Competition

Ohio, Boston, Somerville, Medford

(behind the blog: This is a short piece that I wrote in April, 2014, as my last semester as an adjunct instructor was coming to a close. I’ve been keeping it safely nestled in my writing files, not sure where it might belong.

When I wrote this, I had a lot of uncertainty in front of me. I did not know it was going to be my last semester adjuncting, but still it was around this time that I decided to stop looking for tenure-track jobs teaching Victorian or British modernist literature, and instead to try to capitalize on a decade of experience teaching writing and communication. And I was going to do that in the Boston area. My resolve to stay here eventually developed into this blog, which I see as a collection of essays about the place I love and why I’m staying here.

What I didn’t want was to make the blog about how I feel about the academic job market. And yet, lurking behind every post, there is a little piece of this essay. I thought I’d pull it out and let some other people see it.)

COMPETITION

The roller rink itself is mythic. It seems to exist only in my memory. It did so even as I approached it on that autumn evening in 1984. At five years old, I was only just gaining consciousness; most experiences were draped in surreality.

It was tall and round. It looked like a huge barrel, but that October evening the crisp air and the yellow lights of the parking lot seemed to shroud it in mist — more like a cauldron. It is the ur-rink, site of first-failure.

Inside, the air was hot and the music was loud. Older children skated past me in a rush, “We’re not gonna take it / Anymore!”

My father sat me down by some lockers to lace me too tight into my little brown skates.

We practiced skating in the kiddie rink. The experience was slippery, but I felt I knew what I was doing. They announced the race for the little kids, and being one I rolled up to the starting line. The voice on the speakers said “Go!” and the herd of elementary school children went. Their roller skates clattered and their arms and elbows pumped hard as they tried to gain momentum. The frenzy surrounded me and my ability left. I fell to the ground, my little fingers splayed upon the shining parquet, nearly crushed. I cried; the race left me behind. I couldn’t skate. Not like they could, any way. I remember crying into my father’s thigh, full of shame. He patted my head and said I was still a little girl; all those kids were bigger and had been skating longer.

There were many skating parties after that, at a different rink. I opted out of future races, even though I loved to feel myself gliding through the air, “is this burning / an eternal flame?” It was better to turn inward as my body did the work. It was better not to compete, because the feeling of having mastered this movement itself was like winning.

Though I’d opted out of roller races for all time, I had to run among my peers in gym class. I was not speedy. With every passing year, in fact, I grew heavier and more firmly anchored to the ground. A moebius strip of failure and shame helped put on the weight, and the troupe of cruel neighbor boys seemed always to know when I’d be outside. Better to stay inside; better to eat and read or watch TV; better to listen to my walkman in my room, “Roam if you want to,” alone. But in gym class, when the whistle blew, the other children rushed by. I wouldn’t fall, but I’d finish the race long after them.

I spent a lifetime learning how to deal with my failure to keep up physically, but I certainly was never dazed upon the parquet when it came to writing. And yet in these last two years I have felt the old roller-skating shame. I don’t know how to do this; I’ve made a mistake, I’m not ready. There must be something wrong with me, if I can be this unprepared after ten years in graduate school. I should have been watching how the game was played, how to choose the right tricks and stick all the landings.

There’s a metaphor that “failed” academics like to use on job-market apologists: Life-Boater. Accordingly, the ship Academia has gone down. Some people got lifeboats. Most, we are told, are drowning. The life-boaters say that life boats aren’t for everyone, and if you’re in the water there must be a reason. As a metaphor, it only goes so far, but I’m often struck by a feeling that arms and elbows are pounding the water all around me in a great din of splashing, all of us struggling to gain purchase somehow, on something.

I quit this panicked competition, and as I swim away to where there’s more room, the shame and frustration sting. But now I’m floating over here. I must believe it is better to turn toward a life outside the frenzy than to let the competition crush me. Because it surely will.

–Rebecca Thorndike-Breeze

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