On April 15th, 2013, I was laying in bed, unemployed and in my pajamas. This round of unemployment was different than the last because I would have up to 12 interviews a week. On that day alone, I had 3 job interviews. The first one was an in person interview, and the second one a phone call. As I began my preparation one hour before the third interview, just after 2 p.m. central, I opened my computer to see that 15 minutes previously, a bombing ended the Boston Marathon.
Like a scene from a movie where the main character experiences a death and she breaks down instantly from shock, grief and pain, I became that main character. I’ve never been that person before. Death, shock, grief always need time to settle within me before I become inconsolable and heartbroken.
Not this time.
Hysterical, I called Joel, who knew exactly why I was calling because part of his job is to constantly monitor Twitter. He attempted to console me. He advised me to stop watching the coverage until after the third interview was over. I obeyed, and helplessly gave the worst phone interview of my entire unemployment because all I could think about is how can these people, after this national tragedy, continue working, continue interviewing and judging me by random things I was saying. I couldn’t get off the phone fast enough.
I was hysterical for hours, even after Joel returned home from work. Now, months after the tragedy, most people not directly affected by the event seem to have moved on with their lives and physically and mentally healed, but I am pulled back into the past.
My Boston History
I moved to Boston in 2002 to attend graduate school for philosophy at Boston College. I spent only two years there, yet I classify Boston as my home because it is the place I did the majority of my growing up. I went to undergrad 29 miles from home and never became a true adult. It wasn’t until I moved half-way across the country alone that I discovered my intelligence, my strength, my beliefs and myself. It was hell, especially the first semester, but I graduated and left a piece of my heart there.
As Jay Busbee states in his article, “Joy of moment shattered by Boston Marathon Blast,” “the sheer cruelty of this tragedy, targeting a gathering of people on the happiest day in their city, just defies imagination … Road races are our grand unifying sporting events, we won’t get anywhere near the World Series or Augusta, but all it takes to join in the grand community of runners is a desire to get up off the couch.”
Every Bostonian participated in the marathon on Patriot’s Day. Schools were cancelled, roads and restaurants shut down; only public transportation was open. We gathered along the route to cheer on the marathon runners. And, at Boston College, the marathon had more than a one-day-a-year presence; it was an every day event. The route goes through and near the Boston College campus, and a person couldn’t go anywhere without people training for the marathon yelling, “on your right.” Day or night, spring, summer, winter, fall, marathon runners, strangers, witnessed me coming of age, as I moved to the left to let them by.
But I couldn’t imagine that my intense attachment to Boston and the marathon was what was causing me to continue to mourn for days, weeks, and months after the event. It was something more.
How Pursuing a Humanities Ph.D. is Akin to Having Your Soul Blown to Shreds by Terrorists
Busbee continues, “The goal of a marathon, for most of us, isn’t winning, but completion. Pile up the miles. Finish the run for those that now can’t.”
The completion of my degree from Boston College was the middle of the marathon of my education. I moved on to complete a Master’s Degree in English at South Dakota State University, fighting each step of the way to graduate in two years, and finally, I began the last 5 miles of my marathon by attending the University of North Dakota to earn my Ph.D. and complete my dream of becoming a college professor.
I piled up the miles, working through 2 years of course work during which I amassed a 3.8 GPA. I also taught while fighting a system that had no rules and kept changing. I was diagnosed with a learning disability and a degenerative eye disease. I was treated unfairly in comparison to my male counterparts. I was accused of anti-intellectualism, and I jumped through random, academic hoops and requirements that appeared before me but not in front of my peers. (Although one of my peers did call the testing system Kafkaesque in passing and was forced to provide a written apology for that.) One of the hoops was to create a list of books for the qualifying exams, which took me approximately a year to get the people on my committee to agree upon. The work with the committee was miles and miles of toil, because, quite frankly, there are no standards in humanities Ph.D. programs.
My exams took place over the course of 2 weeks. Each exam was 36 hours straight. One was taken on Monday, then on Friday, then on the following Tuesday. I completed my last exam at 2:00 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010. I had written my heart out in those exams, pulling on the reserves of knowledge amassed through my readings and courses over the previous 12 years. By the end of the exams, my body and mind felt as Busbee explains what a marathon runner feels like during the marathon: “Your body isn’t your own anymore … your arms … feel like you’ve been lifting a truck by the bumper, your gut … it’s convulsing, but you left shame behind 20 miles ago, your mind slips from thought to thought bouncing from Good God this hurts to holy Christ I’m almost done.”
I had 8 hours where I didn’t know. And then the call came; my bomb exploded. Joel had checked my e-mail at my request and discovered I had failed the first exam. In hindsight, I can see that my committees never had any plans to do the right thing. I was the first person to take the qualifying exams since the inception of the English Ph.D. at UND with a learning disability, and the first person, in those same years, to fail not just one, but all 3 exams. No one had ever failed even one before.
I was that man who fell when the bomb went off, Busbee says: “It hurt, seeing that guy fall within literally feet of the finish line, because he was on the cusp of one of the greatest moments of his life. He was right there.”
I was right there, too.
Recovering from Life Bombings
While not passing my exams was not at the same level as someone who lost life or limb at the bombing, what I mean to convey here is that there was something more than tragedy that occurred at Boston. We all feel it in one way or another when our lives change in an instant, when the course of your life has been drastically altered by another individual with little regard or capacity for human compassion or dignity. And suddenly your life is on another course. You have to pick up the pieces and find a new path after spending 30 years of your life pursuing a dream.
My dream died, my sun exploded, my bomb went off. The life I had prepared for, spent just under half a million dollars for, had ended, completely. I would and could never become that which I had dreamed of since I was 4 years old. But, I didn’t cry. Like I said before, I had to let the shock of being “right there” sink in before I became hysterical.
I stayed in bed for days. It took me 8 months to find another job because with the failing, I became blackballed from working in my career field in all of eastern North Dakota. But, I kept going, and we moved to Minneapolis. I thought my Writing Center Director job was my saving grace. I wanted to believe what Red Sox CEO, Larry Lucchino, (isn’t that a great name?) said in “Red Sox React to Boston Bombings,” “I just want to believe something positive will come from this tragedy.” But, every day, I was riddled with questions by colleagues, supervisors and students as to why I didn’t have my Ph.D. It was a constant reminder, of what I believed was my failings, my fault as a Ph.D. candidate.
I left academia two years to the day after the exams began to join the corporate world via a temporary contract position. I couldn’t be a part of academia anymore and its constant reminder. I couldn’t answer anyone’s questions and continually beat myself up because people didn’t understand. I didn’t tell people, and still don’t. I was safe in the corporate world for 4 months, no one caring or noticing my lack of a Ph.D. But then the contract ended, and I found myself unemployed. I was attempting to cross train into a new field, build a new life. Once again I had to explain, over and over and over again about why I wanted to leave academia.
But I’m a Bostonian. Busbee states: “Think about the people in Boston who pushed themselves to the limit, or cheered on those who did, only to have a coward strike. We can’t let the bastards whose lives are failures terrify the rest of us, who want to and try to reach beyond ourselves.” I am reaching beyond myself to say, a broken system and cowards whose lives are failures are not going to dictate the rest of my life. I have let them dictate so much of my life to this point. I do not look at the people running in the marathon as failures because someone took their finish line away from them. I hope that I can continue to believe that I’m not a failure because someone took my finish line away from me.
A New Beginning
Here I am, with almost 3 months of a corporate job under my belt, a contract writing gig with a very important non-profit, married to the most amazing man, living the life that I love, that I never imagined possible because I was in that academic box where hazing is an acceptable practice concerning other human beings.
I was doing insightful, unique research about race, baseball, and American literature, and somehow, I will find a way to publish this research without the coveted Ph.D. I have begun my next marathon. I am a Bostonian, after all, and like Lucchino said, “Wait till next year’s Boston Marathon. It will be the biggest ever.”
As I hear story after story after story of academics fleeing from over work and under payment, I realize that something positive did come from this tragedy; I’m not alone and there is life, a better, healthier life, outside those high ivory towers. Only failures and cowards barricade themselves within them.