On My Way to Work…

I take the train to work just about every day. On my way to work, two songs come on from my music playlist periodically.

*********************************

Song I: Almost Was Good Enough by
Magnolia Electric Co. (to listen, play link below)

It’s been hard doing anything
Winter stuck around so long
I kept trying anyhow
And I’m still trying now
Just to keep working
Just to keep working

Just about every day, at every hour, at almost any instance, the same question pops into my head: Am I good enough to apply for PhD programs? I work, and make time for friends and loved ones, but no matter what I’m doing, this question is always in my thoughts. It haunts me, like a Specter, making sure his presence is always known. I’m doing everything I need to do to prepare, including studying for an upcoming GRE exam, talking to my mentors, drafting my letters, and doing research on campuses I wish to apply to, but all of this knowledge and preparation fails at making me feel better-equipped for this. I’ve applied before, and I know the steps that are needed; I have all the knowledge I need to go through this application process. Why doesn’t any of this make me feel better? My days are gloomy, thinking about what is needed from me, weighed down by all of the doubts I have about myself. On the surface, I’m going through my routine and doing everything I need to do, but in my head, I’m standing in a room, alone, painted stark white, with one window. I’m holding a baseball bat, smashing it against the walls repeatedly, hoping for something to break. This is when the doubt hits me. Once this thought really sinks in, nothing on the planet can make me feel better.

I remember when
This didn’t use to be so hard
This used to be impossible

I know I want this, and this is what my career path has lead to. I have everything I need to apply and can make a really good application come out of this. Then again, that’s what I told myself last time. Looking back at the last time I applied makes it feel like it was years ago, when I was a young, idealistic kid, ready to conquer the world. Getting all of those No’s after did a great job sucking out all of that original ambition.  Now, I’m not even sure where I stand. How am I any better as an applicant now compared to last time? What different thing can I offer to the schools I have already applied to? I think about submitting my transcripts, not competitive in their standards; my experience as a scholar, nothing that will impress the committees reading about my experience. I have nothing to show, and I have no idea how to make my application any more desirable than it is. I’m starting to run out of reasons to do this.

New season has got to begin
I can feel it leaning in, whispering:
“Nothing’s lonely now
Nothing anymore in pain
Nothing’s lonely now
Nothing anymore in pain”

I think about sitting in front of the GRE exam again. If I’m going to reapply, I’ll have to take it again. The anxiety, the stress, all of the other factors that make me feel like I already failed before even starting the test. This has always been my Achilles heel, the one thing that neutralizes any hope to continue. Maybe not being able to do well on these exams is telling me something. I’ve taken and retaken this exam numerous times now, but nothing helps. If I can’t do well on this exam, does that mean I won’t do well in the actual program? Everyone tells me that this is not true, but I have no good reason to believe them.  If I can’t manage studying for an exam everyone else has to take, how is this not indicative about my aptitude as someone who wants to pursue doctoral education? How will I do in a doctoral program if I can’t get the score I need for an exam anyone can take? To most, this is a hoop required to jump through, but to me, it’s a wall, and every time I retake the test, I stand in front of it, woefully unprepared to climb over it. I’m just…..I can’t. I see no chance of doing so.

Did you really believe?
Come on, did you really believe
That everyone makes it out?
Almost no one makes it out
Almost no one makes it out

When I was in junior high, my school put on a track meet, where they had various track and field competitions, set up as a kind of quasi-Olympics. At that time, I was going to work with my dad on the weekends doing masonry work, including mixing concrete and digging ditches. This made me unusually stronger than most students in my class. My Phys Ed class made us compete, so I tried out for the shot-put.  I ended up qualifying for the actual meet. The problem was I never practiced, or worked out, or did anything to prepare. On the day of the event, I competed but didn’t place. At all. And I didn’t care. I think about this, seeing a massive amount of qualified athletes, competing for something they’ve worked on for years, and me, absent of any kind of will or goal-mindset, not caring if I won or not. Maybe the competitive edge is just not a part of me. This is not something that I’m inherently good at. I was good at working simple, menial jobs. Maybe sticking to that and only that is where I need to focus my attention.

Think I’ll pack it in
Buy a pickup
Head it down to L.A
Maybe find a place
That we can fix up
Start a brand new day

I have a good job, and things are going well here. Maybe sticking to this isn’t such a bad idea- wait a little longer, apply for a full-time spot, which would be a really great promotion. I could then have a bit more security, make a bit more money, buy a car so I don’t have to take the train anymore. If that happens, I wouldn’t worry about anything else after. No classes to take, or qualifying exams, no book to write. Why put myself through all that extra work? I can have a good future doing this job and nothing else. That would solve a lot of problems, ultimately getting rid of the struggle of aspiring to something. I would do my job, go home, wake up the next day, and do that for the next forty years, fifty, if I get into an administrative position. That could be really good for me.

I’m going to use them streets to hide
From that human doubt
Hide from what was shining
And has finally burned me out
For once, almost was good enough
Almost was good enough
Almost was good enough

Song II: Line of Fire by Junip (to listen, play link below)

 

What would you do
If it all came back to you?
Each crest of each wave
Bright as lightning
What would you say
If you had to leave today?
Leave everything behind
Even though for once you’re shining

Why did I want this in the first place? Because of some antiquated desire to pursue knowledge?  Because someone once told me this is where research leads to? How is that even a practical career choice? I’ll sit in libraries all day, with stacks of books that no one has read, trying to increase my knowledge about this one obscure subject that may not have any bearing on real life. Then, at some point, write about this and hope that some day, someone reads this and thinks a little bit more about the subject I’m interested in. Years down the line, someone will write something else, massively indirectly related from what I do, and they end up doing really well in their research. Actually….that sounds kinda cool…

Standing on higher ground
But when you hear the sounds
You realize it’s just the wind
And you notice it matters
Who and what you let under your skin

I think about this, and suddenly, I’m shot back to my days pursuing my Masters. How did those days get me to where I am now? I think a lot about the voices that inspired me, and those who told me that I was doing something good, something worth pursuing. My friends and mentors did a really great job supporting me, but they did more than that- they let me know…that I was on to something. Whatever it was, I was doing it well, and to pursue this would be the best thing for me. At that time, I also worked at a local bar on the weekends. During the annual Christmas party, and my last year of working there, I had a small exchange with the owner. We never really worked together, and he may have been a bit drunk when we talked, but he said something that I took from that exchange and still hold on to- he said, I hope one day I don’t see you here, I hope to see you not doing this job anymore. I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment at the time- it was until I finally quit that job to dedicate myself to my studies when it clicked. Pursuing this isn’t just the right thing to do- I’d be really good at it if I did.

If put to the test
Would you step back from the line of fire?
Hold everything back
All emotion set aside it

I go back further to the very first Literature class I took- Introduction to American Literature, a survey class on literature from the earliest centuries in America, around 1600-1860. This was the first class I took as a full-time student, meaning not an evening I took after work or as an elective, but an upper-division specifically for my major. I started that class, and I was really struggling. The real problem wasn’t the work or the material- my brain did not have the comprehension to do well in this class. It was so difficult for me to wrap my head around this stuff. Not too much past the first few weeks, I was failing. I dedicated myself to this, but I couldn’t even handle a survey class. Another moment of doubt. One day, we were assigned a reading called The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, about a former slave who bought his own freedom. The story of liberation and empowerment struck a chord. So much so, I could feel the neurons in my brain finally connecting. I was annotating, asking questions, citing the text by memory. I was able to quote from this text cold. This breakthrough was more than just me learning- my brain was building a new skill set, the very one that got me here, through all of the essays written, books read, every hurdle I have jumped over to get here. I finished the first session of this course with a B and an A in the second. This is what progress looks like.

Convince yourself to be someone else
And hold back from the world
Your lack of confidence
What you choose to believe in
Dictates your rise or fall

What about that stupid test? It’s not easy…for anyone. Maybe the problem isn’t that I’m not smart enough- it’s the test itself. My mentors keep reassuring me that it really only measures one thing: how well you can score on the GRE. This is not a litmus test, where people will see this and think you’re either qualified or not; it’s a test composed of questions designed with a strategy. My brain learned new skills before, and this is no different. My prep books does a great job letting me know this. One of the strategies includes learning its adaptive function, where the exam changes based on your performance while you’re taking it. One new, and slightly counter-intuitive skill to learn: you want the hard questions. That’s how you do well here. The test will make itself harder- don’t hide from this challenge, fight it. I am no longer in that cold room, aimlessly releasing my frustrations. I am David, facing down Goliath, and I am now arming my sling, in hopes of defeating this giant.

Dictates your rise or your fall
With no one else around you
No one to understand you
No one to hear your calls
Look through all your dark corners
When you’re backed up against the wall
Step back from the line of fire

I think about all of this time, all of the work that led me here, then I ask the question again: Am I good enough to get into a PhD Program? I left an entire way of life to pursue this. I have grown as a person in this pursuit, learning about myself, how to empathize with people I’ve never met. I learned what the real value of an education is: to build unto yourself, becoming more than you have once thought of yourself, applying your genius for the good of humanity. It’s a pursuit of knowledge, and I never want to stop learning. This new path has emblazed me, arming me with knowledge to extinguish ignorance, injustice, and doubt. I want to do this, and I want to do this well.

What would you do
If it all came back to you?
Each crest of each wave
Bright as lightning
I’d do the same as you
What you choose to believe in
Takes you as you fall

No one else around you
No one to understand you
No one to hear your calls
Look through all your dark corners
You’re backed up against the wall
Step back from the line of fire

**************************

Just reached my stop. I get my bags, and hop off the train. I gotta go- on my way to work…

 

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