Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Stress of Mediocrity


Grad school wasn’t easy for me. Nearly all the students were twenty-two; I was eleven years older. Moreover, during the fifties, I’d attended a small Catholic college in Kansas. Now it was 1969, and I was still a hick, totally out of my element.
            One story suffices to illustrate this. For each of four quarters, the American studies program required all graduate students to attend a weekly seminar. The text we studied contained essays by a wide variety of philosophers, social scientists, and other pundits from varied disciplines. They examined the ideas, inventions, and happenings that had influenced American culture.       

     
            Mary Turpie, head of the program, facilitated these roundtable discussions. I greatly respected her. Unsure of myself, I longed for her approval. Despite that, I seldom spoke in the seminars. The other students proposed concepts that were beyond me. They argued passionately, with great certainty. I felt like a bumbling child in their midst. And so, not wanting them to see just how stupid I was, I said nothing.
            This went on for nearly a year. Then, at a seminar in the third quarter, one of the female students made a definitive statement about the essay we’d read for that class. I listened closely to her argument. When she finished expounding, I felt sure I understood her point of view.
            Across the room, a young man began to speak. Ah! I thought, what he’s saying is the exact opposite of what she said. What a discussion we’ll have!
            As he ended his monologue, I prepared myself for a debate about the differences between these two opinions. To my amazement, the young woman said, “That’s just what I was saying! We’re in sync.” The other students nodded their agreement.
            I sat, befuddled. I’d listened closely, thought I heard two different viewpoints, expected a great discussion—and all along their positions had been the same. Unquestionably, I wasn’t meant for graduate school. I didn’t have the necessary brain cells.
            The next day, Ms. Turpie summoned me to her office. I was sure she'd suggest I drop out of grad school. What a disappointment I must be to her. Always before, I’d enjoyed sitting next to her desk to discuss the next classes I’d be taking. Always she spoke softly. Listened intently, her head slightly tilted. She reminded me of a true lady.
            At these meetings, she never offered a snack, but in my imagination I saw her sitting forward on a floral couch offering me a cup of oolong tea and a warm scone, oozing butter.


            That day, she wore a straight gray skirt and a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar. Over that she wore a forest green cardigan with the top button fastened. On her feet were brown low-heeled shoes.
            We looked at one another for a moment. Then she quietly asked, “Dee, why don’t you ever speak up in our seminars?”
            “I have nothing to say.”
            “My dear, you have so much to offer those younger students. You’ve taught in all kinds of classrooms. You’ve been in the convent. You’ve worked at editing and publishing. You been in the inner city and taught students there. You have a great interest in black history and linguistics. And you have, I think, a fierce sense of justice.”
            All she said might be true, but in my mind it had little to do with knowing what to say in her seminars.
            “You have so much to offer,” she continued, “so why don’t you? You could help these students understand life in a broader sense. Their experience is narrow. Insular.”
             Sighing, I reminded her of the seminar the previous day. She nodded encouragingly as I recounted the exchange between the two students.
            “And what did you conclude from that?” she asked.
            “I’m stupid.”
            “No, you were right. They did make opposite points.”
            “Then why did they say they agreed?”
            “I think she wants to date him.”
            My mouth fell open. I’m sure I gaped at her. Dating? That was a reason for denying what you’d just said and agreeing with some boy? Dating?
            “Why would you think you’re stupid?” Ms. Turpie asked.
            “Well listen to them. They use big words. I don’t even know those words.”
            “Like what?”
            I gave her examples. She nodded and then, this woman, this lady, who looked as if she ate scones and drank tea and read Agatha Christie mysteries, said, “Dee, what you need to realize is that all they say is mostly b-s.”
            Again, I gaped, then giggled, and finally guffawed. To hear that lady use that term made my year.
            Ms. Turpie grinned. Then she, too, broke out laughing.
            I stayed in grad school. Who could resist the lure of such a program director?



Room by nokhoog_buchachon
Scones by Clare Bloomfield
Both from freedigitalphotos.net

37 comments:

  1. This post is so wonderful, from the image with the oolong tea to the amazing, intuitive teacher.

    I laughed out loud when I read this: “I think she wants to date him.” Aren't some people so funny! Did they end up dating after she denied and sacrificed her previous opinions?

    I'm so thankful Ms. Turpie encouraged you :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Elisa,
      I have no idea if they ended up dating. But I was surprised at Ms. Turpie's assessment. Clearly, she was absolutely aware of what went on in that seminar!

      Peace.

      Delete
  2. The atmosphere created by the scones and Agatha Christie mentions was delightful. Mrs. T. obviously had her hand on the pulse of the class!
    I look forward to hear what you do next.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Susan,
      Yes, I agree--Ms Turpie did have "her hand on the pulse" of that seminar. As to what I'm going to do next. I'm not sure where I'm going with this. I sort of go with the way the spirit moves me on posting day.

      Peace.

      Delete
  3. Some people think they're very intelligent & they aren't. There are others who don't realize how intelligent they really are. I'm glad you had Mrs. Turpie then--& us, now--to help you realize what a truly intelligent & feeling person you are!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Fishducky,
      Thank you, once again, for your kind words. I have come to realize that I'm not stupid. I do have a good brain--when I use it! I was in my sixties before I was able, however, to admit that. Some of us are s-l-o-w learners!

      Peace.

      Delete
  4. Oh Dee this was delightful!It sounds just like the Dee I talk to on the phone! You? Stupid? Not a chance dear lady! I hope I'm half as smart as you when I die!
    There was a line in here (the descriptive part of the sentence) that made me think of something E would write! You two have been editing together for so long you are merging! Either that or you two are more alike than I thought. (giggling as this explains my love for the two of you.)
    At these meetings, she never offered a snack, but in my imagination I saw her sitting forward on a floral couch offering me a cup of oolong tea and a warm scone, oozing butter. that girl uses the same kinds of description as you again I'm delighted!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Melynda,
      I'm glad to be compared to Elisa. Her energy and enthusiasm and spontaneity are so attractive. They draw all of us to her.

      Peace.

      Delete
  5. I hope you tell me of some conversation in this class that you engaged in. I think Mary knew everything about you, and seemingly everybody else in the class. How did she know so much about you otherwise? She is a very interesting person, as are you! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear DJan,
      I truly can't remember any conversation the one I posted about. It struck me then like a thunderbolt. I do remember reading the essay on the invention of automobiles and how that had changed our culture: brought about the development of suburbs and the construction of super highways stretching across our country, changed dating and led to drive-in theaters and eateries. I remember being astounded at how one thing could change the scene so much.

      Peace.

      Delete
  6. Melynda's right...this was very E-like. Your attention to detail astounds me. I'm so glad you stayed in grad school. We're all the wiser for it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Stephanie,
      Remembering so many details is a blessing and a curse. I have so many memories tucked away in this mind of mine, but I forget easy words! That's what happens, I supposed with aging. Perhaps some of the memories are pushing aside the words!

      Peace.

      Delete
  7. A most wonderful post to read. Thanks for sharing.

    Yvonne.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Yvonne,
      I hope you are over your jet lag from the trip to the States.

      Peace.

      Delete
  8. I am so glad that in Mary Turpie you found a teacher who was the antithesis of the Professor in your last post. And a person who you obviously respected, and one who found something to value in you. The same things that we here in the blogosphere are valuing today, some years down the track.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear EC,
      Thank you for valuing my stories. That's one of the great things about blogging. We can dip into our memories and share them with others all around the world and they find some meaning in them. My memories are speaking to others of their own and that gives me great satisfaction.

      Peace.

      Delete
  9. it is a long time to stay quiet, more than a year. it's so easy to get intimidated by other people, especially when we think we are that much different than they are. it takes awhile to get comfortable with ourselves around others. terrific post. mrs. turpie was all right. i love great teacher stories:)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Ed,
      I, too, love great teacher stories. I've had many fine teachers--in grade and high school and in college. It was only at the University of MInnesota, however,that I really began to see and appreciate how lucky/blessed I'd been in those teachers.
      They were a gift

      Peace.

      Delete
  10. Oh, I would have loved her, too! The contrast between her soft spoken ladylike manner in class and her no nonsense viewpoint and language in her office cracked me up! Refreshing!

    I was friends more with the professors in college than the students at my age when I went. She really saw who you were, too. Wonderful!! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Rita,
      I'd so love for you to post some stories about your time in college when you were in your early fifties. In a comment on my last posting you said that you'd spoken up and asked the questions in class that everyone else wanted answered. I can just see you graciously asking and expecting an answer.

      Please, would you think about--on your second blog--telling some of those stories? That is, when you've had enough sleep and the pain has diminished so that you can write postings on both blogs?

      Peace.

      Delete
  11. Oh, Dee, if only everyone had a mentor in their lives like Ms. Turpie. I'm so glad she was yours and that she took the time to discuss this with you. What a marvelous program director.

    The news have had a few reports of late about some study or other about how women relate differently in discussions, especially with men. I only caught part of it, but, I think it was in relation to the corporate world and how we relate in meetings and that women are (surprise?) "wired" differently than men. If I find a link to the study, Dee, I'll send it to you, or, if anyone else heard about it, maybe they will mention it here.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Penny,
      Please do send me that link if you find it. I'd be interested not only because of college days but because of my work in publishing houses and the many meetings held there.

      And yes, Ms. Turpie was a "marvelous program director" and a fine teacher and mentor.

      Peace.

      Delete
  12. I enjoyed this post so much! Great to read this on a sleepless night -- much better than tossing and turning ;-) However, your description of tea and hot scones with butter melting has now got my mouth watering! Unfortunately there are many people who have a lot to offer who are intimidated by this kind of b-s -- in all walks of life... I, too love great teacher stories, especially ones like this which are, in fact, told by a great teacher!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Broad,
      Now tell me, did you get up and eat something???? I hope that you ultimately got to sleep and had many hours to rest and dream.

      Thank you for complimenting me on my teaching. It is a great profession. For myself, I felt it became a calling--as if I were born to teach.

      Peace.

      Delete
  13. I'm happy you had such a lovely person to help you stick it out. I tried going to grad school. The professors and my adviser and my employers in the school library were of no help whatsoever (the librarians were also extremely critical). I gave up in absolute despair when one person could have made all the difference.

    Love,
    Janie

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Janie,
      I"m sorry that grad school didn't work for you. It's so true that one person can make all the difference. And it's so important that we all try to be that one person--that is, the one who is helpful.

      Peace.

      Delete
  14. What a turning point this episode must have been for you! And you've been sharing your perspective ever since, haven't you! It's very difficult for me to think of you as insecure, but I can understand how your confidence grew with each and every experience. I am so impressed with the clarity of your memory of these many learning opportunities. You have been very brave, Dee, to persevere in spite of insecurities, and you are a wonderful example of a life-long learner! I so admire you! Debra

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Debra,
      When I look back over a long life, I find myself in some admiration of a much younger Dee--of the child Dolores who lived through what she'd been told was desertion and of an older Dolores who experienced things children shouldn't experience and yet so many do. And I think that those early "Dodos" and "Dolores" and "Dees" were brave. I don't know why that was, but if "they" hadn't been, I wouldn't be here today.

      Peace.

      Delete
  15. What a marvellous well-told story, Dee. You had me nodding and smiling and then chuckling as I read. Ms Turpie was right.You had so much to offer those youngsters - life-experience, perspective, maturity and spiritual insight. I'm so glad you had such a perceptive and likeable professor as well as the poor one in your last post and really hope you learned to speak up in discussions.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Dear Perpetua,
    I did learn to speak up, but I was always aware that my vocabulary lacked the esoteric and five-syllable words of the younger students. I continued to think that I had a mediocre mind until I was in my sixties.

    I'm glad you liked the story, Perpetua. It sort of wrote itself because the memory is such a cherished one.

    Peace.

    ReplyDelete
  17. What a great tale. I can see your face when your Ms Turpie told you that the student just wanted to get a date! You were lucky to have such a great program director. I am astounded at your memory – remembering what the teacher wore. The event must have stuck in your memory and I can understand why.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Vagabonde,
      I've always had a good memory for what people have said to me or to others when I was aware that something momentous was being said. This happening in Ms. Turpie's office had great import for me and so I've remembered it well. And yet.....I have a hard time remembering what I wore yesterday!

      Peace.

      Delete
  18. What a wonderful tale! I was smiling big as I read toward the end, remembering when I had a similar experience. I returned to college in order to finally finish my undergraduate degree at the ripe old age of 48! I usually felt like a total idiot, and more than once came home crying that I was going to quit. Then I had the most marvelous psychology professor who saw more than I did. She encouraged me, praised my writing, and asked me to be a part of her grant writing team. I slowly began to feel not just able, but successful.

    Thank God for teachers/professors who see beyond, and take the time to reach out and make a difference.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Sandi,
      Did you read Rita's comment on my Saturday posting--the one on laughter in the classroom? Like you, she went back to school when she was about fifty. And like you the experience ended up being a good one.

      If you have time, please go back and read her comment on Saturday as well as the one she left for this posting.

      Peace.

      Delete
  19. Sometimes we need another to tell us of our worth.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I love that this post comes on the heels of the one about the mean professor. Your light shines too brightly to not attract wonderful people, Dee.

    ReplyDelete