Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My Legally Blonde Moment

Those of you who only read this for the cartoons might want to look away.

So yesterday was my first day of grad school. It was the day I had been looking forward to since I received my acceptance email back in April and danced around my sister's kitchen like a lunatic, proclaiming that I had a future after all.

Even within the difficulties of the last few weeks, starting grad school has been a bright spot in the schedule of my upcoming year. I shivered with antici...pation. It would be challenging. I would be bogged down with hours of reading. I would be sharing Starbucks tables with 50-year-old classmates and hipsters with nowhere more ironic to go.

I would say good-bye, effectively, to my active social life of last year and hello to busy, busy, caffeine, busy.

And so yesterday, I stepped into my first class, nervous and excited and wondering who I was going to meet on this program. In the movie version of my grad school career, I would have been wearing a new outfit and have a fresh, monogrammed notebook.

So it may not come as a shock that my introduction proceeded very much like a career-school movie first class. What comes to mind specifically is this scene from Legally Blonde:

Except that I HAD done the reading, wasn't wearing anything that made me stand out from the others, and hadn't answered any question ridiculously wrong or gotten kicked out of class. Also, I didn't have an awesomely awkward David character in my class.

So, actually, not at all like Legally Blonde. But I was fresh-faced, so to speak, and assumed that my classmates would be my new friends.

The professor went around the room, asking everyone their names, undergraduate major and school, and Master's programs. As the names progressed, there were more and more answers along the lines of:

"My name's Melissa Goldenfarber. I have a Bachelor's in Talmudic Studies from JTS, and one in Political Science from Columbia. I'm in my second year here, and going for a double masters in Hebrew Studies and Public Policy. I plan to work with Russian-Jewish immigrants for such-and-such company."

(Note: This is no one specific. I have no clue whether JTS even has a Talmudic Studies major. I'm going for tone here.)

It became clear after quite a few people that not only was I one of only two first-years in the room, but I was also one of the only two who wasn't pursuing a double-masters. And the other one already had a PhD in Biblical Studies or something like that, and spoke like she'd swallowed a thesaurus.

"It is my presumption that the academic realm of Hebraic studies expounds the theory of academia put forth by Immanuel Kant that blahblahblahdiblahdi phhhbbbbbbbtttttttttt......"

It immediately became clear to me that I was in over my head here. The people here all knew exactly what they were talking about and what they wanted to do with their degrees. So I imagine it must have seemed pathetic when the turn came for me to speak:

"Um... Hi! I'm Aliza, and I have a Bachelor's in... Art... from um.... it's my first day here. I'm going for my Master's in Judaic Studies..."

Professor: "Just Judaic Studies?"

"Um... yes. I-I'm considering the PhD."

"And what do you plan to do with your degree?"

"I-I'm not sure yet. I've thought of a few possibilities, but it's only my first day, so I'm still...considering...a few options."

The professor moved on to the next student without a blink, and as I decompressed, I heard the girl in the row behind me "whisper" to her friend.

"Only ONE Master's program? What's she gonna do for a living? Chew on her diploma?"

I pretended not to hear it, but immediately the above movie scene flashed through my mind. That and the question, what is this, middle school? 

Needless to say, I was in a rather bad state of mind when I walked into my next class. I hadn't understood a word of the previous lecture, other than a question of whether Talmud study was an academic or purely religious pursuit, and it seemed to me like everyone knew something I didn't.

Thank G-d I'd done the reading. My next class was Modern Jewish History. It took me several hours of lecture and some actual class participation on my part for me to calm down, but eventually, calm down I did. And as my new professor discussed the meaning of modernity in a historical sense and cracked a few jokes about generals crossing rivers, I actually started to enjoy the class.

So I'm not an idiot after all. I'm just not a big fish. I'm a little fish swimming with the rest of them, and it's going to take some work for me to keep up and maybe even push ahead of the pack. Today is day two, and I've got two more classes to try, and 115 pages to read (so far). But I'm in a frame of mind where I find the events of yesterday funny rather than intimidating. I feel better than I have in days.

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