I remember being in grad school and looking ahead at people who were successful and thinking that there was some path or track from here to there. If I only knew what that track was, I could just follow it. Now I think about this really differently – I’m more or less making it up as I go, and the best signal about what to do next comes from inside, not outside. I offer some memories and examples that come to mind.
In May of 1978 I graduated from college, traveled for a few months cross-country with a buddy, and came back in August looking for a teaching job in special education. I interviewed for a job teaching in a classroom of 10 fifth-grade boys who each lived in psychiatric facilities or were otherwise diagnosed with a serious emotional disturbance and were being mainstreamed into a regular school self-contained classroom. I walked into a classroom with no materials and no curriculum in a school that really didn’t want these students and me there. I thought, “Of course I can do this job. I went to school for it, didn’t I? ”
Never had I faced a challenge like this, and I had no help. Quite honestly, they should not have hired me, but I did not know it at the time. Long story short, I left the job after four months. I think I actually had gotten things under reasonable control by then, but I was clearly outmatched, and knew the challenges were bigger than my capacity to meet them. I moved on to teach sixth-grade special ed in a nearby middle school. It was very diverse, and loved it and made a difference, I think. I team-taught with a terrific teacher/mentor teacher and learned a ton. I had a lot to learn as I left school and needed help. I guess the lesson for me was to recognize how much I did not know and that the path based on that recognition required a detour.
Our little clan moved to UVA in 1986—Ann, me, and six-month-old Meghan. We left a really close-knit group of friends and came to Charlottesville broke and not knowing anyone all that well. I had a new course to teach in the fall and had to get going on research. The first week we started at U.Va., I had a presentation at a conference in D.C. I was third in a symposium of four talks, the first two of which ran very long.
I had rehearsed my talk and knew it took twelve minutes, which should have worked even with the longer talks before it. Well, it turns out that giving the real talk always takes longer than rehearsing it, and I ended up taking all the remaining time in the symposium because I was too nervous to adjust. It was awful, and I remember it to this day. I’m better now at giving talks, but I still get nervous—there really is no magic to what we do, and nothing replaces a lot of preparation, practice, and feedback, even if it’s hard to hear.
At Minnesota, where I got my Ph.D., the custom before a preliminary oral defense is that the student leaves the room at the start of the defense. I was very nervous. The first question was asked by a very supportive faculty member who knew me well. It was one of those questions that actually had a correct, factual answer, and I froze. I tried every stall strategy I knew and clearly wasn’t getting it right. After five minutes that felt like five decades, I said, “I know I know this but there’s no way I will come up with the answer, so can you just tell me the answer and we can move on?” We all mess up and sometimes there’s no way to correct it, and for me it’s best just to admit it and move on.
And last but certainly not least… As a professor over the last 20 or so years, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be married to Ann and have three kids, two now having graduated from college. For the better part of this time, maybe for most of it, I’ve been husband, dad, mentor, advisor, researcher, teacher and a few other things (occasional runner). For most of two decades I remember feeling like I never did any of those things very well, or at least as well as I wanted at the time. I still feel that way. I guess I was good enough. Fortunately, I think I knew the important roles were dad and partner.
I think it’s good to have high standards for myself but also really important to go easy, know my priorities, and stick with them. Staying grounded (while not always easy) helps when I don’t feel very good about what I think I’m getting done. It’s really OK; life is always bigger.