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On the ninth day of Summer(mas), my middle schooler gave to me: nine sheep a’leaping

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The past couple of years, I’ve been the faculty advisor for our campus’ chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, which is the honor society for two-year colleges. It’s been a fascinating experience–something that’s foreign to my ways of functioning in the world–and therefore I’m grateful to have had it. PTK is very much about awarding official accolades in clappy-clappy ceremonies. As a rule, I don’t crave accolades, I’m not one for clappy-clappy, and ceremonies create in me a strong desire to bolt for the Exit sign. It’s been good for me to see how important such stuff can be for students, though, and how the programming of PTK can truly impact their lives. And if students are into it, and it’s helping them develop skills and earn scholarship monies, I can play nice. Because students plump my shriveled heart and make it grow wings, I can bundle into some Spanx and do clappy-clappy.

On a personal level, the best part of PTK has been the opportunity to travel to the various conferences, whether they are regional or national. The college has provided PTK with a budget that covers such trips; moreover, because PTK headquarters has resources (*coughmoneycough*), the speakers at the national conventions are terrific. Between trips to Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio, Texas, I’ve sat rapt and listened to Alison Levine, who led the first team of American women up Mt. Everest; listened to Robert Ballard, who discovered the remains of the Titanic; listened to Malcolm Gladwell, the charismatic author of several bestsellers (such as Blink and Outliers); and listened to John Legend, the R & B singer and man intelligent enough to marry hilarious model Chrissy Teigen. These are only a few of the speakers who reminded me that I thrill, from my toenails to my scalp, when I hear smart people spew words.

Beyond the national conventions, I also was fortunate to win a free registration this summer to something called The Honors Institute. Held this year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Institute offered six days of sessions and speakers at the University of New Mexico. Attendees stayed in the dorms, ate in the cafeteria, and, at least for the students involved, had their first-ever experience on a four-year college campus.

Beyond the allure of a week of excellent speakers (notably Reza Aslan, PhD, author of books on religious topics, an Iranian-American who experienced a bit of fame when he appeared on the Dunce Network–excuse me, the Fox Network–in an interview that subsequently went viral; the interviewer couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that he’s Muslim but wrote a book about Jesus, despite his continued explanations in response to her questioning of his credentials: “Because it’s my job as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually.” Completely, entirely, radically, the interviewer was unable to grasp that a person’s private beliefs are separate from his area of academic inquiry. Not unrelatedly: I see students all the time in college classes who suffer from the same syndrome. They refuse to read assigned novels, making claims of faith, lacking the nuanced thinking to see that a book is one thing, yet their faith is another. If their faith is firm, no book will shake it. Refusing to read a book is an indication of unacknowledged fear. We avoid what bothers us, and if a student makes a case for avoidance, then that topic is exactly what we should be addressing. It’s sort of like why I don’t want to talk about Twizzlers. Also, should I maybe start a new blog post and deposit this rant there? Anyhow, as I was saying: Reza Aslan was phenomenally articulate and able to parse out subtleties that too often elude the mainstream. Certainly, I had an objection or two during his talk, but the reason I liked him is this: he’d welcome my objections. Thus, an hour in the presence of his voice buoyed me immeasurably), there was the social aspect of attending the Honors Institute.

First, I flew to the Institute with one of my students and spent the bulk of my time that week with her. She is more friend than student–a 52-year-old full-time clinical data analyst who’s been the student mentor in my online classes the past few years–and I enjoy her hugely, but still: we have a lot to say to each other. There is talking when we are together. There is a lot of talking when we are together.

Then, there’s the fact that my brother lives in Albuquerque and was kind enough to pick us up at the airport, take us out for a hike and dinner with his younger daughter, and let me stay at his place the first night, along with taking a day off from work later in the week when we conference attendees had a free day. I enjoy my brother and niece hugely, but still: we have a lot to say to each other. There is talking when we are together. There is a lot of talking when we are together.

Once the actual Institute happened, there was an overwrought registration process that took hours of standing in a winding line while waiting with 500 others as we made our way to our keys and room assignments. Even though I took out a book and slammed my face into its pages as my student and I loitered in line, packed hundreds deep in a dorm hallway, shuffling forward six inches every four minutes, there still were a lot of people around me with things to say to each other. There was talking as they muddled forward together. There was a lot of talking as everyone shambled together.

At long last, I received my key and room assignment. My student received hers. Since no one at the registration table had a map or gave us directions, we then wandered in large circles around the UNM campus, dragging our suitcases behind us, looking for signs on buildings that matched the words on our envelopes. Eventually, after entirely too much time, we found our rooms (in separate dorms). As I entered my room for the first time, I held my breath. Would my roommate–whoever she was–be there already? Sweaty and tired, needing a quiet break, I pushed the door open. That the room was empty was a colossal clemency. Gratefully, I wheeled myself in and stripped off my backpack. Staring at the two beds, I tried to triangulate the set-up to see if one would afford more privacy. Quickly, I decided to take the one towards the back of the room, leaving open the bed in the half of the room with the fridge, microwave, mirrors, and access to the bathroom. At the very least, once I got settled in my bed, I wouldn’t have to smile and play nice each time my roommate wandered through. As that thought floated through my mind, I heard a rattle at the door. My roommate. When the door swung open, it wasn’t a stranger. It was a woman from my region, a faculty member from the college where I used to teach. I’d first met her in 1996. We had a lot to say to teach other. There was talking, for six days, when we were together. There was a lot of talking when we were together.

Additionally, we were to share a bathroom with the adjacent suite. That meant four women shared a toilet, shower, and sink space. That meant there was no escape, even in the most private moments. That meant I had to reach deep into my history and channel my 18-year-old self, a girl who found dorm living as exciting as it was enervating–a girl who didn’t chafe when she wanted to wash her hair or hit the toilet but first had to wade through a gauntlet of friendly talk. Little-known fact: ladies in the bathroom have a lot to say to each other. There was talking when we all were brushing our teeth together. There was a lot of talking into mirrors together.

Three times a day, as well, there were meals in the cafeteria. Each conference attendee was given a pre-loaded meal card that provided entrance to the dining hall for free meals. Trust me: once or twice, I was more than happy to wave off the crew heading to the cafeteria and hike to a cluster of local shops. There I, or my student and I, gladly paid for food. What a blessing it is to be able to pay for a meal, even when a free one presents itself, simply because the purchased meal feeds the parched spirit. For the most part, though, it was quicker and easier to wade into the cafeteria and load up on carbohydrates and three steamed carrots. Speaking of scenarios that really burn my tits: it’s been years since I held a tray of crappy food while scanning a vast sea of tables, looking for a friendly face and an open seat. Once we found a place at a table, there was lots of talking. There was talking as we all ate Rice Krispies bars together. There was a lot of talking when we loaded our empty trays onto conveyor belts together.

Before and after each meal were the sessions. For each session, there would be a speaker followed by a seminar break-out discussion (the presentations were awesome, one and all–beyond Reza Aslan, we also saw New Mexican dancers, watched a play written by a female playwright who illuminates Latina lives, and enjoyed hearing stories from National Geographic‘s “big cat” photographer, among others). All week, we met in our assigned seminar groups with the same small group of people. Put another way, my usual tactics of skittering off into the darkness were thwarted since I was in a group of 12, and all my seminar mates were fellow advisors. As in, they, too, were teachers. Like, used to keeping track of bodies and noticing when someone was missing. Teachers are also really good at discussing. I hate teachers. During every seminar session–and there were two each day, the last one ending at 10:15 p.m.–there was lots of talking. There was talking as we probed the true meaning of the angry outbursts expressed by the teenage daughter in the play we’d watched. In our seminar group, there was a lot of talking about angry fictional outbursts.

In summary: the week was a highly programmed, tightly scheduled bit of unrelenting socializing. I suspect the overarching purpose of the 14-hours-a-day approach was to keep the underage students from finding the time and energy it would take to score booze, get tanked, and vomit into the cactus-based landscaping. For those of us who require alone time to remain functional, the week was challenging. I did, in fact, skip out on the “optional” afternoon sessions when I could, hoping to score a retreat back in the dorm room. Two things sabotaged those efforts: 1. ROOMMATE; 2. MARCHING BAGPIPE TROUPE PRACTICING OUTSIDE MY WINDOW EVERY AFTERNOON FOR TWO HOURS.

My sanity was saved that week by the same things that keep my nut in a jar in regular life: exercise, beer, and staying up later than everyone else so that I can be alone. Every day, I used stolen afternoon hours to run, and every night, despite the “absolutely no alcohol or you will be expelled” policy, somehow alcohol found its way into my water bottle, and it was the only water bottle I had, so I had to empty the thing otherwisetherewouldhavebeennoplaceforwater. Capping off each day was late-night time perched on my dorm bed–where I would hunch over my laptop and grade that day’s work in my online summer classes. By 3 a.m., I’d feel in control, both of my need for solitude and the heaps of discussion posts and paraphrasing activities.

By 3:20 a.m., I’d turn off my book light, fluff my pillow, and catch a cool three hours of sleep before my roommate would leap out of bed to make coffee and curl her hair.

I find I am a devoted fan of straight hair.

By midweek during the Honors Institute, I was a wild mixture of elated, overwhelmed, satisfied, emotionally sweaty, and exhausted. I’d been away from home for four days. I hadn’t yet called to check in. It was time to call home for some talking. There would be talking about all we’d done without each other. However, given who my family members are, bless Odin, there would be not much talking about all we’d done without each other.

The call was so mercifully brief as to feel like an icy shot of aquavit pouring down a dry throat.

Byron and I had kept in touch through Facebook messages, but still, hearing him on the line restored me. Then he passed the phone to Allegra–ever her mother’s daughter in her dislike of the telephone. She was glad to tell me, in forty-two words, about her job, her running group, some babysitting. Then she grabbed Paco.

“Hi, Mom.” His voice is ineffably sweet when heard in isolation from his face.

“Hey, Punky. How you doin’?”

“I’m okay,” he assured me, wanly.

“How was the sleepover birthday party at Isaac’s last night? I’m guessing you guys slept in his back yard in the tent?”

“Yea,” he yawned. “I decided it would be okay to do that. It was.”

“So how many other boys were there?”

“Ummm, I didn’t count. But it seemed like at least six. A few of them weren’t so much about the sleeping. They talked all night.” I could almost hear him rubbing his eyes.

“Oh, man, I know that feeling, kiddo. It just makes you feel wiped out, doesn’t it, to feel like you’re done with your day, but it still continues?”

“Yea. I was ready to be done,” he confessed.

There are moments when I want to swaddle my twelve-year-old, just one last time, and tuck him into my armpit.

“Aww, pup. I can hear the fatigue in your voice. You sound raspy and tired when you talk. I’m glad you’re relaxing tonight. After you’re done watching your show, go to bed, and sleep really well, okay?” I mothered.

He perked up at this idea. “I’m just going to finish out this Mythbusters, and then I’m going to sleep for a long time. I know I’ll feel better tomorrow. Hey, so how’s your conference? Have you done anything fun?”

Quickly, I gave him a rundown of the good stuff, trying to convey how events that are wonderful can also be too much.

When I was done, Paco asked, “So two more days ’til you’re home? I’ll be in bed before you get home that night, right?”

Correct, Pumpkin. But you’ll feel my breeze as I wheel my suitcase into the house, below your sleeping head.

We wound down our conversation with me telling him to have a good night and him telling me to have fun. Then, just as I was about to say one last good-bye and disconnect, he added, “Mom?”

“Yea, Bubs?”

“I hope you sleep well tonight. I can hear in your voice that you’re really tired. Be sure you get some good sleep tonight.”

The child became the parent, and my heart expanded to match the size of his.

Assuring him I would take good care, we hung up.

The dorm room, barring a hum from the mini-fridge, was completely silent.

Balancing on the edge of the bed, I wiped tears from my eyes, inhaled a bracing breath, and grabbed my meal card.

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Published by Jocelyn

There's this game put out by the American Girl company called "300 Wishes"--I really like playing it because then I get to marvel, "Wow, it's like I'm a real live American girl who has 300 wishes, and that doesn't suck, especially compared to being a dead one with none."

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4 Comments

  1. Two things … first, I’m also an introvert, although a talky one, and lover of smart people spreading ideas, and so I get how this was both heaven and the hot place all rolled into one. And, second, you made me weep at the end there. The exchange with your son made my heart ache all over again for my dad, who just passed away about a month ago. I didn’t become a parent to him until his health failed eight years ago. Imagine your twelve-year-old already having that empathy … imagine what a comfort he’ll be when you are old and worn and fragile … oh crap, now I’m weepy again!

  2. I have to admit that I love to go to conferences but I flat out refuse to go to ones where I have to stay in a dorm or share a room. My wife is the exact opposite. She LOVES those conferences and seeks them out and because she was a teacher, almost EVERY conference she attended involved dorms and sharing. This is her idea of heaven and mine of hell. I did it for three years in college and after that, spent my academia living in terrible apartments. And YES…those cafeterias that serve mashers EVERY FREAKIN DAY! I practically lived on mashers and still connect them to college life. I ate them sometimes for breakfast….hot with two pats of butter and 3 pepper packets. I love how you have the kind of spirit that just sort of leaps into things and makes the best of it. AND you got to meet JOHN LEGEND!!! I would almost live in a dorm to listen to him. I saw an interview with him once and was astounded at how incredibly smart he was. Plus, he looks good enough to eat with mashers.

  3. This was a good read in so many ways, where to begin…I love the way you succeed in getting you alone time and beer.

    ” Completely, entirely, radically, the interviewer was unable to grasp that a person’s private beliefs are separate from his area of academic inquiry. ” I hear that–scary. And I’m also disgusted with how some people still can’t get over the fact that the president’s father just happened to be Muslim. Twenty-somethings don’t have any concept that Islam was not “scary” before 9-11. Skin-deep thinking.

    This does sound like an interesting conference! I wish I had your energy too 🙂

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