Friday, August 29, 2008

On the Second Day...

You would think that the anxiety level would drop a bit, that things would seem easier, that breathing would be easier. You would think. But still, even on the second day: new classes, new faces, new ways to notice that it's not easier. Not yet.

2nd day:

Psych 1010: Prof. Jim Cantrell

It's a larger lecture hall. Larger than the other classrooms I've seen anyway. Nothing as large as the BYU lecture halls I've seen, but larger enough to make me want to shut the door and pretend I was never here. I steel myself instead and walk into the room, taking the syllabus from the professor and making my way across the entire front of the hall and up two levels to take an empty chair. He is talking loudly about something, but I don't really hear it. I experience a sensation of vertigo as I shove my bag under the table and pull out the massive psychology text and my notebook. I close my eyes and try to slow my heart. Just breathe...

I look at my third professor. He is maybe fifty-five? He looks a bit wild, with absent-minded-professor white hair, glasses and a look that says, "You people are mine for the next fifteen weeks." He speaks very quickly, and gesticulates wildly too, so that's it's difficult to follow what he is saying from one subject to the next. After he finishes going over the syllabus, he launches into an explanation of the origin of psychology: from the Greek psyche meaning mind or soul and logos, being the study of. "What is the mind?" he says loudly. "Where is it located? What is evidence of the mind?" He speaks of a man, Watson, a behaviorist in 1928 and says again, "What is the mind?" He pauses for a long moment and then says, "C'mon people, wake up!" I raise my hand and reply loudly, "Are you asking us?" He stares at me. "Yes!" he says. He keeps staring at me. I don't say anything more, cowed by his expression. I was just wondering. A couple of people raise their hands. Their answers seem rote, but maybe just to me. We have minds because we think! We have memories and stuff! I wonder what Cantrell thinks of these answers. Are they what he is looking for? He speaks of MRI's, CAT scans, and ways to see how the brain works. I think, Are you looking for evidence of the mind, or evidence of a super-processing biocomputer? The mind is not the brain. The brain can be measured with advanced machinery, its processes and energy tracked and quantified. The brain is merely a super-complex data processor. The mind is something different, something that is, as they say, more than the sum of its parts. This line of thought reminds me of the film "I, Robot". In the film, Dr. Lanning questions the differences between advanced data processing and the advent of the mind. He says:

"There have always been ghosts in the machine. Random segments of code, that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul. Why is it that when some robots are left in darkness, they will seek out the light? Why is it that when robots are stored in an empty space, they will group together, rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior? Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter mote of a soul?"

I love these words. "the difference engine" vs. "the search for truth"... "the bitter mote of a soul..." All of these things run through my brain as I listen to Cantrell. He seems so scattered, jumping from one thing to another, scribbling names and dates on the board, throwing questions out in our direction and then saying, "Is any of this making sense?"

At one point, one kid says, "You're talking about a human being using positive reinforcement to control animals. I don't think that control would work on a human being. Human beings have intelligence, logic. They can choose. They aren't controlled by pleasure and pain." I think, Really? Is he really saying this out loud? Surely he realizes that not everyone is self-aware enough to use logic to reason out what they want based on their values, ethics and ideals. Surely he realizes that people operate on different cognitive levels. Much of the human race operates precisely on what feels good. So many people are motivated by their desire for fulfillment of pleasure that they don't think much beyond that. I concede that there are others, people who have learned enough about themselves and the world around them to operate on a higher level, but I think that this subject is exactly why we as a society are so dysfunctional. Most of us don't realize why we are the way we are, why we do what we do, and so fall into co-dependent relationships, addictive behaviors, self-destruction and manipulation to get what we want.

He tells us to read chapters one and two. I don't catch any other specific assignment. I guess I'll check the syllabus online to make sure. I wait after class to shake his hand. He looks at me questioningly, "Yes?" I reach out and say, "I just wanted to say thank you." He shakes my hand quizzically. "But we'll see you next Tuesday, right? And the rest of the semester?" I nod, "Yes, of course." He smiles, "Good. See you then."

Art 1110: Michelle Shepherd

This campus (North Valley) was difficult to find. It wasn't where I thought it was, and so makes my record 4-4: late to class again. If only my professors knew that this is not the norm, at least for me. I suppose it will have to be something they learn over the semester. That I like to be prompt and prepared.

My fourth professor, Shepherd, is dressed in garish colors. She has a strong nose and a strident voice and big blond hair. She has us do a display pretest, to gauge our current skills. It's a still life, and though still life has never been enjoyable to me, she says, "Being able to render a still life well means that you will be able to draw anything well." and I believe her. She talks to us about relative proportion and line of sight. It was a class I thought would be one of my favorites. It may just prove to be the greatest challenge.

Perhaps after a couple of weeks, when the schedule has settled in and the experience is more familiar, I will feel better about everything. I'll hope for that. Hope. Yes, I'll hope for that.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

On Class...

English 1010: Prof. Alisha Geary

I come into class about three minutes late. This does double duty as the fulfillment of two nightmares: walking into a room full of people with everyone looking at me, as well as interrupting my professor in mid-sentence. She doesn't seem to mind however, and I slink to an empty chair on the far side of the room. It's in the middle of the row. Joy.

I pull out a notebook and take a good look at my first professor. She has a generous face with eyes that sparkle as she launches into an explanation of how she started teaching and how much she loves it. Her hair is pulled up, a large flower woven into the knot on the back of her head. She is dressed in a black jacket and she talks animatedly about writing, about literature and about words. She is in love with language, with words. Occasionally, she will pause and take a deep breath, seeming to drink in her own craving for words and finding it sweet. She says, "Those of you who love writing, I hope that you will not go crazy in your lifetimes, because writing can be obsessive." She pauses, taking that deep breath. "I am obsessed with words. I LOVE them...." I smile inwardly. I think I will like her...

I shake her hand at the end of class. I want to make sure that my professors know how much I appreciate their willingness to share their passions with us, how much I appreciate that I'm able to be here, to walk these halls, to get a new start. I don't know if any of this can be conveyed in a handshake, but I hope that it will serve to let them know that I am there and listening.

Prof. Geary's more memorable quotes on this day:

"There will be retribution if you're not doing your reading."

"I have the prerogative to change the syllabus. I will let you know if this happens. It is not arbitrary or capricious, which are two big words that mean... uh, RUDE."

"I do not want to see your cell phones. I can see you texting under your desks. Yes, I can see you. I want them off and out of sight. Not on vibrate. Not on silent, but OFF. You should be learning. I should be learning. We should all be here and happy, not texting with poor grammar and too many abbreviations."

Health 1100: Prof. Ursula Sorensen

She wants us to divide into groups of four near the end of class and tell each other our names, where we're from, our majors and goals in life. My heart races as she says this and I feel a sudden sense of panic. Sometimes the most mundane things feel as if they'll send me screaming from the room. The four of us turn to each other and introduce ourselves. Their names already elude me, but I remember the majors:

Technology Management: "It's a wide open field. People graduating from this program here at UVU are starting at $180,000. Right now there are 10,000 more jobs available than people graduating."
Nursing: "Four of my sisters-in-law are nurses. They talk to me about it and it seems like something I would be good at."
English: "I had no idea what to major in, and that's what the English Major is for."

Their lifetime goals all involve academic achievement. It seems so limited. No judgement here, of course. I just don't think, if I was allotted ONE life goal, that I could limit it to getting a Master's. No, my lifetime goal is to have ten perfect days. Just ten. There have been lots of perfect moments; moments suspended in time, snapshots of the exquisite. Sometimes they're more powerful taken out of context, sometimes they carry more weight when everything is considered. But there aren't very many times where perfect moments have been strung together to form the perfect day, sublime in its totality. I'm talking about the sort of day that, at the end of it, you are quite sure you could die and not regret one single thing.

There are children everywhere. I feel like an impostor, walking among them unknown, like I've put on a disguise so they won't notice me. It's surreal, to be surrounded by these busy, twittering, texting youngsters. They seem like a different species. This place is seething with them. I push down my anxiety. They're like bees, I think. Don't bother them and they won't bother you. Every once in a while, I will catch a glimpse of someone more like me; quieter, more tired. Perhaps though, unlike me, more self-assured, less wild-eyed. But it's nice to know that there are others. Others like me. I walk through the halls and out into the open air. It's cool here in August, unlike Phoenix. The sunlight falls through leaves and dapples the sidewalk. I take my shoes off and walk in the grass. It's soft. It feels like what I imagine the hair on the head of a giant elemental infant would feel like; a baby made of earth and stone and life, things primal and ancient born into something brand new and topped with a full head of soft green grass. Then this thought strikes me as funny and I laugh at how weird I am. This is a beautiful campus. I think I will like it here.

On School...

August 27th, 2008...

I had approached this day with trepidation. I've done lots of things, felt lots of things, dreamed lots of things; but college? No, I've never done this. I remember the first day of school... a few first days of school, when I was a kid. The days before the first day were filled with anxiety:

What if I'm not smart enough? Writing assignments, long division, spelling bees, fractions...
What if I can't make friends? Other kids don't like me. I don't fit in very well.
What if my teacher doesn't like me? And writes my name on the board in front of everyone?
What if I get lost? I get confused sometimes: what was I doing? Where am I?
What if... what if... what if? Pop quizzes, chicken pox, forgotten homework, field trips, oral reports, bullies, feeling like I'm always on the outside of everything...

Each year of additional academic experience did nothing to assuage this litany of horrifying possibilities, pounded out through my head every single first day. The questions running through my head were very similar, with only slightly different connotations:

What if I'm not smart enough? I feel quite sure that the previous decade of academic interstice has atrophied beyond recognition anything that resembled intelligence.
What if I don't make friends? I'm quite antisocial. My therapist says that school will be a great opportunity to make human connections, to meet people with my interests. It's not that I can't make friends. It's that I'm usually so paralyzed by shyness that I don't make the effort. It's easier to be an island. Upon hearing me say something like this, I'm sure my therapist would lower her forehead into one hand defeatedly and sigh. Don't tell her.
What if my teacher doesn't like me? It happens.
What if I get lost? The circuitous nature of UVU's campus has me feeling like a small child wandering around in a very large and unfamiliar library. Is it just me, or does everyone else know where they're going? Maybe it's just me...
And a new one: What if I can't keep up with these mentally agile, super-young undergrads? I feel so old sometimes.
What if... what if... what if? Test anxiety, losing my place (in the middle of a thought, a sentence, a class, an assignment, a conversation), talking to professors....

We will see how it goes. Observations on Life, The Universe and Everything to follow.