Saturday, November 10, 2012

Meathead Academics, or, How I Ended Up a 30 Year Old College Freshman

Hey there! Sorry for the lapse in time between posts. Since last I posted there have been a major, life-consuming change in my life: I started college. For the first time ever. I’m a 30 year old college freshman.

I never thought I wanted to go to college. I’ve spent my entire adult life gallivanting around the world, eating foods in faraway places and doing push ups on faraway floors, but something changed earlier this year. Before going to Russia in January, I took on a solo fitness challenge to see what kind of shape I could get in before I left. From September to January I worked out 6 days a week. Gave up my daily candy meal (1 pack of nerds, every day between lunch and dinner), did Pilates and interval training, and by the time my plane left JFK I was in the best shape of my life. I went from a size 5 to a size 1 without losing a pound.

There were some really intense workouts during those months. Interval trainings where I would collapse mid-burpee, arms shaking, shoulders unable to keep me up any longer. I would get so frustrated by my own weakness that I would cry, feel pitiful, and want to stop. But I didn’t. I pushed through, embarrassing tears a’streaming, until the workout was over. And at the end, I was transformed.

(July '11 after a swim- size 5, 114 pounds , January '12 in Sweden after a workout- size 1, 114 pounds)

In March, while riding a train from one small town Russian to the next, something suddenly hit me: the stimulation of traveling was no longer enough for me anymore. I was bored. Sure I always had books with me in my travels, but the ideas were just between me and the pages. I craved conversation about them. I wanted to be around people who shared my intellectual curiosity. I felt like I’d hit the cap as far as self-education went, and there on the train, I felt my mind settling into a place I knew it would not be able to move beyond without help. It was time to stop taking my body to new places, and take my mind instead. I decided it was time for college.

(in Russia)

I was nervous. A 30 year old going to college for the first time ever? I hadn’t been in a classroom since ’98. Could I do it? Would I be accepted? And then my biggest fear: what if I found out I wasn’t really very smart?

I decided to start at Community College and see what happened. During my placement test I was terrified—the people to the right and left of me were burning through the test. I was still in the starting essay and they were in the final math section! I wondered if my slow pace during the placement test was a sign that I was just slow in general. I felt terrible, finished the test just shy of the 45 minute limit (while people around me had all finished and left), and went home to await results.

A couple of weeks later I received a letter inviting to me to register for classes. On the day of registration, I sat in a room with about 40 other people. We each held a piece of paper with our information on it, which included a string of highlighted numbers. In horror I noticed that I was the only one around me whose paper had been highlighted orange. Everyone else had yellow. My mind went wild trying to figure out what my color meant. At first I assumed “complete idiot, send back to the 8th grade” and sat in my chair feeling sick, but finally settled on being reasonable. I told myself that it the yellow highlighter probably just ran out of ink and the colors on our papers probably meant nothing. Yeah, just the highlighter running out of ink, no big deal.

Shortly after that comforting thought, we were all lead to the registration room. Standing outside its pearly gates we were told that before we could start the registration process, we had to split into two lines. Yellow hightlighted people on one side of the hall, orange on the other. Thirtyfive people moved across the hall. I stood in a short line with the other four oranges, the yellows eyeing us up and giving us "don’t you wish you were here” looks.

Ooooh how I wished I was a yellow. I was humiliated, singled out as being a slow orange person. Right when I thought that I could take the eyes of the yellows no more, the woman who was running registration came out. She looked from the yellows, to us oranges, and said, eyes on me, “We only have THIS many college level?!”, then looking over at the yellows, “That’s a huge remedial group!”

Every set of yellow eyes went green with envy.

Inside the registration room, the woman explained how to register for classes. She said that we would see honors classes listed, but we were not to register for them, they were NOT, she emphasized, for us. I remembered a letter I had gotten that morning, and raised my hand.

“Excuse me, but um… I got an invite into the 'honors curriculum'… so uh, those honors classes do apply to me, right? Should I register for those classes now? Can you show me how?” Everyone in the room watched and listened. The woman asked to see my invite, and then, with what I think was annoyance, told me that I couldn’t register with everyone else. I had to go through a special honors only registration. With that, she sent me on my way.

I left the registration room, left the yellows and the other oranges, and realized that I WAS different from the people to my right and my left. They were speed testers, crash dieters, January gym members. They wanted instant results so they rushed through life, half-assing it, giving up if it got hard. And it showed. I embraced fitness and learning in the same way, as a slow, ongoing process that with dedication, yields desired results. What separated me from them is what separated me at size 5 from me at size 1, trying.

(Post-workout fried tofu and broccoli with my honors invite)

The gym analogies don’t stop there.

I entered the honors program with other high-testing students, 5 days a week, a 5 class load, full time student status. And I was freaked the fuck out. I had NO idea what I was doing. How to take notes. When to raise my hand. There were times where I would get so frustrated by my own ineptitude that I would cry, feel pitiful, and want to stop. I felt that there was no way I would ever understand how to be a student. I was 30, hadn't been in a class since 1998, I was a fool to think I could!

After school, I would hit the gym, thinking, “Well, at least I can do this.” Then on night I remembered that working out wasn’t always easy. And wasn't always in such good shape. That sometimes I collapsed, but I had gotten to where I was by pushing though. Why, I wondered, would training my brain be any different?

So I started approaching school like the weight rack. I started calling homework “brain lifting”. When I did well, I was proud of my “brain gains”. When I fell behind, I knew that I could just work a little harder on another day to catch up (like adding cardio to leg day), and as for the things I was unsure of, I just watched other people’s form and copied it. Soon, just like doing lateral raises, school was easy. It all made sense. Work hard, make gains. Duh.

So I made my transition from a weary traveler to college student, just like I made a transition from a size 5 to size 1. It sounds absurd, but it's true.

I had my midsemester review last week. My professors told me I was one of the top students in the program and advised me to go on to get my doctorate, and backed my plan of applying to UPenn (and ivy league school...!!) and Bryn Mawr (where I met with the dean of admissions and was told that there is an all-girl weight lifting club that they would be happy to have me join.) Back when I took my placement test just a few short months ago, I was afraid that I would be turned away (from Community College, imagine that!), now I'm on to bigger and better things. Better schools, bigger biceps. (Man those pyramid sets'll kill ya!) But I realized school is just like getting in shape—you decide you want it, give it priority, and make it happen. Even if your gains are slow, they will come. If one strategy isn’t working, say, discussing what you’ve read with classmates or doing 3X10’s, then switch it up. Make flashcards and do 5X5’s. Growth will follow.

This is what I call meathead academics. It's how I live my life, and why I’ve been absent awhile. Between school and the gym, there just hasn’t been time to post on here. But I’m going to try.

Thank you all for your support and emails. I’ll respond to you all as soon as I can!




Andrew J said...

This is awesome!! Congratulations! I'm so happy for you that you decided to "go back" and go to school, then that you put in the time and effort and achieved such results! Very wonderful display of the effects of hard work. I just applied for my Doctorate at Penn State, I'm waiting to hear back about admission. I hope you continue kicking ass, whether or not it's in the classroom.

Lizzy Lizardo said...

I hope you know that your father is so proud of you :)) And for the record, he is a totally amazing individual.

So happy you got to enjoy your 20's on the road. Best, :)) LJ

Sax Carr said...

Best smle on the planet. Now a university educated smile. Woooot.