Daises are my mother’s favorite flower. I found one once when I was a child, tucked in a envelope in a scrapbook. It was crinkled and browned, almost like it was made of sepia-toned paper. I asked her why she had it, and she told me she plucked it from a floral arrangement next to her father’s casket. Daises were his favorite flower too. An Air Force man turned middle school principal, he liked how simple and unassuming they were. My mother was 20 when he died, in college studying to become a nurse. I never got to meet him. My mother assured me that I would have liked him, and he would have been very proud of me.
My grandfather was a strong man of Polish-German descent. He met the love of his life at a county fair and they traveled the world together from one air base to another. Thanks to the GI Bill and a tireless work ethic, he got two college degrees, which landed him a job in a school in corn field speckled Ohio. He wasn’t known to take sass, often knocking on the doors of truant students and peering down at them in disapproval from his glasses. But he was good to his family and to his country. He bought my grandmother a house and filled it with books and knick-knacks. He liked to drink a beer or two after cutting the grass, bouncing my mother or her brother on his knee. He was in his early fifties, his hair not totally gray and wrinkles not fully creased, when he died.
As much as my grandfather was an Air Force man, a family man, he was also an academic man. To this day, my brothers make jokes about me being the only humanities student in my family. The writer. The dreamer. Everyone else had studied hard sciences like nutrition, nursing, and engineering. I was the unpractical one. The troublemaker. The wallflower. I made no sense to anyone in my family. Except to the one person I never knew.
“She’s just like her grandfather,” my mother says. He studied the humanities. He liked to read. He became a teacher. Kindred spirits, she says.
He lived to serve other people. His family. His soliders. His students. Despite his tough exterior, he was good at taking care of children–his own or someone else’s. Without the physical rigors of the military, it didn’t take long for him to became obese. Eventually, he stopped cutting the grass and chose to write or grade papers instead. He chose his classes, his students, his everything else over and over again until his heart stopped one cold February morning while my mother was taking an anatomy test. Less than a month before her 21st birthday.
My memories of him belong to someone else. They’re in a box in an old cedar chest. A wedding photo. A military dog tag. A shriveled daisy. Unlike many of my friends, I don’t have tales of tell of my grandfather. I’m not the only one. He didn’t get to walk my mother down the aisle. He didn’t get to see his son graduate from college. He didn’t get to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary with my grandmother. Those memories were taken from us. By chance, maybe. You never can predict those things, but I do know one thing.
He sacrificed a lot for academia, and I have done the same.
Academia is all consuming. It can be insulating and comforting too. As much as the ivory tower gets stereotyped for being cold, it felt warm to me. You live by a schedule, following a predictable path to graduation. A syllabus tells spells out exactly what is expected of you. You’re welcomed into the small community of students and professors who are just like you. In a world where I’ve always felt different and out of place, I finally felt safe in college.
But sometimes academia is suffocating. The workload and pressure can be intense. Academia teaches you some very bad habits. You learn to take care of everything else before yourself. In grad school, I subsisted off a diet of Hot Pockets and Capri Suns (yes, really). I never cooked. I spent hours in the library and never set foot into the campus gym. I regularly stayed up past 3 a.m. to write papers. No surprise, I started having insomnia. I would spend most of my nights driving around aimlessly trying to quiet my overwhelmed mind. For two years, grad school was all I thought about and all I ever did.
I kept telling myself this is normal. This is what grad students do. Grad school is hard. You need to dedicate a lot of time and energy to it. And then when I graduated and began teaching, I told myself the same thing. You need to be dedicated to your students. They need you. This is what good academics do.
For years, academia gave me an excuse to hide, lie, and avoid from my life. Now, without it, I’m in the process of building a new one.
This fall, I took a break from teaching after two years. I was burnt out and ready for some time off. But, I was also ready to live my life just for me. I’ve been in school or teaching school nearly all my life. I played school, not house, as a young child. I enrolled in preschool a year early. I got two college degrees back-to-back. In my 27 years, I’ve been out of a classroom for maybe 3 of them, max. Now, I don’t have any professors to please and no students to teach. It’s different. Scary. But freeing and calming at the same time.
And one of my first goals was to learn healthier habits. In May, I started running. I made a goal to run 3 miles in 30 minutes. I dedicated myself to running at least 3 days a week, starting out barely able to run two minutes at a time. It took me until two weeks ago to finally reach my goal. Now, I’m working on running 5 miles in an hour. I go to the gym now and cook at home more often. I’m slowly cutting out most of the processed sugar out of my diet in favor of real food. I’m finding strategies to deal with my insomnia. After years of neglect, I’m treating my body with respect and care.
And I am no longer hiding.
I will never ever regret the time I spent in academia. I will always be grateful for it. Learning and teaching, I love them both obviously. But I gave up a lot for those two things. I denied myself a lot of things because I wanted to be exceptional at only those two things. In grad school, I told myself I had no time for a relationship even though I felt lonely. It was only when I graduated that I allowed myself date again and then–surprise!–met someone. I ditched nights out with friends to study or read even though I wanted some time off. Now I miss those friends who’ve moved away and the nights I’ll never get back.
Though it takes a lot to admit this, it was easier at the time to wrap myself up in work and take care of everyone else instead of listening and voicing what I really want. Because I didn’t trust myself that I could balance it all. School, a boyfriend, a social life, some down time. What if I went after all that I wanted and still failed? That big red ‘F’ is deadly to an academic’s self esteem, even if it’s just imagined. Imaginary or not, it glared bright red for years. And the fear was cold, dark, and real. Now, I’m choosing to treat myself better because, frankly, I’ve run out of excuses. Still, I wish I would have done this sooner. I wanted to and deserved to have done this sooner.
Academia is not an excuse.
It’s not an excuse to not have fun and enjoy your life.
It’s not an excuse to treat yourself and your body like crap.
It’s not an excuse to ignore, discount, and bottle up your feelings.
It’s not an excuse to sacrifice all other of your life’s ambitions and goals.
It’s not an excuse to give into the fear of failure and keep yourself from living the life you want.
It’s not an excuse to wallow in self pity and believe you’re not capable of having everything you’ve ever dreamed of.
And grandpa–it’s not an excuse to stop cutting the grass. I never met him, but I would tell him not to worry so much about his students. I would tell him to put down the book and go outside and play. I would tell him to please try to stay healthy for himself and his family. And for me, because I really wanted to meet him. My kindred spirit.
Life outside academia is different. The world seems much too big for me, a small town girl who grew up in a couple of classrooms, but the possibilities are endless. It’s colder out here, but I am adjusting. Instead of cowering, I’m running. Three miles in 30 minutes, too. And instead of making excuses, I’m making progress on creating a life I love.