scientific Meeting in our nation’s lovely capital, listening to climate change scientists and Inuit and (ahem) BP and Imperial Oil carry on a rather multi-faceted discussion of the future of Canada’s north. every time they said “standard deviation” i nodded very sagely.

i learned that 13 years working in universities still didn’t teach me much about academia. at the conference i talked with a few women my own age who hold post-doctorates at different universities across the country. one of them said, “i feel punished for having had kids, like i have to work twice as hard to prove myself, be more available than everybody else.” and i pinched myself really hard but i still didn’t wake up. because this availability thing – while i did not feel pushed or punished in any specific relation to my maternal status – was the thing that ate me up more than anything this fall. the idea that the ravenous maw that made shameless, wholesale demands on my time and agency regarding time was the thing that i found hardest to swallow. i didn’t expect to work a mere 9-5, because i’ve lived online long enough that working and writing and connecting at night, most nights, is what i expect from my days…but i did, naively, expect that nobody any longer expected other people to act like superhumans. silly old me.

mostly i learned a great deal about how i cope with crushing pressure.

i don’t.

at least…my strategies lack finesse. or make a Dr. Phil episode sound like mental health.

Strategy #1: i prayed for the rapture. i didn’t particularly mind if Jesus left me behind, so long as the ensuing fire and brimstone distracted from my unfinished deadlines.

Strategy #2: i panicked. regularly. at least weekly, i had to talk myself down from chewing through my own leg to escape the trap i’d waltzed blindly into. if i were actually a wild animal, i’d have bled out months ago.

Strategy #3: i cried. copiously. sometimes IN class.

Strategy #4: i kept going on sheer blind hate alone.

hate sounds harsh. i don’t hate anyone i worked with, or for, or near. but only hate can describe that perverse fierce energy that kicks in only when your goal is reduced to a negative, to NOT failing.

it was hate that got me through, so perhaps, in the end, it isn’t such a bad coping strategy. but continuing because you’re too invested to walk away and you want to prove yourself against someone else’s measure? is not exactly an intrinsic values compass. and when i look at my life, i’m not sure what i have if i don’t have an intrinsic values compass.

so i hope this win was not a pyrrhic victory, one that heralds me slipping away into defending what i went into education to try to break down.

for tonight, it is enough that i am done.

because i have one fuckload of Christmas catching up on to do. pass the fruitcake.

i am four weeks into grad school. again. i’m a big, galumphing dragon in a small box.

you’d think four years of writing blog posts would’ve taught me to churn out little papers like a confetti machine. you’d think fifteen years as an editor and writing teacher would make it natural to graciously receive grades on what i write.


being subject to an education system – even as an educator – is an exercise in paring oneself down.

but i’m learning. learning to remake myself to fit the parts of the box i need. learning too to bide my time, find ways to hold on to the things that refuse to be crammed in. this education stuff is a messy business.

our kids live within it every day. it norms them, tests them, grades them, then reflects them back to themselves on varying scales of worth. sometimes it’s a gentle motivating process that teaches them to believe in hard work, and in themselves. sometimes there’s violence done under the surface of all those metrics and rubrics and judgements, even the ones delivered in vague velvet language. sometimes what kids end up learning is that they cannot win, because the box was not made for them. sometimes they learn that sitting down and lining up and writing the “right” way – even if this year’s right way is exactly different from what last year’s teacher said – is what the world rewards.

in our culture, the education system – from kindergarten straight through to the highest levels of scholarship – regulates all those within it by appealing to the authority of the “this is how it is” box. our concepts of learning and knowledge and appropriate behaviour and rites of passage are all tied in part to this box.

i want to unpack it.

# 1. the first thing i know about the box is one we’ve been hearing more and more over the past fifteen years: increasingly, the world has little relationship to the view from within the box. it’s true. the box is based on industrial era values. we no longer live in an industrial society,  not really.

i am old enough to know that in 20+ years of various and sundry jobs, i have not once been subject to a letter grade. i am old enough to realize that there are many ways of writing and publishing, even within academia: that the world today rewards a very different set of skills than the compliance inculcated by the “teacher as ruler of the classroom” model. i’ve also spent enough years in education to know that most of the people who work in this system are good people, working hard, with good intentions.

but the box frames the way they see the world. it frames the way we ALL see the world. and ourselves. in many cases, for the rest of our lives. and yet we do not know how to challenge the box and its lack of fit because it is the package encasing too many things held dear. our concepts of what it means to learn are so tied to the box that we usually fail to think outside of it, when it comes to trying to “fix education.”

we need to think about the box. it’s so normalized as to be almost invisible, but the part it plays in shaping our kids is huge. and when we ignore it, we make it more powerful.

# 2. because the other thing i know about the box is this: it’s arbitrary. and, in part, irrelevant, both to learning and to eventual success in life. there is actually no other system in our culture that holds people to such an externalized and narrow frame of judgement as schooling does.

this doesn’t mean i don’t value education, or think we should throw rotten tomatoes at schools. but i do think we need to think more intelligently about them, as systems. and we don’t do that well, thanks to the box.

one of the best things i learned the last time i was in school is that everyone in our culture is an expert on education. it’s resoundingly true: you can see it each time the topic comes up in the media, particularly as regards reforms or any questions of what teachers should do. everyone and their pet dog in the court of public opinion has an authoritative perspective on precisely how schools should work. only nurses, maybe, get half as much helpful input on how to practice their vocation. but nurses are lucky: not everybody hangs out in hospitals. we all go to school, at least long enough to master schooling.

we are all experts, in our way. but what we are expert on is our own relationships to the box.

no matter how i gnash my teeth, the court of public opinion on education distills down to second-hand efficiency models borrowed from industrial-era business: testing. standardization. metrics and money and accountability for teachers, who end up wedged by the calls for total quantification of schooling into classroom manager roles more stringent and regimented than those of military drill sergeants.

this is the box at work, loosed from the control of the system and turning back on itself to attack its own maker for not being more of what people took from the system in the first place. the calls for increasingly quantifiable education are calls for a simulacra of what we think we remember of the box, of what it made us think school was about. and the master’s tools, people, will not dismantle the master’s house. (*thank you, Audre Lord*)

we need to think about what we’re educating for, and what we value, and fight for that, not replicate whatever we think education was trying to do to us.

the final thing i think about the box is the one that’s new for me.

#3. i don’t think it’s the quantifiable part that’s the problem. the messiness of education is not the fault of numbers. measuring things, even outcomes, can have value for good teaching and good education. the problem is blind belief that human systems have meaning outside of us.

for years, i had quantification, based in counting and measuring, confused with positivism and objectivism, based in the belief that some things are simply true, even when they’re human-constructed.

thanks to my forced and rather painful immersion in quantitative research, i’m learning that while measuring often reflects a belief in the absolute truth of numbers, even when there’s obvious evidence of human impact on outcomes behind those numbers, the connection between quantification and positivism is not absolutely necessary.

i’m also noticing that there’s a lot of positivism and objectivism even in aspects of education without numbers. maybe we grade kids on a scale of A, B, C, D, F. maybe the grading is important, to show how closely their work accords with what we’re trying to teach. i’m not anti-grading. but i don’t believe grading = Truth, not outside the societal conditions that construct those grades.

what happens with grading, too often, is that both for students and teachers, and then by extension for parents and society at large, the grades come to have a meaning far larger and more lasting than the deeply human process in which they originate. we amplify the subjective act of a teacher or school system choosing test questions and seeing how little Johnny performs his mastery of those particular questions – which is a process that can tell us things both about Johnny and about the system and the testing process itself – into a supposedly objective picture wherein we believe that we know something absolutely True about Johnny and his capacity and his future success, or about what his teacher was teaching. but we do not interrogate the testing process, or the marking process. and we treat the results of that testing as if they tell us something objective, something divorced from its roots in human systems and fallibility.

the box tells us we can do that, somehow. that’s how the box justifies its own meaning and existence, and how it replicates itself generation after generation.

i find it crampy. i wonder how it will shape my children. i wonder how it’s shaped yours. and you. and you. yeh, you.

i wonder if i would have done better as a veterinarian, or a hairdresser, or a poodle groomer. but i still can’t think how i’d be happier than digging away, trying to understand this strange societal enterprise we call education.

tell me what you think. do you see the box? am i tilting at windmills?

he was eighteen. it was his second week of freshman year at a good university.

you’ve probably seen the story. Tyler Clementi‘s roommate set up a webcam in their dorm room that could be operated remotely, then livecast and tweeted Tyler’s sexual encounter with another guy. three days later Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge and drowned himself.

diminishment. shaming. the logic of dominance, our cultural hierachy of thought where one side of any societal binary – masculine/feminine, white/non-white, straight/gay, rational/emotional  – is legitimated in its power over the other, whatever Other it may be.

we exist in a social world, and sometimes we’re able to carve out spaces where we think we’re safe to be whoever we want or need to be. and then somebody else decides – out of discomfort, on a lark, to flex muscle or gain attention…nothing so different from all the little dehumanizations we perform on each other every day – to re-educate us about how the world really works and which kind of body or desire or way of being counts as legitimate, as Normal.

to invalidate whatever safe space we’ve created by taking the social power that the logic of dominance affords, and using it against us.

you will never feel safe so long as you’re subject to that logic, that operation of power over you. if you’re lucky, there is respite, retrenchment with those of your own kind, whatever that kind may be: the ones who make YOU feel normal, and valid, and deserving of human decency. hopefully reclamation of your right to respect.

but if that logic of dominance sneaks into your bedroom at night and broadcasts you at your most vulnerable, most exposed; if it treats your privacy a spectacle worthy of shame,  you might decide you’ll never feel safe again.

four weeks from today, i’ll be in Toronto at Blissdom Canada 2010, contributing to a panel called Blogging for Social Action, Community, and Empowerment: The Beauty of the Butterfly Effect. the good in social media. the advocacy and change that it makes possible. the beauty of this world out here created by a million – a billion? – hands.

until last week, my only real anxiety about it all was that part of my role on the panel is to talk about the creation and birth of Glow in the Woods, and i envisioned an audience expecting the lovely Kate – who is on a different panel – throwing squishy tomatoes at me. (that, and Erica Ehm. ERICA EHM is leading my panel. when i was 14, i wanted to BE Erica Ehm. eep.)

lately i’ve been grappling with some bigger doubts.

first there was the young woman in BC whose gang rape went viral on Facebook. then, Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in the New Yorker stating The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, or that we’re all just armchair activists out here in social media land, frothing over with our expressions of “like” for good causes without putting any money where our mouths are, or doing much at all to effect real change.

in class, in a mostly-fascinating discussion over 20th-century thought from clever people who stand on the shoulders of giants: technology is bad, technology is reductive, technology is anti-humanist. it makes us nothing more than circuits for efficient information exchange.

i think i bleeped at that one, a cyborg afraid of being outed. but i wondered, too. Jesus. am i wrong?

then i came home last night and read about Tyler Clementi. and my heart cracked in two.

i don’t think we have the luxury of ignoring all this. not those of us invested and enmeshed in social media. these are not innocent tools we use, no matter how transformative or empowering they have been for us, no matter what safe spaces or advocacy or butterfly beauty they’ve made possible.

but. neither are the tools themselves cruel, or diminishing, or agents of the logic of dominance. unless they are used that way. they are just tools.

any story that tells you otherwise, whether it makes of them a mythology of salvation or a dystopia, is a lie.

social media amplifies all of our communicative powers, including the power to exclude and shame and victimize others, to gang up on them in masses and make them feel worthless and violated, or beyond the pale of belonging. it is just a tool, like a pen, except what we scrawl here is always public. what we scrawl here always has human effects and consequences.

i don’t know if Tyler Clementi’s roommate really, fully understood the scope of what he might be setting in motion, unleashing the brutality of the logic of dominance and shame out here in the amplified world. the power play behind his cruelty was a blatant smackdown of Tyler’s rights to respect and decency and equality, no matter the tools. had the roommate scrawled on the dorm room door with a pen the very same things he tweeted, he would likely have still caused terrible hurt, and probably uproar, and possibly incited danger to Tyler and his parter not from themselves but from others. but would Tyler have jumped from the bridge? or would he still have had – somewhere outside that dorm hall, or perhaps that campus – space for retreat and respite, for escape from the dehumanization and Othering?

with the amplification of voice that social media makes possible comes the amplification of the human effects that voice creates. and this is where i think Gladwell – and my learned colleagues and guides at the university, some of them – get it wrong.

yes, technology can be part of the modernist efficiency that diminishes all that cannot be represent in numbers and bottom lines; it can be a direct circuit that cuts out the warmth and messiness of human touch. but i live something far more than that. the idea of social media for good is more than a fairy tale wherein technology and Twitter make us all Cinderella. social media is revolutionary in that it creates a world where the struggling, messy, complex human self – the one the humanists are so afraid has been jettisoned forever by a Fordist, corporatist culture – has voice, on an unprecedented scale. and all of those voices have human effects.

some are ugly. some are tragic. some are life-changing in the most beautiful way possible. for me, the Internet has been a place to write myself into being after a loss that the so-called “real world” tends to silence, render unspeakable. social media brought me community, the company of my own kind, respite and resiliency in all the messiness of my sorrow and my survival.

those of us who speak for the good that technology & social media can do need to take ownership of its particular capacity for harm. there may be nothing more important to the education of the next generation than teaching kids that self-expression – whether it’s writing on a bathroom wall or on Twitter – has effects, and that those effects are what we live with, all of us, so long as we can bear them.

with social media technologies mostly banned from classrooms and curricula, that’s going to be hard.

the Revolution, if it comes, will not come from activists. it may come from those who still inhabit the Other Sides of the logic of dominance. or it may come in a quieter way, a change that is barely a revolution except in its core. one where in connecting with each other out here, we connect with our own humanity and that of others in ways that our modern society has made – til now – easier to just leave to the logic of dominance.

because it is only our humanity, not any tool under the sun, that will ever prevent another tragedy like that of Tyler Clementi.

we’re in the checkout line at one of those big, sad stores that has seen better days.

the plastic crap is crowding in. the lady ahead is counting change with shaking fingers, like she has been for the past thirty-seven seconds. the five people behind – me included – are beginning to flare nostrils. i think of my grandmother, small and bent in her last years, and force my tongue to be still. i am all impatience these days, a fuse primed and twitching.

Oscar’s head turns on its swivel and he catches sight of the racks of cheap Hallowe’en decorations far to the right of the cart. his face lights and he peers round me from the front of the cart and announces to the entire line, seemingly apropos of nothing,

For Hallowe’en, i’m gonna be a WINO!!

a beat. i look at him askance. ten ears behind me prick up.

you know, mom, with a big HORN on my nose!

OH, i nod. i turn my head slightly, encompassing the crowd, and repeat, a rhino, honey. you’re going be a RHINO.

i feel the same.

not that i’m planning to become a wino, though the urge to dive off the high wire into a cheap bottle of Hermits in a paper bag sometimes sounds deceptively pleasant. the seedy promise of respite. just that i too need a translator, a mother, to ruffle my hair and explain to the staring throng what i’m really trying to say.

my words are a tangled mess, these days. it’s like i swallowed a cauldron of alphabet soup and can only work with what i burp up.

i snap at the kids, because suddenly all the hours are accounted for and still they are slow and dawdling, or twirling in circles rather than putting on boots. the words i find are not the ones i want.  i mean to say, i am sorry i am so rushed, so distracted. i love you, little you.

but it comes out all edges.

in the car, stuck behind timid drivers and the omnipresent construction workers at the four brand-new roundabouts on the brand-new commute to French school, i choke down the round, raging words like cocksucker and GO the fuck already, do you want an engraved invitation? but still i growl and i hear Posey in the back shout Bad Driver! at a car she cannot even see and i am humbled and shamed and i bite my tongue, my errant tongue.

i sit in class and try to find the words to dig behind what “normal” means on those Bell Curves we are inundated with like some kind of fact when i remember all too well what they mean is some children fall outside and get labels slapped on them and yes, sometimes that means funding or meds and sometimes that helps but i know too if we never interrogate this concept of normal in its arrogance and its taken for grantedness, we perpetuate the idea that we all can fit in boxes and so be understood.

i want to say, THAT is a crime no funding or meds can alleviate. i want to ask Oprah and my professor why they are so sure a good education is something you can test.

i try to dredge up the words to explain that i can learn the Bell Curve and parrot it but that i want to engage with it, but my frail newborn chicks of ideas fall helpless into the no-man’s land between irreconcilable views of the world.

she says to me, 68% of the responses will fall between -1 and +1 SD and that is normal and i nod, because the words fail me.

i write, notes and papers and presentations, trying to pull the ineffable from the sky and pin it down, to find my balance amidst methodology and paradigm and epistemology and ontology. they are big words, big ideas. just when i think i understand some other paragraph comes along to destabilize it all.

i love it. i hate it.

i am exhausted, stuffed too full. i fall asleep reading Lacan or Giddens or some sociological theory critiquing the ways reflexivity is predicated on  mobility and wake up minutes later to a small coughing human calling, Mommy! and there it is, the start of another day.

on Thursday, Oscar was sick at school. and so i left my computer screen gaping emptily at the bones of another paper and half-jogged out to campus where Dave had parked the car after dropping the kids off.

there was more construction.

it took me longer to get the car out of the parking lot than it had taken me to walk to get it in the first place. the new roundabout at the campus exit would have wheeled me jauntily off in the direction of my waiting children, except that traffic was backed up in the other direction and the geniuses on the other side kept blocking up the bleeding traffic circle so they wouldn’t lose an inch of ground.

i waited.

i noticed i was crying.

and i remembered this post, the woman i saw weeping in July, and i smiled at her under the tears, that unknown sister. i looked around guiltily, wondered if anyone was watching me. i wondered, more defiantly, if they really wanted a show and whether it wouldn’t be kinda jolly, really, to go flatout apeshit in the middle of a petty Charlottetown traffic jam.

but then i shrugged because this is not despair, only stress and frustration. and i sat in my car repeating that like a mantra, grateful for the truth of it, grateful to have finally found the right words, for a change.

yesterday, an English professor i’ve always quite liked but barely known came up to me at a conference.

I have a poem for you, she said. For Women Who Cry When They Drive.

she saw me! i panicked, in the roundabout lineup the other day. and just as i was about to open my mouth to say yet again the wrong thing, she saved me. That post you wrote about the woman at the traffic light, it reminded me. I need to send it to you.

she sent it today.

i read and for a second, i stopped still, suddenly one of a thousand passengers on the same road of too many words and not enough words, the wrong words, maybe the wrong choices, overwhelmed in the middle of an ordinary day.

the writer’s name is Sue Goyette. like me, she is a Maritimer: perhaps this crying in cars thing is a local specialty. but her words wove me a story in which i knew both parts. in which it wasn’t my job to find the words. Thank you, Ms. Sue Goyette. Thank you Jane.

it is Goyette’s words i lean on today, offer up in lieu of my own, so unwieldly and congealed and ungentle. today, she is my translator, the mother who knows what i need to hear, what i want to say. maybe you need to hear them too.

For Women Who Cry When They Drive

Blame it on CBC stereo if anyone asks. Blame it on
the viola. I did and it worked. I never even had to mention locksmiths

and lovers, how close the two are. I never had to name
each white-knuckle grip of his on the steering wheel. I’ll name it here, though

for you. Surrender and all its aliases. I feel at home in two places now.
One’s here, the other in the library surrounded by reference books

To the stars. Driving doesn’t help. But you already know that. Remember
when you stopped, pulled over on the Cole Harbour Road and wept,

bowed to the wheel and the long road ahead, the long road behind. I tried
signalling, pulling over, but the traffic was stubborn. If you are reading this,

I did try to stop. The passing lanes of loss and love and the speed limit
to this life. I held you for days in my heart, dear, sad woman in the dark green Volvo

next to the Dairy Queen, next to the Royal Bank, feeling like you have no choice.
And you don’t. You don’t, except to fasten your seat belt

And yield.

– Sue Goyette
from CV2, The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, Winter 2004

first day.

there are only six of us in the class, four new Ph.D students and two M.Ed students finishing up their final course requirements. we are there to study quantitative research methods. the words are unfamiliar, dust in my mouth.

i am early, all nerves and butterflies and shiny eagerness, momentarily eight instead of thirty-eight. i laugh at my fool self.

i have worked on this campus on and off for five years, in this building for most of that time. it should all be familiar. but normally i stride in all gussied up, in heels and grown-up clothes, a professional with the class list clutched in one paw and a coffee in the other, the next hour or two mostly choreographed in my head.

this time, i have marked the shift as best i can…on my body. i know nothing of the dance to come the next three hours except the barest structure: syllabus, introductions, vague visions of formulas. i am afraid of formulas. and so, stripped of my status as the knower, the director of the dance, i have girded my loins in comfort food’s apparel equivalent: a faded denim shirt. with tights. and new boots, flat and comfy. big socks. identity as performance; my philosophy made flesh. or at least cloth and leather.

thank you, o fickly revolving vagaries of fashion, for bringing me straight on back to my undergrad days. yes, the army boots have been exchanged for Blundstones, because if one is going to spend hundreds of dollars on a single book written in bizarre statistical formulas, one might as well splurge on boots, too. ahem. but i know myself in these clothes. this is my student uniform.

and yet, i am lying to myself. i cannot go back to that old skin.

it’s not that i was all passive and receptive, the mythic blank slate waiting for wisdom.

sure, i played that part sometimes, even to myself. i was a good student in the early days, a little shit through most of junior high, then a high-achieving if somewhat poorly-attending high school and undergraduate student.

but the passivity was conditional; the only mark by which i knew how to signal my acceptance and acquiescence to the system that ordered my days and my existence. School was deeply and profoundly a player in how i valued and understood myself, all through my formative years.

When i was a kid, i watched closely in classes, reading both the textbooks and the relationships unfolding in front of me. i was curious and eager to belong, and tried desperately to think of interesting things to say in class. but if ever the classroom or program circumstances in which i found myself smelled like power and structure for their own sakes, my sense of well-being and belonging would shrivel and i’d recoil as if a door had closed. no place for me here, i would whisper, and my middle-finger would rise, of its own ornery accord. i’d be outed.

oppositional. saucy. not working to her full potential.

those report cards were stark contrasts to my Lisa Simpson status quo. i realize now they should have read, “This student is challenging my power position in the classroom. This is uncomfortable for us both.

ask my middle school math teacher. ask my classmates the year i stayed on in my little college town for a one year post-B.A. Bachelor of Education program.

one of them confessed to me that spring, just before graduation, that they called me The Bad Ass of the Class. i think i grinned, all bravado. but it was the loneliest year of my life, those bewildering days when i discovered i did love teaching, but might hate teachers. or at least Teachers’ College, with its smug and cheery conviviality, its simplifying presentation of a world i was sure was complicated. we never once talked about power.

i did not know how to name the absence. i just knew i had never before so singularly failed to fit in. and somewhere early on i had understood that on a gut level, and closed myself off, unreachable. i was protecting myself from the person that system existed to create; from becoming a teacher on terms that alienated and troubled me, that left out all that i thought was important.

but i did not know how to say any of that. and so i went through the motions at the back of the class, appeared passive and contemptuous, a rebel without a cause.

i thought i was there to belong. i thought the problem was me.

the incredible thing about going back to school when you are 107 older than twenty-two is that you simultaneously morph into two people at once. the opinionated adult with a confident voice, who understands that belonging is a far broader thing than any one classroom experience could possibly shape, and the younger version of yourself, miraculously resurrected the moment you fold yourself into a desk and open a binder.

you can see it, actually, your entire hard-won sense of self and authority wilts like a pansy and slithers down your leg. it pools wetly on the floor. you wonder if others can see it. you wonder if they will judge you. you wonder if you will look stupid. you wonder if you will belong.

you wonder why the professor is staring at you and then you realize she has asked your name.

you go to use the voice that you were so sure would carry you proudly through insightful explorations of meaning, and you discover that you sound like Minnie Mouse. you feel painfully exposed. you also feel stupid for feeling painfully exposed. you are an adult, dammit. ouch.

the quantitative professor then asks about your background with statistics.

you consider simply diving into the pool of your own ego on the floor and hoping to drown, then and there.

you try humour, instead. i can’t count, you quip. you notice the professor looks unsurprised but vaguely depressed by your confession. you find this strangely heartening. perhaps there will be others like you.

you give your head a shake. you swallow, straighten your shoulders. you will not play the simple role of insider OR outsider, not this time around.

it’s true that you can’t go back to the old skin of your once-upon-a-student self, the one who gave over most of her power to the teacher and then sulked at the back of the class if it was misused. but not because that skin EVER goes away. it will be there until you are, literally, 107, always a tidy fit, ever making you look and feel smaller and almost-comfortably invisible and pleasing.

you can’t go back because it doesn’t feel good enough anymore, just to feel safe. to belong.

you chose to be here, this time round. you want something, for yourself, beyond whatever the person at the front of the class may want. you are an adult. even if you sound like Minnie Mouse and you can’t count and you’re dressed like an aging undergraduate.

the difference is everything.

they were shorter than i remembered.

coming home to a three-year-old and a one-year-old is a like entering a fun-house mirror. in your mind, these tiny creatures who whip your sorry ass out of bed at ungodly hours and spend half their waking moments trying to boss you into oblivion just seem…taller, somehow. they are large in spirit.

until you burst through the gate at the airport and the impossibly tiny boy who is your big kid hurtles in your arms laughing and you realize his little body is barely heavier than a suitcase.

and then, home finally, you come through the door and tiny legs run thump thump thump to meet you and your body sweeps up its baby like a missing piece and there are tears in your eyes.

you don’t know whether it’s going to be good to get home until you get there.

it was. and i was relieved to find it so.

seventeen years ago, i sat on a back fire escape in Montreal on an October night, weeping into a boyfriend’s arms. we were scheduled to leave the next morning, head back to the tiny college town that had been our stage and our womb for 3+ years. Magic Johnson had just announced he had AIDS. the boyfriend’s father had just announced he had diabetes.

neither were the source of my misery, only the flavours that separate that trip from the others in the cloudy, grotty puddle of memory.

i just didn’t want to go back.

i don’t think it was the seedy charm of the big city, or even the pressures of the daily grind as a senior honours bulimic with a manic-depressive roommate and no clue of what to do with myself after college.

it was me. i just didn’t want to go back to the confusion of being me at nearly 21. a Thanksgiving weekend in somebody else’s parents’ apartment was a vast relief. i ate pumpkin pie made with Splenda and said thank you and washed up the dishes and everything was nice and externalized and tidy and i felt validated and safe.

the kid i was that fall hadn’t felt particularly safe in a long time. and the year that was about to follow would knock everything out at the knees – my first real breakup, my first betrayal, a reckoning, the scattering of my circle to the wind post-graduation. and in the midst of it all, my grandmother’s house, the one she’d been born in, the one that’d been my only constant home in a childhood of apartments, sold and lost as the slow decay began.  i didn’t know any of  that out on that fire escape, watching the city, but i think maybe i sensed it, smelled the shift on the air. or maybe i simply knew i didn’t have a clue how to handle the inevitable closures that accompany one’s last year of anything.

i was scared shitless. i grew up risk averse and yet reckless, a combination not so uncommon among those who have little to lose in status and material goods. i had no long-term planning skills, no sense of agency to choose next steps or any belief that the choices i made would actually impact anything much. i felt like i was supposed to be figuring something out, but i couldn’t, for the life of me, sort out what it was.

i remember thinking, if we could just stay here, skip all the next steps, the part i don’t know how to do. get to the next chapter, whatever that is.

i found myself thinking the exact same thing last week.  different fall evening in Montreal.  no fire escape, no tears this time.  and the illusions of safety centered around leaving the city rather than staying. homecoming as escape from having to get to the next chapter somehow.

i spent our five days in Montreal last week wondering if we could live there, if  i could drag a whole family of four to the city and have us stay afloat, financially and emotionally.

while we were there, i met with a woman who analyses writing and discourse and rhetoric for a living. she’s kind, funny, disarming. open. and she stated flat-out that she’s willing to work with me on my long-neglected Ph.D, be a mentor and supervisor for my dissertation. i’d need to commit to two years in the city.

they have little Portuguese pastries there, and a Czech bar. they also have rents three times our mortgage. there are museums, places other than MacDonald’s to take kids to play on a rainy Saturday. there are waiting lists a mile long for childcare, and apparently you have to know where you’re going to be living to even get on them. there would be no Nannie there…my mom gets traveller’s cheques just to leave PEI. which is an occasion reported on the local news.

i meet tomorrow with a representative from the fledgling Ph.D program here.  two faculty members here, whom i respect and am deeply fond of and whom i’ve worked with for a few years now have also said yes, they’d take me on.  if the program will accept me, because they’re only taking four students next year. four is a teensy little number. a number so small it hurts the ego to attempt it, because Everyone Will Know. (that and the blogging about it. that always helps with the privacy).

not much funding for first year in either program, so far as i can tell. my mouth gets dry as cotton when i look at the proposals, the grant applications.

it’s heady and daunting both, an eight-ball of self-doubt and projected glory.  part of me tells myself it makes sense, either way – that investing in my education, after my childbearing hiatus, is the kind of long-term planning i’m still struggling to master.  part of me wants to flatten myself to the ground like a hedgehog and stay stock-still until i can just wake up in the next chapter.

i need to do something about that instinct.

but i have these little kids. they were born in the aftermath of upheaval and sorrow like i hope never to know again. and since they came along, grounding me, making me happy to come home even from the glamour of a hotel room with cable, change scares the shit out of me even more than before.

halp. what would Jesus do? what would you do? i know people move to big cities all the time, even without much capital and with kids. but lord above, this all has me nervous, people. even staying. just the risk of putting it out there, applying, courting the possible no. and the possible yes.

talk me down off the fire escape after all these years, friends. tell me how to think about it all in a way that doesn’t hurt my head quite so much?