Alma Matters

So, something really awesome happened this week. Part of me wants to keep it close to the chest and privately bask in it. But at the same time....damn, this was a super cool thing, a simple joy. And shared joy is doubled. So I'm going to tell you about it. 

But before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this one. 

In college, I was a sub-par student. I got decent grades when I applied myself, but didn't always put that effort out there. I was a music-education major who realized she couldn't deal with the politics involved in teaching, so I switched to a theory/composition major. I had my ups and downs, I made mistakes and I own them. 

One choice I made in college was how I dealt with the music department. I'm not sure how it is at other universities, but at my alma mater, the School of Music was very political with a very large, very vindictive rumor mill at its center. I wanted none of that shit. I didn't live in the fine arts buildings, like others. I went to my practice room only when I had to, and even then my attendance was never guaranteed. I didn't join Sigma Alpha Iota--the women's music fraternity (yes, fraternity...if you called it a sorority you'd get slaughtered)--or partake in the socials. I flew under the radar as much as was possible because I didn't want to be part of what I saw as Mos Eisley with a better band. That choice ended up biting me in the ass in several ways my last year of school. 

My last semester (Fall, 2002), I decided I would knuckle down. I was going to be a better student. Apply myself. And I did. It was my best academic semester on record. But I had a problem... I got hurt. I developed hellacious sciatica. The pain was excruciating. I couldn't walk the 10 yards down the hall to the dorm elevator let alone across campus. I have a very clear memory of being in class with tears streaming down my face because the pain was so intense. I was medicated. Heavily. So I could go to class an utter zombie and pray that the meds worked long enough to get me back to the dorm without collapsing into whimpering sobs. 

Maybe I should've withdrawn for medical reasons. I didn't because I was doing well in class. I explained the situation to all of my professors. I maintained my work with one exception: percussion lessons. I couldn't stand for any length of time and sitting wasn't any more comfortable. I had to fight with medication to focus on music. I did the work in my dorm room, memorizing parts and practicing as I could, but not making it to my weekly lessons with Dr. F. 

Maybe I should've dropped my lessons. I didn't, because I was trying. I worked up my jury pieces (including memorizing the entirety of Beethoven's 5th Symphony and its tympani part to the point I could've played deaf and blind) and when I showed up for said jury, Dr. F barely listened to 4 out of the 20 minutes I'd prepared. 

November rolled around, and the window to drop classes without penalty closed.

That's when they made their move. Dr. F and my academic advisor, Dr. K, got together and started emailing all of my professors for my grades. They went against protocol and said we'd have my advising session together. In Dr. F's office, not Dr. K's. One of my professors, Dr. I, called me into his office and shut the door. He explained that he'd seen this one time before, that to him it was clear that I was about to be kicked out of the department. Dr. I was my only ally in the department, really. He urged me to involve Dr. S, the interim head of the music department. 

"Do not go to that meeting," Dr. I insisted. "Do not go into either of their offices and do not under any circumstances go alone. Get that meeting into a neutral space and get someone on your side."

Dr. I couldn't go with me. Politics, he'd said. I did find another professor willing to sit with me, but she had only been at the university a matter of months. She barely knew me and was the lowest on the totem pole. But she sat there in that meeting with me. The two of us met in Dr. S's office with Drs F & K (where they promptly forced me into the literal corner, dickheads that they were). What ensued was a bloodbath. F & K had emails and evidence that proved their point that I was a slacker. That I had just fucked off all semester. They said I needed to get ousted from the department. 

K silkily proposed that if I wanted to save my academic career, I should drop my lessons with Dr. F. When I pointed out that I couldn't drop one class without dropping all of them at this point, the two men just stared at me knowingly. They'd planned it. They'd scheduled the meeting (even though I'd been pushing for it to be in October!) for the day after the drop window closed. 

I protested. I wouldn't go. I'd had the best semester of my career, even with the medical setback. They'd gotten my grades, they had them on the pages in front of them! 

"Yes, but what about this semester, Spring '00? Your GPA was 1.2?"
"Yeah, that was the semester I attempted suicide. But I've gotten better since then. Look at what I've done now."

It was circular. If I touted what I'd done, they threw the past in my face. If I explained the past, they complained about my present failings. They said I had expected exceptions to be made for me to take classes I shouldn't have. That I felt the rules didn't apply to me. Finally, Dr. F said that he would never pass me. To graduate with any music degree, I would need his passing grade and he flat out said he would never grant me that. Even if I'd earned it, he would block me. (He said this in front of the department chair.) 

Again, I protested. I said I'd find a way to get the credits--at ISU or elsewhere--and I would finish my damn degree. 

They laughed at me. Drs F and K laughed. 

That was it. I didn't shout, but my voice became murderous and sharp. "No!" I focused on Dr. K, just my advisor--a phelgmatic man who very much hated his own life and it was obvious--and said, "You and I are done. I can get another advisor and I want one. We're through."

He spread his hands and sat back from his stack of papers. 

Then I eyed Dr. F. "And so are we. You don't ever get to laugh at me again," I said. (Dr. F had many guffaws at my expense, including after my cat died and I couldn't stop crying...that was part of the Spring '00 semester, I'd like to add.) "I'm tired of you laughing at me and thinking it's okay. I will graduate with or without your help."

He reiterated that it would have to be without him. Dr. S spoke up at that point. He was in the precarious position of having to be truly neutral. A tenured professor, colleague and (I presume) friend sparring with this headstrong kid with a checkered academic record. While he tried to foster compromise, Dr. F and I were too hot-headed and beyond done. They gave me a week to "come to a decision" .... would I drop out? Finish the semester, but leave the department? Or would I accept the compromise of supervised lessons with Dr. F (knowing he would make my life hell, and cause drama that I didn't want to invite upon myself.) *It should also be noted that this would've been a concession, an exception being made for me by people who said this was already a problem of mine? Really? 

As you probably know, I don't have a degree, so you know the story didn't end happily. By the end of the week, random chance made my decision for me. I would be finishing the semester and leaving the university entirely. I told Dr. S at our class and he seemed generally contrite. 

A week or 2 later, Dr. S informed our class that we wouldn't meet for the rest of the week. He had to go to New Orleans for a seminar. Now, there were 4 of us in that class. Myself, two guys, and Daisy* (so not her real name). Daisy was the perfect student. She was in SAI, she practically lived in the practice rooms, had done multiple recitals and was very active in the music department community. She was also a bubbly, squeaky-clean, strait-laced Sandra D type. I, being none of those things, enjoyed any opportunity to tweak her nose in the time honored game of "Scare the Straights".  So when Dr. S mentioned his trip to NOLA, she brightly asked, "Can you bring us back some gumbo?"

"OH!" I interjected. "If you stop by the French Quarter could you pick up a shrunken head? I'm almost out."

This got a light snicker from Dr. S and a glare from Daisy. 

A week later, we reconvened for class. Now keep in mind that I'm out a this point. Both Dr. S and I know it, and he had a front row seat to the hellstorm that sent me packing. So we're in class... and there's a package on the table. A parcel wrapped in brown paper. Basically, I figured Dr. S had brought his lunch as it looked like a sammich.  There's light conversation, "how was your trip?" "have a good weekend?" type stuff. Then Dr. S says, "Before we get started...." and he slides the parcel over to me. 

I open it up....

...there's a voodoo doll in it. Complete with pin. 

He just smiled at me. That was the only thing he ever "said" about that whole meeting, I think. We didn't talk about it. I left rather quietly at the end of the semester and didn't go back. 

NOW! I told you that story to tell you this one....

...SO! A few years ago I found out that Dr. S has left ISU and now teaches at the university to the north of my home. I've been very tempted to find out when his early class is, and show up with a glass of OJ and my notebook and sit in the second row (because the first row is way too much commitment) just like I did back in the day. I haven't, though. But I did see him on Facebook recently. So I sent him a friend request and a "you probably don't remember, but I was a student of yours" type message. It went unread/noticed for a while and I forgot about it. 

Until this week when he responded. 

We talked a bit--what brings you to the state? How's the family?--that kind of thing. And then he hits me with, "Based on your FB photos, you are identifiably the same person I knew before! I still see you, the independent (maybe rebellious or at least nonconformist) person I remember. I like that, BTW"

The room suddenly got very dusty, or some ninjas started chopping onions. 

I then said, "I don't know that I ever thanked you. During that nasty business with Drs. F and K, you and Dr. I were really my only allies. It meant a lot to me."

His response? "I believe in you, Jamie!"

Fucking onion ninjas! 

But yeah. I knew back in 1998 when I was a freshman that Dr. S was the real deal--an educator who gave a damn not just about his subject of expertise, but about his students. And I still see him, too. Impish sense of humor and a genuine soul. 

And I still have the voodoo doll.