Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Past Ten Years: A Life Lived, A Life Just Begun (Part II)

Ten years ago I started college as a member of the charter class of the Macaulay Honors College.  It was a time of excitement, of potential, and of the unknown.  Little did I know but as I sat down in Professor Anne Swartz's first session of the very first Macaulay Honors College seminar course, I was embarking upon the rest of my life: sitting within only a few seats of me was my future wife, Heather.  We had encountered one another at one of the numerous orientation events but we met, truly, in that class, on that day.

Over the next eight months, we got to know each other and became friends (something my mother and father always advocated as an integral component to the success of any enduring romantic relationship).  I'll never forget the events that led up to our courtship, culminating with me taking Heather down to the water to ask her out and her saying yes.  I was thrilled but wound up being perplexed by my friends' reactions.  Most responses were of the "Yeah we know" or "You weren't dating already?" variety.  Apparently, we had been flirting for months (if not since that very first day of class back in August) and it was only after a few years had passed that I was able to look back and see that I had loved her from the very first instant.

Ten years ago, I entered adulthood for what I thought was the first time.  I had turned eighteen in March of 2001, exercising my legal status as an adult only once to sign myself out of school when I was feeling ill in April of that same year.  When I started college, though, I truly began to feel like an adult (or so I thought).  I was traveling to "the city" by myself, was making decisions for myself about everything from what to eat for lunch on a given day to the career trajectory I wanted to follow.  I can say that I grew up a lot in those four years that I spent as a Macaulay Honors Scholar but that maturation and life experience pales in comparison to that which I have gained in the years since as an alumnus of Macaulay.

To begin with, I faced the first true challenge of my life when I obtained an internship at a respectable corporation in Midtown.  In a way, I was set: I would work there through the remaining two years of college and then, if things went according to plan, I would have earned a full-time position that would allow me to begin climbing the corporate ladder.  Except they didn't.  I worked there for only a few months before realizing (much to my horror) that I hated not only the job but the career that I had chosen for myself.  I felt so empty every night that I left the office and I began to think about changing fields.  To what, I had no clue but Fate would serve to hook me up.  Sitting on the 7th floor at Baruch's Vertical Campus, moping and bemoaning the lot that I had been given, Heather spotted a flier offering a tutoring position at Baruch.  I had been considering switching to education but Baruch offered no such programs; the department had dissolved the year prior.  I saw that a fellow Macaulay scholar was the contact person for the position and, well, the rest is history.

By the time May of 2005 rolled around, I was ready to graduate--to move on to the rest of my life, whatever that might be.  Of course, I had my own personal difficulties that I was dealing with at the time (and had been since May of 2001) and they would ultimately force me to reassess the way that I lived my life.  I was a compulsive worrier and that began to take a physical toll on me.  Fortunately, by the end of 2006, I had started graduate school at Brooklyn College, had sought help for the things that were affecting me, and I found that I had a new perspective on life and the world at large; it was the second time that I felt like I had become an adult.

On July 7th, 2007, I married the love of my life--the shy, beautiful, funny, smart girl I had met in the first Macaulay seminar almost six years earlier.  I enjoyed the life of a newlywed for three months before I began my student teaching assignment at the High School for Health Professions in Manhattan.  It had been looming over my for months--this gargantuan black hole that would deprive me of my free time, force me to work harder and to multi-task better than I ever had in my life, and, to challenge me to see my pursuit of a Master's degree through to the end.  Between October 2007 and May 2008, I juggled over three-hundred hours of student teaching, two-hundred hours of classroom observation time, nine hours a week of working at Baruch, and six intense graduate-level English and education courses.  I had a nightmarish tri-borough commute that never got easier: get up around four o'clock in the morning in Staten Island to be in Manhattan by six-thirty.  Teach for a few hours, then head up to Baruch to go to work, then back to Staten Island to get the car to drive then to Brooklyn for class, finally getting home around ten or eleven in the evening.  And my situation was far from the worst it could be in comparison to those of many of my classmates.  But I made it through.  A few weeks after finishing up, Heather and I took our Cross-Canadian/Cross-Country road trip up to the Alaska Highway--an experience that served to help me to grow up quite a bit as well.

And then came 2009.

The relief that I felt in April of 2009 was both pervasive and ephemeral.  The end was in sight; in only another month, I would complete my graduate studies, thus earning my Master's degree and rendering me able to begin at long last my career as a teacher.  Classes finished, I tied up the bureaucratic loose ends, and attended an unexpected award ceremony a few days before graduation.  I was notified the week prior that I was nominated to receive an award for my accomplishments as a student and a teacher.  I was flattered and was blown away when I attended the ceremony to see how much respect my professors had for me.  Professor Jessica Siegel was announcing the names in my grouping for the awards and she (along with everyone else) had been instructed simply to read the names so as to keep the evening moving along smoothly.  Instead, she stopped on my name, made me stand up, and began to tell all in attendance about how amazing a student, instructor, and person I was; it is a moment that will stay with me forever.

Then came Thursday, May 28th, 2009.

I was nervous and considerably stressed on the morning of my graduation.  For one, it had been confirmed earlier in the week that there would be an unofficial but unavoidable hiring freeze in effect for teachers for the coming school year.  I worried about the implications of the news as I got dressed.  Also on my mind was the weather (it was going to pour--the first time it rained on a Brooklyn College graduation in twenty-seven years!) and the fact that the next morning I would be leaving for Ireland on the longest flight I'd ever taken. 
Then we came home.

The plan was that we would arrive home on Saturday, then spend the day on Sunday and Monday resting up, preparing for a return to work on Tuesday.  We did arrive home on Saturday (after being held up on the plane so that Nicholas Cage could exit first) and we did rest up on Sunday.  But then Monday morning came.  It was 5:50, if I remember correctly.  I was fast asleep but I heard Heather's voice call out to me.


It was something about the way that she said my name that roused me from my slumber.  She called out again and this time I woke up.  She asked me to come into the bathroom because she wanted to show me something.  I complained that I didn't want to go in there to see something gross.  Her response was "I'm pregnant."

Believe me--I was awake in that very instant.

I remember lying still on the bed, bringing my hands up to my eyes, rubbing the sleep away, and then running them up through my hair.  I replayed the words in my mind making sure that I had heard her correctly.  Then I got up, went into the bathroom, and truly began my adulthood.

Unequivocally, becoming a parent--hell, the prospect of becoming a parent--made me feel more like a man and an adult than anything else in my life.  I saw my folly--my inexperience with each previous moment and I laughed because I knew then what it meant to be an adult: it was being accountable to and responsible for someone other than myself.

That's the secret kids: adulthood is all about responsibility.  That's the secret--the key.  I didn't understand it exactly then but it came to me tonight while I was typing this.  Adulthood is commensurate with one's quantity of life experience and responsibility.  Think about it, it makes perfect sense.  Ever notice how friends who are being raised by a single parent or grandparent and have a few brothers and sisters that they have to look after seem more "grown up"?  It's because they are.  The opposite can be said for the thirty-something year old guy who still lives with his mother not as a temporary circumstance but as his actual way of life--the one who has said mother pay for his groceries and do his laundry on occasion.  That person is not a man--an adult--but rather an overgrown child still trapped within the confines of childhood.  Why?  A lack of responsibility and accountability.

Spending four months sending out over sixty resumes, trying desperately to land a teaching position so that I could help to provide for my growing family only to come up empty-handed?  That's real life.  Agreeing not to pursue work so that I could stay home and take care of my son, thus dealing with the implications and baggage associated with being a stay-at-home-dad?  Yup.  Real life too.  And making decisions that no longer affect only me but three lives?  On a daily basis?  You already know what it is.

But I digress.  This is meant not to highlight my journey towards adult enlightenment but rather to elucidate how I came to the understanding that I now have regarding my adulthood.  It actually happened fairly recently: Wednesday, August 24th, 2011.  It was a great night--one that I was honored to have partaken in.  Earlier in the summer, I had been contacted by an employee at Macaulay asking me if I would be willing to participate in the orientation of the incoming class of freshman.  I would be introducing an author at an orientation event.  I was flattered to have been asked, especially given that I am now, myself, pursuing a writing career.  I had participated in the commencement of the Class of 2010 last year by serving as part of the Grand Marshal for the ceremony, getting to sit on stage at Lincoln Center behind author R.L. Stine, and so I was thrilled to be able to take part in another important Macaulay event.

The night of the event came and I was both nervous and excited.  I stood on stage with the guest of honor while the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs of Macaulay introduced me in a very special way.  He mentioned that I was a member of the first graduating class and proceeded to tell the story of how I had met my wife (who was then standing at the back of the auditorium with our son).  The students applauded my status-as-alumnus, with the Baruch contingent cheering raucously at the mention of my alma mater.  I walked to the podium and thought two things: I had never spoken before so many people in my life (over four, possibly five hundred were in attendance) and I was a full ten years older than the kids sitting in the seats below.

And that was when it began.

As I left Hunter College, I couldn't help but smile, for a number of reasons.  For one, some things that began with me and my friends had remained unchanged in the intervening decade: students still took great pride in being members of the Macaulay Honors Program AND they had already separated into sects based upon their respective college of enrollment (and Baruch still had the most students!  Tough, Hunter!).  Then I realized what it all meant.  Something that I had not only participated in but helped to shape through that participation had not only survived but had thrived during my years there and especially since.  My fellow Class of 2005 members and I served to help to smooth out the wrinkles in the program, finding out what worked and what didn't through our own personal experiences.  We watched the program grow and took pride in the fact that we had done our small part to help to make that happen.

And again, I am reminded of what I felt on my first day of college, this time directed through a Macaulay lens: a sense of potential in its purest form, the excitement of the unknown, and the realization that we were a part of something bigger than ourselves.  It is with great pride that I attended both that commencement ceremony last year and the orientation this past August.  The former celebrated the fifth graduating class while the latter announced the promise of the tenth.

I bought into Macaulay's mission, full-tilt.  I took great pride not only in being an honor's student at Baruch but at being part of the Macaulay Honors College.  Ten years later, that pride has not waxed a bit; if anything, it has grown exponentially.  Standing atop that stage at Hunter College a few weeks ago with a gulf of thirty feet and ten years separating me from the students in the audience, I was awestruck by how far the program had come, as a whole, and how far I had come, individually, as a man.  Macaulay has provided me with so much--an incomparable education and set of life experiences, innumerable pleasant memories, a sense of camaraderie and community, and, most important of all, the opportunity to have met my wife, which paved the way for the family that we are now building.

So from one alumnus out of a sea of many, thank you to the Macaulay Honors College for all that you've done for me over the past ten years!