Lectures began on Monday. I have to admit I was extremely nervous yet excited at the same time. I had been in Durham for almost two weeks and I was ready to get started. Not having anything to really occupy my time besides going to the pub and hanging out with friends had made me feel as though I were on vacation. The reality of actually living here had not yet hit me. If I’m completely honest, it still hasn’t hit me. I almost feel as though I am playing at living in another country. I wake up, I shower, I dress, I brush my teeth, I make breakfast but it doesn’t feel like those things felt at home. It isn’t yet mundane. It hasn’t developed the patina of familiarity. At times I still become disoriented when I think about where I am. There aren’t the familiar landmarks of home. I have only my transplanted references, my T-Rex in the window, my painting of Thomas Jefferson and a ferret, photographs of friends and family. They help but I haven’t anything to ground me. Not yet.
I had been rather zealous and made an appointment with the Career Center for 10:40 Monday morning. Lectures hadn’t begun yet, but I was determined to know what my options were. I walked to the Science Site and arrived very early; early enough to wonder about the Bill Bryson Library. It’s an odd building with two halves. One half is the older, original library and it is very reminiscent of a building from the mid to late twentieth century. Brick, with only a few windows to remind the occupants that there is indeed an outside world should one be foolish enough to want to give up the hours of study and quiet solitude afforded within the safety of its walls. The addition is an enormous contrast. Glass is my overall impression. Everywhere there is glass. Walls of glass and indeed an enormous three story window give it a spacious, modern feeling and it feels as though you are studying outside. I wandered around and through the glass and brick labyrinth flowing freely between the two halves until it was time for my appointment.
It was only a twenty minute appointment. My advisor assessed my experience and assured me I was something potential employers would be looking for. My four years of teaching and my unique music background would be considered assets in the creative and educational world of museums. My supplemental coursework in history, archaeology, and historic preservation bridged the gaps in my knowledge. My internships at the state museum and a cultural resource management firm as well as a two week fellowship I had completed two summers before gave me the practical and academic credentials institutions were seeking in potential candidates. I felt like I was on the right track. My master’s degree would be the capstone I needed in order to find a job in the museum sector.
I left for my first lecture feeling hopeful and yet still nervous. I had the nerves of someone beginning an advanced degree and the nerves of someone in another country’s educational system. It was a system in which I didn’t know all of the rules. It was as though I were trying to play Monopoly for the first time with only the Chinese instructions for help.
My first lecture would be Artefact Studies. It was two hours, which was quite short. I was used to three hour lectures at night after a long day of work. I felt like this would be the perfect introduction to what lay ahead. It was to be with Dr. Caple as well. I had been in classes back home with professors who had written books before. Maybe it was my youthful age, but for some reason I had never been very impressed before. I was now though. I was also glad I would have my first lecture with Sophie and Charlotte. It’s always nice to have comrades in arms. Dr. Caple arrived and gave us a rundown of what the course would entail and the course assignments. We would each be given two objects at fixed points during the year. It would be up to us to research, analyze, and present on what that object was, its history, and the culture it came from. This was right up my alley. Something I could research on my own; the comfort of practical analysis and a mathematical approach. Perhaps I wouldn’t be such a pseudoscientist after all. This would involve actual scientific measurements and instruments to complete. The lecture continued and he discussed the nature of artefacts and display. He spoke of needing a wide experience in order to understand a wide variety of objects and cultures. Afterwards, I was very happy. I felt confident I would be able to do this whole grad school thing with no problem.
That feeling would not last. In an hour Sophie and I were off to our next lecture: Museum Communication. This was one of the modules I had been most looking forward to. One of the main reasons I had chosen Durham’s program over others was because there was a practical exhibition project. In groups, we would envision, design, construct, and put on an exhibition from start to finish. We would be the ones to make the decisions about what artefacts to display, how to interpret them, and the stories to tell with them. This was why I was getting into museum studies. For me the interpretation of objects is fascinating. The number of stories you can tell with a collection is nearly infinite and I wanted to be one of the people that helped to tell those stories.
It turned out, however, that not everyone would get to work on an exhibition. We would be divided into two groups. One group would be working with a collection of objects that had recently been discovered and pulled from the River Wear. This group would put on an exhibition with those objects. The other group would be working on an education project. Working within the National Curriculum and with Ancient Greek collections, this group would create an educational resource manual for the museum and teachers with activities for school age children.
When I heard this, my stomach tightened and I began to feel the pangs of anxiety that had been my constant companion while I was a teacher. That omnipresent anxiety which poisoned any good feelings I might have had about the education profession. I can’t be put on that project. I told myself. I’ll go mad if I have to feel this way again for an entire year. We were to be divided into our groups and assigned our projects without say. My fate was not in my hands and for me this was extraordinarily difficult. For over a year I had felt, finally, like I had become the master of my own destiny. It was me who had pulled myself up after losing my teaching job to find a place here at Durham University. It was me who had applied to an historical preservation program for the year I had to wait in order to give myself a better chance at future employment. It was me who had requested to intern at the State Museum and it was me who had seen the direction I wanted my career to go in.
We would find out the next day what our fate was to be. I won’t keep you in the agony I was kept in. I would be on the education project. When I saw my name up there on the screen, I stopped breathing. Then that pit. That familiar pit of anxiety was back. The pit that had consumed me for most of my teaching career. That feeling of panic and of being trapped. It seemed I would never escape that career. I had been very good at it, but it had shut out my creativity and joy. The walls were closing in again. I would be pigeon holed into one career path. After looking at my CV, what would future employers see? Four years of elementary teaching experience, an education degree, and now an education project rather than an exhibition project. I imagined myself in a year sitting across from an interview panel.
“You have a really impressive CV, Jen. Your educational experience is remarkable. You of course are interested in the education coordinator position.”
“Well, that’s not where I really see myself, actually,” I would start hesitantly. “I’m much more interested in exhibition planning and bringing stories to life with objects for museum visitors. Giving a voice to collections is something that really excites me.”
“Hmm…yes that’s nice, but we really see you as more of an educator.”
I imagine that this is how Ralphie felt in A Christmas Story when he got his theme back with a giant red C+.
I was broken from my reverie in which the interview panel was now nagging me with refrains of,”you’ll shoot your eye out” while wearing witches outfits by an elbow. It was Sophie. She looked at me and then down at her notebook.
RU Ok? It was written on the top left corner of the page.
I took my pencil up and wrote.
She was sympathetic. It wasn’t that I didn’t like my group. Everyone seemed very nice and enthusiastic. A new fear gripped me. How could I be my best for my group when I felt like this? How can I contribute when I just had a panic attack about the project? I didn’t even have the comfort of Sophie being in my group with me. I felt like if she were there, I could at least know I had someone who knew my fears and anxieties enough that I could get past them. As it stood, I would be quite on my own.
I tried desperately to pull myself out of the pit my anxiety and depression were gleefully building for me. I just kept seeing the faces of my former principal and superintendent floating around my head telling me they were firing me. I kept feeling the rising panic every time I thought about visiting a classroom or researching the National Curriculum. It was what I had done for four years. I had done this already. I had done it and been treated like garbage for my troubles. I came here to start a new life and a new career and here it was again, like a terrible recurring nightmare.
We were split into our two teams. Sophie gave me a reassuring smile and I tried to reciprocate. There was one saving grace. Robert, the Irish guy from the other night was in my group with me. We had worked in a smaller team yesterday and I knew he and I got on well.
“Is now a good time to tell you I taught primary school for four years?” I asked him.
He looked very happy and high fived me.
“That’s it you’re team leader,” he said.
I quickly shook my head no and did my best to remain quiet through the next activity. I did speak up on occasion to offer some practical advice. We were planning a hypothetical trip for a group of ten year olds to a museum. The one thing I had going for me was my pragmatism. Had I been in the other group, my imagination would have taken hold and I would have sputtered exciting, creative suggestions. My educational training had clipped my creative wings and when faced with another educational scenario, pragmatism was all I had. I could talk about permission slips, packed lunches, the proper ratio of chaperons to children, but I left the creativity up to everyone else that day.
After the lecture was over, Sophie came up to me.
“Are you alright? I could tell you were panicking,” she said. “I could feel it coming off of you.”
“I’m sorry,” I apologized. “I just began having flashbacks to so many of the bad experiences I had had as a teacher. It just really got to me and I couldn’t hold it together.”
“Maybe you can talk to Robin about it,” she suggested.
I shook my head. “They said no switching projects,” I replied. “Besides, in the real world you don’t always get to choose what you work on. This will be good practice for me.”
She looked at me concerned and I was so glad I had a friend in that moment who could sympathize with me.
“Do you want to go get some lunch?” Sophie suggested.
I nodded. We asked a few others to join us and soon Sophie, Robert, me, and a few others from our program who I didn’t know very well yet were walking into town. We went to Varisty where I quickly ordered a bottle of cider. I knew it was early and we still had another lecture but I needed the calming effects of an alcoholic beverage. I felt better about my choice when Robert ordered a pint.
Going to lunch was a great idea. It ended up cheering me up, at least enough to laugh and joke a bit. I also finally got to try the apple crumble with hot custard I had been craving since matriculation. It was fine in moderation, but I found I couldn’t eat the whole thing.
We left ourselves thirty minutes to get to our next lecture and we barely made it in time. The walk was longer and more arduous than we had anticipated. It was up a steep hill and we were all full after our lunch.
I struggled with my attention for the next two hours. I just needed to have an emotional explosion and then I could get on with things. The trouble was I was surrounded my people for the whole afternoon and the evening. There was an event at Howlands that night that I needed to attend. It was the first Café des Arts program and as one of the coordinators, I really couldn’t blow it off. I had a couple hours to wait and I sat in Fisher House on my computer desperate to hold the tears of disappointment and anxiety back. I didn’t want everyone to know me as The Crying Girl. I kept thinking ahead to the walk I would have to make home. I was physically and emotionally exhausted and I wasn’t sure I had the strength to make it.
Charlotte showed up after her lecture. She had either sensed my mood or Sophie had talked to her because she was very understanding the whole evening. Eventually Sophie, Trish, and Robert arrived to attend the evening event. We sat in the second row and listened to our writer in residence describe a trip he had taken following the footsteps of those that had brought St. Cuthbert’s body to Durham. Afterwards there was an historical lecture about the founding of Durham and several of the Prince Bishops. As soon as it was over I made my excuses and shot out of the café. I had an hour’s walk ahead of me and I was desperate to get home and crash.
“Jen,” I heard from behind me.
It was Robert.
“Do you want a lift back to your place? I still have my mum’s car.”
I was glad to have an hour’s journey turned into a five minute one. When I was finally in my room, I sat on my bed, stunned. It had been the longest day I had experienced thus far since I arrived. I felt that all of my excitement and enthusiasm had been sucked away in one simple moment. Then I was angry at myself. Wallowing in my anxiety and hurt was not going to solve anything. I couldn’t allow this opportunity to be wasted no matter how disappointed or upset I was. But the invisible walls of depression had set in around me and I was finding it difficult to break them with sheer force of will. I would instead need some sort of action plan.
The rest of the week of lectures remains a bit of a daze. I just know any enthusiasm I had was gone and what had replaced it was a cold, hard, practical approach to things. It was almost as if all of the colors had gone out of my world and I was left with grays. There were a few moments of vivid color though. The Archaeology Society hosted a drinks event on Thursday. Sophie, Charlotte, Katie, and I attended and we all managed to vote Sophie as our Postgraduate Representative. We celebrated by eating all of the cheese and drinking at least a bottle of wine each. There was also the delicious Saturday evening dinner night hosted by Elena. She cooked us a delicious dish of pasta with mushrooms. Kat also baked some delicious cakes. It was a rosy evening I remember. We all sat about the tiny kitchen table with mismatched plate and odd silverware. We made do in that way that only college students could. We created a cozy, homey feeling and enjoyed each other’s company. That was the important thing. Not the makeshift table cloth or the odd glassware, but the coming together after our first week of lectures to enjoy each other’s company. I was so grateful for this group of friends I had found. I realized that no matter how disappointing the week had been, I would be able to find bright, colorful spots in my time here still. I hope that given time, the grays will fade into the background and all I will remember will be the bright patches of color from this week.