Evening. Second day of a semester generally considered bizarre since before its beginning.
The cicadas are humming. Droning. A behavior intolerable to the sun and the parched earth of Las Vegas*, where I spent the last few months convalescing (if I may be so melodramatic) from my eight weeks of solitary quarantine. The ebb and flow of that sound brings me back to the other cicada-infested places I’ve lived: two different suburbs of Chicago, time-flashes here and there and everywhere, college in New Orleans.
I can thank Facebook memories for replacing the role of the Catholic Church in my life as a perpetual reminder of all my fallings from grace (with “grace” as a generic noun standing in for a rather low baseline in my case). Today: jokes about procrastination from August 2015, a time partially stemming from and yet preceding some of the worst months of my life.
Failing a class is not remarkable, especially at the postsecondary level. I know this. I knew this. And in a sense, it wasn’t wholly new either – many a merciful teacher essentially airlifted me from the maw of failure over my years, which is a hard fact to acknowledge, since I also tend to present myself as some sort of academic.
The cicadas again, at it like an intrusive stream of consciousness, like that one quote from The Castle displayed in the Kafka Museum in Prague that I’ll never forget: You are not from the castle, you are not from the village, you are nothing.
I’m writing this in an open forum not to self-abase, believe it or not (although let me insert this aside to say that the aforementioned religious institution and social media platform have often encouraged self-abasement as humility’s simulacrum). Instead, I’m reflecting on how this strange semester is starting, and on the threads that weave my reception of it. Today, I taught two sections of Elementary German I; thereafter, I “attended” two Zoom seminar meetings. Everything up to expectations, aside from more technical difficulties in my second German section, where I couldn’t get the classroom camera to work when I had students tuned in from Zoom as well as there in person.
It’s so easy to feel like nothing. The professor of one seminar, which addresses intersections of performance theory and poetry, brought up how we perform our roles as students in Zoom, with our posture, background, eye contact, etc. etc. It’s something I feel acutely, the sense of performance, and along with that, the dread of forgetting my lines, letting my slow thinking hinder any possibility of ad lib.
We are expected to serve as pedagogical pioneers in this situation we tack with descriptors like “unprecedented” or “unforeseen” until the words turn to ash in our mouths. Here, I think of Joan Didion’s titular essay in The White Album, how she (or, rather, her I-speaker) panics when social upheaval shreds the old scripts, narratives, expectations —
Expectations. A metaphorical virus to match the actual, except the pandemic of expectations started long ago and will never stop, not before our species and its (our) very limited capacity for perception come to an end. When I grieved for my self-perception after failing three classes, I grieved for my expectations, for they were starving to death: I had expected myself to pull through at the last minute in a manic fit of typing, strained eyes, and anxiety. And when that failed, I expected to be forgiven, as I had been before so many times, as I would be again afterwards. Late work accepted. Emails with words of reassurance. The fleeting validation of points and letters on transcripts: Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers. Like Blanche DuBois, because I couldn’t rely on myself, because all those authorities were strangers when I so desperately performed a collected, hardworking persona.
In retrospect, it worked. Sort of. My transcript from my year abroad in Berlin (which was the background for my extremely important term papers due at the end of August) consisted entirely of As and Fs. Three of the latter. I pretended it didn’t happen, essentially: I simply never send my grades from abroad to the University for credit, and they never bugged me about it. That year and its struggles didn’t become a tabula rasa; they became buried. By me, by administrators and grad school adcoms who ignored the missing year. By benevolent strangers.
Now, though, given the unprecedented circumstances, I wonder if there’s some sort of moral failing in this. I resurrected (or vampirized?) the old expectations by pretending they had never died in the first place, even when on some level, I knew I would fail myself again. As I’ve done now, by choosing such an ill-fitting word: “resurrected.” No, it was more of a reanimation. A framework of excuses. A truth unacknowledged, just like the virus and the lives it suffocates.
What a strange semester, where we at the University of Iowa are thus far simultaneously failing to acknowledge the virus by holding in-person classes and seeing it set into stark relief with so many classes online-only and with an in-person mise-en-scène of video cameras and moveable plexiglass barriers. This speaks to the feeling of America right now, this sight without seeing, these undead expectations we’re trying to resuscitate.
I’m so scared.
Scared of my own capacity to fail; scared the clinical designations for my problems (e.g. ADHD) are clear masks over character deficits; scared the clinical designations for my problems mean I simply lack capability; scared of my country; scared for my country – and of and for my university, my students, my classmates; scared of everyday rituals I don’t recognize; scared the old rituals will persist with their tumors; scared of seeing when it’s so easy to fall asleep and I’m so, so tired.
Recalling the month or two after I received word that I would not be forgiven for not turning in my papers, I’m coming to the belief that transparency will not eliminate toxic expectations, but it may suck some of the poison out. I don’t know if I’ll leave this post up forever, since there’s stigma associated with both my clinical labels and the behavior that underlies them, and I’m scared of that, too. But thinking of myself as the exception to social understandings (e.g. that there are consequences to violating class policies, like the one on late work) has not served me well. I’m broadcasting these insecurities because I believe our common practice of putting smiley face band-aids over our wounds and blemishes has done more harm than good.
I have already told my students I’ll accept late work, contrary to what the class syllabus says. Am I feeding into more views on exceptionalism? That inner inkling we love to deny we have: I won’t be the one to fail, I won’t be the one to catch the virus, I won’t be anything but the best and the healthiest. Or: I am from the castle. I am from the village. I am everything.
No – we’re all from some sort of dystopian Schrödinger’s castle-village, some bizarre liminal zone, at the moment. Everyone knows the balance is upset, the fulcrum has moved, but an alarming number of people seem inclined to play Emperor’s New Clothes and see reactions without seeing the capital-E Event that people are reacting to.
Let me bring some honesty to my performance-of-self: I have struggled and am struggling. The causes for this, as far as I am aware, are a combination of brain chemical imbalances, perfectionism, and lies I once accepted from myself and others as truth. Meanwhile, I’ve devoted over 500 hours of playtime to video games in the past few months. I can’t read more than a few pages of anything at a time. I live at the hub of a wheel of chaos: beside me, dirty bottles and glasses, magazines and clothes scattered across the floor, a side of the bed piled with books and fruit snacks wrappers. The chaos wheel reaches beyond the literal trash and detritus of a somewhat-disordered mind into the feeling of what it’s like to be an individual in America right now, I think. (Or at least someone enrolled in a university so committed to a “return to normalcy.”) One can choose whether or not to acknowledge the mess. This time, I choose to acknowledge it.
*For the sake of factual accuracy, I will admit that there are cicadas in Las Vegas, but they didn’t live near my bedroom window, so I’m going to let myself be an unreliable narrator and, fittingly enough, pretend they don’t exist