Grad. School–the Non-Traditional Way

1 Jun

Kathy and True

Kathy and True

Ironically, I revived my interest in reading in 1976 after I left Wittenberg, the Ohio school I attended as an undergraduate. About halfway through, I realized I was wasting my time and started applying myself to my studies. I was still a procrastinator, but at least I was learning something. However, I didn’t become fully involved in reading until I returned home to Ithaca two years later. While I was finishing one of my incompletes for Wittenberg, I took a history course in twentieth-century American civilization at Cornell and received an A-, which helped boost my self-confidence. It included Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and I found myself excited again about literature. The professor was talented as well. The students actually stood up at the end of the course and gave the professor a standing ovation. At Wittenberg I’d had able professors, but the students hadn’t had this kind of respect for them. Getting a good education really mattered to these Cornell students and their attitude was infectious. At the Hillside Inn where I worked close to the university I found myself with a lot of downtime for my books and I became fascinated with what I was reading.

This didn’t mean that I could undo the damage my earlier laziness had done to my G.P.A. Before I left Wittenberg, I had talked to one of my political science professors, Dr. Flickinger, about graduate school and he had said that the only way I would be accepted was to wait ten years. Hopefully by then the graduate schools where I applied would think I’d matured. I took what he said very much to heart; the only unfortunate thing about my acceptance of his analysis of my situation was that I basically put my professional life on hold for ten years. My attitude had changed, but it was too early to make others believe that. Since my two plans in life were to become a writer and to teach English, I decided that I had no choice but to take whatever job became available. Unfortunately, when I moved  from Ithaca to Minneapolis I took another hotel job, this time as a reservationist at the Radisson South. Two years later I applied for an editing job at a magazine for hospitals and received a perfect score on my proofreading test, but the interviewer said my hotel jobs were against me. Stupidly, I gave up.

My supervisor at the Radisson, a pretty blonde, was the worst boss I have ever had. She was unkind, critical of my efforts, and unaware. When I switched there from another Radisson, they were still using typewriters, and she made a big deal about the fact that I had forgotten to pull the carbon copy from each typed reservation. I noticed dismissively that her smoking was causing premature lines to appear on her face, in the fashion that one reserves for someone for whom one has contempt. If I’d liked her, I probably wouldn’t have made this internal comment on her appearance. One day she sat on my desk, so that her crotch was directly in my face, to complain about something or other. I can’t remember now. I don’t miss her or her many beige pantsuits. She actually considered firing me once, “Let’s get rid of Kathy, she said to our mutual boss and my friend, the front office manager, when someone she liked better came along. It was the fact that he and I were friends that saved me. She was definitely a motivator in my moving onward.

My poor manual dexterity made me aware that I probably needed another kind of job.  I had to find something where I wouldn’t be held me back because of my typing. As a reservationist, my typing speed was forty-five words a minute. Both the supervisor and my counterpart were faster, but both were smokers and I was able to keep pace with them only because of the breaks they took. In addition, although I liked sitting to read, I didn’t like sitting in front of a computer for eight hours typing.

This dislike is one of the things that led me to waitressing where I stood or walked most of the day. I had a girlfriend Cindy who lived nearby near Lake Minnetonka. She provided an escape from the hotel, completely different from the people I worked with because of her sense of humor and small town wisdom. When I visited her at her house near the shore in Excelsior, she suggested that I move to waitressing. I was very shy and thought I needed to build up my self-confidence by being out in public more. I was also starting slowly to shift toward being able to focus on going back to school. Sometimes when things get bad enough, life pushes you forward, and my first step out was waiting tables.

While still working as a server, I started my long sojourn at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with history courses, but then moved on to English Lit. I realized I would never be accepted in graduate school if I didn’t repeat some of the courses I had already taken as an English major. Fortunately, I was the star of most of my initial courses. This was a natural development since I had already covered the material. I took courses at night in addition to working as a waitress. That left none of my nights free and contributed to my not meeting as many people as I should have at that time in my life.

However, I did make the acquaintance of several people at the beginning with whom I was able to share my gripes about my teachers and my successes. Dave was a fellow worker at Byerly’s grocery store, a manager who was also working on an M.A. The combination of working as a waitress in a grocery store and attending grad school was strange, so I was lucky to find a fellow traveler. We attended a couple classes together on the West Bank of the U, followed by long discussions at the local malt shop.

The combination was strange partly because grad students often have assistantships, whereas I was working fulltime at what was considered to be a blue collar job and paying for my courses. My best friend, Scott, a waiter in the restaurant who was finishing his undergrad degree in Communications and Drama when we first met, couldn’t have been more supportive of me, but some of the other servers were skeptical. From Scott I heard that one person thought I was showing off when I brought books with me to read on break; another said she’d told her mother I was getting a doctorate and her mother didn’t believe it. Many of the younger servers were college age and many were going to the University of Minnesota, so I suppose I seemed out of sync to them. On the other hand, I had the same experience when I was at the U because I was older than most of the other graduate students. The U was definitely the place where I was happiest, however. I loved most of the courses I took.

I dated Tom early on. He was younger than my brother, Barth, about six and a half years younger than me. I never thought I would date someone my brother’s age, but Tom seemed mature. Maybe it was his serious attitude about religion. He was a doctor’s son who had attended Notre Dame and he talked about how important Christianity was to him.

One night we were at a restaurant and he said that he “would probably never marry someone older than him.” He said that ” instead he would probably marry someone a couple years younger than him like most men.” I got the message; it probably hit a little harder than he intended, because it was only then that I realized that by stalling my education I had missed out on most of my peers. You would think I would have figured this out earlier, but I’m a slow learner in some ways. There were a couple people my age, one of whom I thought I recognized from Wittenberg, but I was too shy to talk to him. Once I started working on my doctorate there was a dearth of men.

I found that several of my professors (all male–very few women in that generation) who were my parents’ age really rooted for me. One of the professors my age was also extremely helpful, but the younger professors obviously had other priorities. In the transition between working on my M.A. and my Ph.D., the recommendation of a British professor named Bill Hurrell, who was to die only a couple years later, made a huge difference.  He was known to be chary with his praise.  Although my topic was Byron’s private writing, the man who made the biggest difference was a Joyce expert, Chester Anderson, who has been dead at least ten years now. When he wasn’t in town, he wrote me letters with suggestions. Because of him I pulled through my dissertation. Because of the American romanticist on my committee, I took up smoking ( a pack and a half a day–Marlboros).

The Joyce expert bedeviled him, but I have to confess that part of his motivation was not on my account. They’d been on a committee together before and he’d gone nuts with the American romanticist’s ideas. One day I received a letter from him suggesting that I split Chapter 3 into three sections, a suggestion I promptly took. The next time I saw A.R. he wanted to know why I’d divided the chapter and I told him. When we got together to discuss my dissertation, he would say things like, “I hate to burst your bubble, but. . .” I think he loved listening to his own voice, and I doubt he was interested in any of my ideas. He was one of only two professors I’d had who didn’t bother preparing for class. That should have told me something.

A young gay graduate student (often nicer to us than the heterosexual guys) and I became friends and we started playing Password together every night. I had typed part of my dissertation in Word Perfect and part in Microsoft Word (initially I didn’t have my own computer). Now I had to put them together. That’s where he stepped in. He literally dragged numbers across the pages because the formatting had to look at the same. He also typed my table of contents. Near the end of last two years I met the people in the M.F.A. program–the women were lovely, friendlier than the female Ph.D. students I had been acquainted with. I wish I had met them earlier.  Although I don’t often think of myself that way, I guess my experience would be called that of the non-traditional student.

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