I’m someone who’s in a state of constant learning, constantly wanting to challenge myself and others to be better, to do more and better. I don’t apologize for this. But I do need to acknowledge that too often, I exert so much pressure on myself to excel that I take on a Thanksgiving feast’s worth of challenges. More times than not, I come through on the other side, but frequently in need of the Heimlich maneuver to keep from suffocating on it all.
For those of you who are still in undergrad or have recently finished, or at least, still remember clearly the details of this part of your academic journey, this story is most poignant for you. After years of relying mostly on my great memory and very good writing skills to be the very good student I’d been over the previous decade, I wanted to do better, to not have to scramble in the last three weeks of a sixteen-week semester and look like a dog with a serious constipation problem trying to void, like almost two-thirds of the sickly, underdressed, raccoon-eyed students I’d seen on campus during my first two years at the University of Pittsburgh.
As I wrote at the end of my coming-of-age memoir Boy @ The Window:
I reasoned that I needed to have balance to my semesters so that I wouldn’t spend the last two or three weeks of them playing catch up. Starting with the fall of ’89, I took all my syllabi from all of my classes, grabbed a calendar, and crafted a table where I knew exactly what to read, when to study, and when to begin my research and writing projects for each class I had in a semester. That way, I could know when to slack off or party, when to buckle down and study, and when to just shift into academic cruise control.
Those were literally my words and thoughts from a quarter-century ago. I also decided to become more organized because, thinking back, I knew that I couldn’t be a scrambling student in grad school. At least one who could be consistent and successful, who could sit and step up in the pocket and deliver academic darts for touchdowns — to use one of the many football analogies I would’ve said in ’89 (and probably now, too). All I knew was that after the spring semester — with thirty-six-hour workweeks and five courses — that I wanted more time to hang out with friends, to even maybe date.
Only, I was dumb enough to take third-semester calculus a year and a half after my last math course, and I was now a history major taking writing intensive courses. But at the time, I had my very good reasons. I was only one course shy of a minor in mathematics, which I figured would look good on my academic resume when I did apply to grad schools. I wanted to learn the basics about differential equations, because I was just that kind of guy. I wanted, most of all, to challenge myself, because that part of my Humanities indoctrination had stayed with me well beyond my high school graduation.
That course was a struggle, mostly because my attention was split between writing papers and reading thick history texts, constitutional law books and African American literature on the one hand, and math equations on the other. Fourteen months away from derivates and integrals and volumes was too long for me. I couldn’t really adjust to being in a lecture hall with nearly 400 students, being in memorization mode, no longer with much in common with this huge group of STEM-inclined classmates. By the middle of October, I was miserable whenever it was time to march up that hill to Benedum Hall.
But it did get worse. About a month before the end of that semester, my friend Terri looped me into unwittingly setting up my friend Marc with our mutual friend Michele. And it worked! All too well, as I realized that I had a bit of a crush on Michele myself, but only after they’d started dating. It was a rocky last three weeks of ’89. I managed a 2.98 GPA that terrible semester, including a D+ in multiple integrals and differential equations. I missed a C- in that class by two-tenths of a point. Terrible by my own standards.
Lessons here, if any? Don’t bite off more than you can chew, maybe? I know that three admissions committees used that D+ against me in either rejecting me outright or in not offering me fellowship money to cover tuition when I applied to grad schools a year later. So, one other lesson could be to not take unnecessary risks, to not challenge myself. That would be the wrong lesson, though.
The real lesson would be to know our limitations, that we can’t be all things to ourselves and others and do well at all things all the time, that we have a finite amount of time and choices, in school and in life. With so much going on in my life these days, it’s still a lesson of which I have to keep reminding myself, practically every single day.