Sunday, October 21, 2012
Whistlin' in the Dark
I begin my masters program in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington whistlin’ in the dark.
Like a woman walking down a dark, unfamiliar street, I whistle to convince myself that though I feel vulnerable I am probably okay. Probably.
What do I whistle? Not the cheerfully confident “Singin’ in the Rain.” Not the soulful wisdom of a Gregorian Chant (I’m not sure those are whistle-able anyway.) I am whistling the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Beethoven’s famous “da-da-da-daaaah” echoes my heart’s pounding, a heaviness and fear. In hisfollowing stanzas, a pastoral lightness almost mocks my pounding heart, but then the violins and piccolos race in and the pounding returns. My heart pounds, and it races. I am afraid.
Maybe Beethoven was afraid, like me. He was in his mid-thirties as he wrote this symphony, and was becoming increasingly deaf. In his world, the Napoleonic Wars raged, and Napoleon’s troops occupied his city of Vienna in 1805 as he was beginning to write his fifth symphony.
Of course, I’m not really whistling Beethoven’s Fifth. For one thing, I don’t have all of those instruments in my lips. Actually, I don’t have any instruments in my lips: some of the paralysis since neurosurgery remains, and I can’t whistle.
The whistlin’s a metaphor for bravado. The darkness is a metaphor, too, a darkness of self-doubt and vulnerability. The pounding and racing heart is not metaphorical.
My heart pounds and races: Can I do this?
I think I can. I have been through tough times of doubt before, and each time I have come to a time of triumph, or at least solace.
In college, when I prepared for my Chemistry 101 exam, I poured over my notes, believing that at some point the discipline’s logic would make sense to me. It never did. When I took the exam, I decided that I would go through the exam and do the parts that were clear to me first. Then I would go back to work on the harder problems.
There were 13 questions on the exam, each with a part A and a part B. My first time through, I answered one part of one question. The rest were harder problems.
In the end, I turned the exam into a creative writing assignment. I made up formulas and worked them through as though they made sense. My writing was like the mad scribbling in A Beautiful Mind. If this professor were putting me through this hell, I would make him grade all of this nonsense. This was his punishment.
As I talked on the phone with my dad that night, I was mindful of Davidson’s Honor Code and knew that I could not say whether the exam was easy or hard. I told Dad, “Let me put it this way. I needed to score 27% to pass. I’m not sure I passed.”
I ended the course with a B. I suspect that the professor wearied of trying to interpret my lunacy, gave up grading my scribbles, and simply lowered my grade from a B+ to a B.
Fair enough. Or generous.
I felt similarly lost in yesterday afternoon’s class. It was as if everyone else knew something that I didn’t, and I wondered if my disabilities or my lack of experience in this field explained my struggle. As it turned out, my school email account is not working, so everyone else did know something that I didn’t know as they had read emails before class that I had not received, but I didn’t know that at the time.
My favorite moment in the class came when Yvette, an African-American woman with a calming presence, asked the professor, who is also African-American, to help her with the technology. She asked him gently, “Can ya help a sistah out?”
No, he would not help her out. He would talk about self-reliance, which I found irritating. Part of self-reliance, I know from learning to live with these disabilities, is knowing when to ask for help. And she was asking.
Yvette was asking for herself, but I felt that she was also asking for me. Though Steve is as kind a professor as I can imagine, he would not be helping us out, and Yvette and I would need to go elsewhere for help.
My panic rose as the class’s conversation continued, and I seemed to know less and less. In a small group that met as other small groups were meeting to work on a group project, my hearing loss exacerbated my frustration. I struggled to hear, and I could not figure out what we were supposed to be doing.
Steve kept saying that there was something important about deafness and Guam that was key to understanding the problem that we were exploring, but he would not tell us what it was. He only gave us a website address that as far as I can tell does not divulge his secret. More irritating self-reliance.
I felt like a child playing the silly game of trying to guess which hand holds the candy. I am not psychic, and I cannot yet figure this out. The puzzle doesn’t seem key to the task’s learning, so why won’t he just tell us? I don’t believe that a lesson in self-reliance is the reason. Maybe it’s a lesson in powerlessness. An unintentional lesson.
A central concept in the class, perhaps ironically, is the way in which so many of us identify in some ways with cultures of privilege and in other ways with oppressed communities. I have always seen myself as privileged in that I’m white and grew up in an upper middle-class suburb where I had advantages of health care, education, and security in housing and food. Though I am gay and dealing with disabilities now, a member of two groups plagued by –isms, I still recognize how important my privileged upbringing is to my living meaningfully with these disabilities
I have always also seen myself as a woman in a world where men hold power. I have been a feminist since my pre-school days, and I have bristled at men’s power in my life. The professor’s lecture on self-reliance aroused my bristles.
The professor’s power reminded me of my radiologist/oncologist’s threat to block the possibility of a new career to me. He told me, “Advanced degrees are hard for everyone, even for people without your disabilities. It’s unlikely that you will complete this program, and it’s very, very unlikely that you will get a job afterwards.”
I remember especially the “very, very” part of the unlikely. His prediction echoes in my mind every time I hit a bump.
“Maybe my doctor was right,” I think to myself. “Maybe I won’t make it, and I should give up trying.”
But like the little girl who refused to give my brownie to my younger male cousin because I thought that doing so meant colluding with the male chauvinism that so offended me, I keep trying.
I think I will make it. I think I will figure out the technology. I think someone else will figure out the significance of deafness in Guam, and that person will tell me. I think I will figure out how to work in a group and in a loud room.
Like the close of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, my finale in this whistling in the dark will be a confident pounding: “See, I can do it,” I will pound.
But for now I’m whistling the beats of a heart that pounds and races with a sense of vulnerability that pisses me off.