Originally titled, “The one thing I miss about college,” in which I mentally process while writing and reach a thought I had not begun with, and I feel overall better than I did when I started

While my classes during my undergrad weren’t great, my overall college experience had some bright points to it. I remember fondly sitting up with my suite mates all night my freshman year and playing games, and D&D over Cheezie’s pizza in that little apartment on Harrison, and spending time with the Model U.N. club, and hanging out at Potter’s House, and Bible study at FnC…

These days, I feel socially isolated. It’s not the quality of the relationships I miss, but the nature of the conversations. In college, everyone was being exposed to new ideas and they were learning at a fast pace. Conversations were tinged with a sense of discovery and excitement, and we were focused on those ideas.

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Oh, right, I’m not in college anymore

I started college in 2003 working on a bachelor’s in religious studies. In 2006, I met April and fell in love, and I knew that I was going to need a job and some money before we could get married, so I started pursuing a full-time job and I was hired at Missouri State University in January 2007. Subsequently, I dropped down to part-time as a college student.

And then, due to bad advice from my advisor, I didn’t get the “right kind” of credit hours and it ended up taking an extra two years to finish my BA.

I almost dropped out. Technically, I did drop out for nearly a year, but I went back, and throughout much of my undergrad career, I was desperate to finish. So when I would see an ad from Phoenix University or others, I’d think, “Maybe I could transfer and finish faster!” Whenever I’d see a billboard for Kaplan or another program, I’d wonder if it’d be cheaper and faster to go to them.

Of course, it wouldn’t be. It’d be way more expensive, only slightly faster, and my degree would have been less respected. But this wasn’t a rational thought, it was an emotional one. I wanted to be done so badly.

And now I am done. Not just with my bachelors, I’m done with a master’s degree. But this emotional response, triggered by seeing these ads, is still strong. I see a billboard and think, “Hmm, maybe I should check that out so I could finish faster.”

And then I remember that I’m done. I’m done, and I smile. It’s hard to let go of that response because it’s so ingrained, but remembering that I have gotten all the formal education I need to is pretty great.

The Return on Investment for Good Grades

Young woman with books balanced on headI’m not a good student. This came as a shock to my high school graduating class, many of whom assumed I was valedictorian when I actually ranked somewhere in the 40s. I lost my scholarship after my freshman year of college due to a combination of bad professors, working too much, and not knowing how to study. And as I began work on my master’s degree, I realized something new about hard work and good grades.

It isn’t worth it. When I was younger, I got mediocre grades because I didn’t care. I cared a lot about learning, but I didn’t feel the need to jump through hoops to prove what I knew. During my post-graduate work, I had a new reason, which was that working hard to get a better grade simply didn’t buy me anything.

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Going back to school

Almost a year and a half ago, I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and a minor in Creative Writing. It took me eight and a half years, and it was sometimes hard to find the motivation to finish. My job at the time only required an Associates or equivalent number of college hours. I had learned everything I needed to learn. There wasn’t any reason to finish other than to get the credentials.

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Graduation excitement

I’ve lost the blogging buzz. My promotion brought with it both an increase in activities as well as increased focus on finishing everything. I want to wrap up this year and seal it away in the archive so I can move on with my life.

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Poems About Things I Can’t Fully Understand

One of my classes this semester is about the Holocaust, and as our final project we had the option of doing either a research paper or a creative piece. I had intended to do the paper–I enjoy research, and I can put together a good paper pretty quickly–but when I met with my teacher to discuss the class and my project, he seemed to be pushing for something creative. I mentioned that I (used to) write poetry and could do a dozen poems or so in about the same time it would take to write a paper, but he tweaked that a bit: he wanted six poems, but with explanations of what each one meant.

I think explaining the poem ruins it a bit, but I wanted to share the poems themselves with you, along with the introduction.

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So long, Heartbreak. Hello Dreams!

My frustration about school and the attendance thereof has only become more pointed as this year has progressed. We’re barely a month into the semester and my two classes have been infuriating. One is Children’s Literature and is essentially, “How to teach literature to children between the ages of two and five,” which is definitely not how it was described in the course catalog. The other is The Life and Thought of Martin Luther King Jr. and we have yet to discuss the good doctor, let alone his life and/or thoughts. We have instead been treated to many rambling and often racist stories by our professor, unclear expectations and assignments, and a litany of “extra credit” opportunities that often manage to involve attending his church.

The real issue is that these classes, and most any classes for that matter, prevent me from pursuing my dreams in the here and now. I can’t write when I’m taking two classes a semester. There are two reasons for this:

  1. My work requires a lot of time dealing with people, particularly in management situations. For someone as introverted as me, this is mentally and emotionally exhausting. I already have a regularly scheduled game night on Fridays that takes some of my energy, and when you add in two classes for a total of three days a week, each requiring twelve to fifteen hours of extroversion, I’m wiped out. Deeper thought and the writing that would come out of it aren’t reasonable in those circumstances.
  2. Because of the previous issue, I use class as an excuse to not do work. Part of me recognizes that I’d completely burn out and have a nervous breakdown if I pushed myself much harder than I do and forced myself to do a lot of work and writing during my limited downtime, but I can’t ignore that this an excuse, not a reason. Ideally, I would be able to do everything, but that’s not feasible in real life. If I try to do everything, I’ll fail at everything. Being in class keeps me focused on the problem, not the solution. The solution is simple, but I’ve been too wrapped up in the problem to admit it.

It’s not the classes themselves, or even the six hours a week they take. It’s the poor state the entire schedule leaves me in. Six hours isn’t much, but the long days they lead to makes achieving my dreams impossible.

So I’m done. As of this semester, I was only enrolled for one reason: to be able to attend PAX ’10. I won’t be able to afford to go if I have to start paying on student loans, and if I’m not enrolled in six hours of classes a semester I’ll have to start paying. As much as it sucks to not go, though, I’d rather be happy and fulfilled 362 days of the year than have 3 days of revelry and good times with friends. My year and my life isn’t worth that.

I’ve already got the line item in and our budget balanced to accept this.

I’m not saying I’m dropping out entirely. When I see a night class that’s 300-level or above that looks interesting, I’ll take it. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for the 2-3 classes I have left to finish my major and minor. I’ll probably take some graduate-level courses too (since they satisfy the Upper-Division Credit Hour requirement), though never more than one a semester, if they look fascinating and challenging. But I’m done with playing the game, staying enrolled for no good reason.

I realized last night what I want to do with my life in regards to work. It’s going to take a few years to get that set up, but I’m good with long-term plans. I’m tired of not starting, though. I’ve been feeling dissatisfied with college for four years now, and it’s time to do something about it.

Winter 2009 Newsletter

I’ve been keeping up with blogging and publishing better this fall, even better than I had expected, but maybe you want to see some pictures, or maybe (for some reason we won’t discuss) you don’t check in often. It is for you that I carefully, gently, and with great love craft this newsletter.

If you’d like to receive this newsletter regularly, I’d suggest you drop your email in the bucket to get a copy when it comes out. Of course, they’ll show up here in the regular RSS feed as well, or you can subscribe to an RSS feed designed especially for them.

Download and/or view SilverPen News – Winter 2009.

Fear in America

Fear is pretty common in our society, so there’s no need to talk about it as something distant or difficult to comprehend. We all deal with it, whether the anxiety flows from talking with the people we stand next to in the checkout line or smiling at the person one table over at a coffee shop. When we see a stranger break down in tears, we freeze. If we ask someone how their day is going and they respond immediately that their child just died and they’re considering suicide, we are at a loss for a proper response. How should we react?

I haven’t read The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis yet, but I was told recently of a passage in it that gives a vision of what hell is like. In hell, Lewis writes, there are millions of houses, but everyone lives very far from one another. They can’t stand to see or be near their neighbours, so they continually build more houses and move further away. Like our universe, it is ever-expanding as people build, settle, and then realize they are still too near one another and begin the cycle again. Their loneliness is self-imposed, fueled perhaps by their bitterness.

There seems to be something in humanity, perhaps sin itself, that encourages this isolationist trend. It is not good for man to be alone, and for this reason woman was made, but I cannot count how many people sabotage their relationships so that they end up alone. As the author of Bowling Alone observed, we get in our own car when we leave work, we drive to our homes and open the garage door without stepping from the car, we close it behind us before we exit the vehicle, and then we enter our homes, having never been exposed to our neighbours or the outside world. We don’t make eye contact with strangers on the streets, and rationally we have to recognize that it’s not because they might all stab us if we did. We’re all equally afraid of intimate contact–of someone seeing us.

It goes without saying, though, that something in us does drive us to relationships, else we wouldn’t live in cities at all, nor would we seek out partners with whom we can form relationships that we eventually sabotage. But from where does this fear come? I believe it comes from our regrets and self-loathing, where we have taken a sin and made it (in our minds) a huge facet of our lives, and we don’t want others to see that sin. We are afraid that if they see it, they will leave and our worst fear will be confirmed: that we are sinful. We might think it, but it’s not quite as real if no one else knows, so if we hide it away then everything will be fine.

I dated a girl briefly my sophomore year of college who attempted to hide herself. She was afraid that people wouldn’t like her if she was herself; if people realized how truly intelligent she was. In high school, the smart kids were outsiders, discriminated against and mocked, and she wanted to be an insider. She didn’t want to be alone, so she pretended to be someone else. When I saw through her facade, it made her extremely uncomfortable, and she left me. It was better to her to not be seen, to have her soul unexposed.

As is so often the case with this sort of fear, though, the terrible thing we are attempting to hide is no terrible thing at all. For years I hid my past life from others, afraid of how they would judge me. Before I was Christian, I didn’t want people to know I was involved in witchcraft, despite my pride in it. Visions of hate crimes, burning stakes, and eternal loneliness floated through my mind. I had been beaten and stigmatized sufficiently just for being different and smart–adding a different religion to the mix seemed extremely unwise. Even after I became Christian, I was afraid that if people learned of my past actions, of what I had done, and of the crimes I had committed that they would leave me. I would be kicked out of the Church. I had found a family, and I did not want to be pushed from it.

This fear weighed on me, kept me up at night, and prevented me from forming vulnerable, intimate, life-affirming relationships. That same sophomore year of college, though, I met a very inquisitive young woman who also wanted to know my life story, but she wanted to know the parts that I had left out when I told it to Brooke. She wanted to know those things that I was afraid to share, and she exhorted me to take strength in Christ and be honest.

I let it all out, told her everything, and she hugged me and told me it was OK. There was no blame in her eyes, no disillusion or anger, nor was there pity. There was just acceptance and love, and it was the first time since I had accepted Jesus into my life that I was able to experience that. When someone knows your darkest sins and accepts you anyways, there is no room for fear. The light has shown everywhere and nothing has been found wanting. There is only love.

She urged me to share my testimony more often, so I tried it once more. The man with whom I shared likewise did not reject me. Before long, I was speaking in front of a church, telling them my story, and they did not cast me out. They did not throw stones. I was hugged and brought in deeper. Over the years, I have found that vulnerability builds relationships, where fear leads to weakness and stagnation at best, and isolation at worst.

When the random person on the street smiles at me, and I smile back, it makes my day. It is uplifting for me, and I hope it is the same for them. I’m still afraid to talk with people in the checkout line or at the store, and especially at the next table in the coffee shop, but sometimes I try, and I really try to reciprocate when someone talks to me. If someone shares that they’re having a particularly bad day, I offer to sit down and talk with them. Maybe pray, if they seem comfortable with that. I force myself to reach out a bit more and touch their lives. For all I know, no one else ever has, and they are dying for someone to reach for them and pull them out of the darkness just a bit, just enough to find their way.

Dropping Out – Part 3 – Conclusion

I believe in taking responsibility for myself, so I recognize that this situation is no one’s fault but my own. I failed to read the degree audit correctly, and I failed to ask for help sooner. That being said, I don’t think there were many options for helping me–the classes I needed weren’t offered at night, and if I had realized three or four years ago that I needed so many upper-level classes and that they would only be available during the day, I’d have quit college as soon as I got a full time job.

I met with my advisor earlier, which was really helpful. As frustrated as I am with all this, it is difficult to see anything other than black or white. Either I can drop out, or I can put my nose to the grindstone and push through two more years of classes in which I am not interested, wasting my time. Lora proposed a middle-way.

Suggesting I apply some Buddhist philosophy to my studies, she suggested I let go of the concept of a deadline, let go of both the desire for finishing as well as my concern for writing time. By looking at the situation a bit more calmly, there are many more options than either bull-dozing through or quitting altogether.

The frustration I have experienced with my college education over the last several years has been due primarily to taking classes I needed but in which I was not interested. These were classes that were required by my degree program, and while the originating principle was a fine ideal, in practice it turned out pretty meaningless. I have a transcript full of classes that made no impact on me and in which I learned next to nothing.

After next semester, however, I will be done with the classes that I need, and I am in a position (having finished all my requirements in addition to being able to take courses for free since I work here) that offers me the luxury of having options. Rather than viewing this as an either-or (put life on hold for two more years so I can finish by taking classes I detest VS. dropping out), I can slow down and learn to enjoy college again. There are certainly classes I want to take, and next semester is a good example of that; I am excited to study the Talmud under Dr. Watts-Belser, and I have missed poetry workshop. After that, Lora advised I keep an eye on the schedules (English and Religious Studies) and watch for upper-division classes I will enjoy. If I see one or two offered at night that I want to take, I take them. If I don’t, I don’t. Maybe I’ll have a semester or two off, and maybe I’ll have a busy semester, but I’ll be assured of only taking classes in which I have an interest.

And in a few years, they’ll hand me a piece of paper.

The bright spots of my college career are few, but I value them. I learned how to read and study Hebrew. I competed nationally at Model United Nations and did very well, and in so doing I learned how to politic and debate better than I did in high school. I learned lots and lots about the New Testament and the parables of Jesus, and I learned the value of good translations and critical thinking. I learned how to research and write. I helped an Israeli student learn about the United States government, and I helped a lot of students learn about the Bible through a college ministry I co-founded. I learned a lot about Buddhism in perhaps my favourite class of my college career. And yet, all-told that’s only about 6-10 classes, less than two semester’s worth (as a full time student), in 6.5 years.

Now is my opportunity, Lora said, to find more bright spots. There’s nothing stopping me from only taking classes I enjoy at this point. No more gen eds, no more requirements (other than course level). There is a 500-level class offered in the evening this summer on the book of Jeremiah. There are a couple of other upper-level classes next year I might enjoy.

What’s more, she said that it should be feasible now to do this through night classes. Last night and this morning, as I considered all this, part of why I was overwhelmed was that I would have to take all those upper-division classes during the day. I’ve been taking night classes for years, and there just aren’t that many upper-division courses offered at night. The few that are simply aren’t applicable to my interests or education (things like Real Estate and other professionally focused classes).

Lora shared that this is changing, and the Religious Studies department in particular met recently to discuss the matter. For years, Continuing Education has taken departments at their word that degree programs could be completed through night classes. Now Continuing Ed is actually looking at programming to make sure it can happen, and for a lot of departments, it couldn’t. They’re going to enforce this requirement or revoke Continuing Ed status (the degree program would no longer be listed as an option for Continuing Education, which hurts the chance that people will enroll in that program), so departments are going to start offering more night classes.

The head of the Religious Studies department told me this was going to happen three years ago (that they would start offering more night classes… he retired soon afterwards and it never really happened), but maybe this time it’s true. We have a different president now, and the University is a different place. Maybe it’s possible.

Either way, it is a compromise with which I am comfortable. I stop worrying about it all and, more than likely, drop down to one class a semester (except for next semester when I will finish the last two classes actually required for my degree). I’ll focus on night classes only, because truth be told I really prefer night classes. After years of them, I don’t feel you can accomplish enough in a single hour for it to be worthwhile. I’ll take only classes I enjoy and that I feel are worthwhile.

As Lora put it, I should focus on my writing, and I should focus on taking classes that enrich my writing. Studying the Talmud next semester will affect how I write and approach writing, so that’s a good educational opportunity. Studying Jeremiah and digging into Hebrew again can do the same. I should approach classes that will further my priorities, and if they don’t further my priorities, I don’t need to worry about it.

And if I keep taking classes in which I am interested, there’s a good chance that I’ll get a degree in a few years. I only need 5 more classes after next semester, after all, and if I’m only taking one class every 1-2 semesters (as they become available), I’ll have plenty of time to write while still learning things in which I am interested.

She also talked with the head of the Religious Studies department who said I could probably take a one credit hour reading course with someone to finish a bit sooner. I actually need 13 hours of upper-division classes after next semester, so instead of taking five 3-hour courses, I could take four 3-hour and one 1-hour to make it a bit quicker. That’s a nice option.

Bottom line, I’m still frustrated, but this middle way is attractive and reasonable. I’m glad I’ve got an advisor like Lora Hobbs.

PS The Religious Studies department now has an option for a Bachelor of Science as opposed to a Bachelor of Arts. If the BS didn’t require the 40 hours, I’d maybe do that, but my passion surprised me while meeting with Lora. I told her that I was frustrated that courses like Hebrew 202 didn’t count towards the upper-level requirement despite their difficulty, and mentioned the BS (12 hours of a foreign language are required for BA, but not for BS). Softly pounding my first on the table, I said,

“But I want my BA. I’ve earned it!”

I guess, if given a choice between the two, I want the extra work recognized. At this point, there’s only one difference for me between the BS and the BA: History 104 – History since 1600. I’m going to take a 90 minute test to get that taken care of.