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Posts Tagged ‘Eleanor Roosevelt’

Self-Development

IMG_1011I always say that each new challenge is a matter of self-development. I say it ad nauseam, so some people are pretty much sick of hearing it (Pepi? Lois? Carol?), but in fact, it’s a fact.

It’s not about the business we’re in, or managing a successful launch of a new product, or bringing in a new distributor. It’s not about a writing project, or jumping through hoops at jobs or tests in college or judges at competitions for art or poetry or auditions for theater. It’s not about finding a publisher for that first novel.

It’s about developing the SELF. The SELF is not just “me.” It’s more than me. It’s the me I’m becoming as I face life’s challenges.

Think about the challenges that gave you tummy aches, brain blocks, even sick headaches the first time you faced them. Once you passed the challenge, you could do it time and again. No problem. First time you got on an airplane (assuming it was before all the security checks)? First time you traveled alone? First time you approached a new customer? How about first labor, or even morning sickness? Bathing a baby the first time, alone?

Once you lived through it, you were never the same. That’s because you grew a new self out of your old self—like a snake shedding skin to emerge fresh and new.

The good news is this: each time we pass through a challenge we arrive renewed, not just stronger, but revitalized and redefined. “I am this” becomes “I am something larger.”

The first time I had to stand up in front of a classroom in grad school—in my 40s mind you—I gave a talk on Surrealism with slides, using the now antiquated, ever annoying, slide projector of the day. My hands were sweating so, I couldn’t get the slides in or out without a struggle. My voice shook. A slide stuck and I almost ran out of the room. But I didn’t. I dug the soaking wet thing out, and put it back in and continued my talk.

When class was over, we all gathered in the grad student lounge, which now that UT Dallas has grown up no longer exists, and I told my friend Peggy Brown, “I’ll never do that again—I’m done with giving talks in class.”

My professor overheard and put her hands on my shoulders and turned me to face her. “Miriam,” she said, “it’s far from the last time. You’ll do it every semester in grad school, and then every day when you start teaching in colleges. And you’ll teach others to do so as well.” How true that turned out to be. Each time I presented in grad classes, my hands grew steadier and dryer, my voice calmer, and before long I was requiring undergrads to give talks in class every semester—so they’d be beyond it in their careers or in post-grad programs.

By the time I took my qualifying exams for my doctorate, I was a pro. At speaking, at testing, at writing, at everything academic.

I studied for the three-day writtens and the one day orals and had it all under control. I memorized the first sentence in each category of my defined fields, the conclusion, and a few quotes. I was confident that whatever they asked within the agreed boundaries, I could mold the essay to answer their inquiry. For the biography exam, which I took day one, I even had a quote memorized from a footnote in a biography about Eleanor Roosevelt! I had the page number the footnote appeared on in the hardback version.

“Prepared” was my middle name.

But when I walked into Tim Redman’s office, where I’d chosen to take the exams each day, and sat down at the computer, no words would surface. I typed gibberish to warm up. I spent the first of the three allotted hours with nothing on the page—blank page. Blank page. Blank page. . . Nothing.

Now, with only two hours left to write, I left the office and went to the Humanities Office and told Sherry, our secretary, of my plight, and she called Professor Redman, the chair of my committee. He was cold: get her back in there and tell her to write. Period. No excuses. Dr. Redman is the most supportive mentor I’ve ever had, but he’s a no-nonsense kind of guy, and he clearly was not putting up with my “nonsense.”

I stood frozen in my tracks. Sherry went and got the then Dean of Humanities, Dr. Gerald Soliday, and he invited me into his office. He told me the story of his own doctorals at Harvard. He told me that his mouth went dry during his orals and no words would come out. His committee was not amused. Yet somehow, he got through it and passed. (Obviously) He sent me out to lunch, told me to relax and eat and come back at 1 PM. He would call Dr. Redman and set it all right.

I went over to a yogurt shop nearby, got some frozen coffee yogurt with almonds (still my favorite) and tried to calm down.

At 12:30, I was entering the building when my office mate walked up beside me, took one look at my face and said: “Wow. Look at you. What’s wrong?” I told her the whole story as we went back to the Humanities Office so Sherry could let me back into Dr. Redman’s office.

“I can’t go in there, “ I said. “No way. I just have to lose the dream. I cannot pass these tests—and there’s three days of this. I can’t even write the first sentence for the first exam.”

They said: “Yes you can, of course you can.” Then they joined hands in prayer – we formed a circle: they prayed for me. It was amazing because I wasn’t used to prayer circles. I’d never experienced anything like it. I just had to allow myself to be carried along in the moment. When they finished praying, they said: “Go in now, sit down and you will feel us with you, beside you as you write. You are not alone.”

Zombie like, I entered the cave, AKA office, sat down, turned the computer back on, looked at the wording of the question, and began to write.

It was as if two angels stood beside me giving me courage, giving me words. I wrote the opening statement, framed it to answer the question, wrote the body of the argument, and even used the footnote I’d memorized from the biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. I spent all three new hours writing. And I did the same thing the next day on autobiography and the next on American history.

Each day as I walked out of that office, I felt lighter. We often hear writers speak of projects as the equivalent of birthing a baby. Indeed, women often realize a given project has taken exactly nine months.

Well, this baby look a bit longer as I read, studied and prepared for each exam. And when the third exam was written, spell checked (back then it required a process), printed out and turned in, I floated to my car.

The following week, I entered the room where the four professors on my committee sat ready to evaluate me on my oral exam—my final field, feminist theory. I talked for an hour straight, and they listened with blank faces. But I was cool, calm, certain. I didn’t miss a beat.

When I finished fielding their challenges to my answers, they asked me to leave. I walked into the hall and waited. And waited. But unafraid, as people passed and saw me dressed as a professional instead of as a student; they knew why I was waiting; they each smiled and wished me luck.

Soon, Dr. Redman walked out of the room, motioned to me, “Come on back in,” he said, and smiling a rare smile, “Doctor.” He called me, “Doctor!”

I entered the room to applause and congratulations and to my new moniker: Doctor. And I was renewed, redefined. I was still my self—even that scared, frozen self, but I was a new SELF—I was a Doctor of Humanities, still ABD, before the final PhD.

When I entered the Humanities Office this time, Sherry stood up and shouted and hugged me. I congratulated her—I shared my victory with her and my office mate.

Leaving the building, I felt great; success was written all over my face.

Until I met Dr. Rainer Schulte: “Call me Doctor,” I told him: “I’m a doctor now, just like you.”

He congratulated me, gave me a quick hug.

“Now the real challenge begins,” he quipped.

“Huh!” I said in my best doctor voice.

“Now comes the hard part: the dissertation proposal. The dissertation. It’s only just begun,” he said. “Go home and start writing. That’s the best way.”

Yeah right, I thought. Whew. No more words left in me. I was empty, depleted.

He was right, of course; the next challenges were hard, but doable and, most important, that moment was mine—and I knew it. It wasn’t time to face new challenges, to move toward another process of self-development. I wasn’t ready yet. I had to get used to the new SELF I’d become.

When Octavio Paz wrote in the afterword, “Fragments,” to his book, Eagle or Sun, “I am not finished with myself,” he was speaking to me. I think of that phrase every day: I am NOT finished . . . .

Today I just went through another challenge—business is a huge challenge for me–and tomorrow I will face yet another. Small challenges by comparison to such lofty ones as the hurdles presented by doctoral programs. But each challenge large or small, lofty or simple, redefines us as individuals. All of us, moving along, developing ourselves, reaching our individual potentials as we move toward that ultimate SELF . . . we have yet to discover.

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