September is upon us. At this time of the year, I often have a feeling of angst for all those who embark on new educational journeys. Over the last couple of days, I’ve seen the pictures on Facebook of little kids starting school. They’re all carrying brightly coloured backpacks and have big smiles plastered onto their little faces.
My granddaughter has just started what she calls grade kindergarten. She told her mom she was ready for school because she knew everything. We laughed but it made me think of a very common phenomenon across the lifetime learning spectrum. We often enter learning programs with the sure sense that we already know everything there is to know.
We all wear our own personal blinders when it comes to acquiring new knowledge. We often have to let go of previously held beliefs in order to let new ideas and concepts take hold. This can be a painful process because our current knowledge becomes welded to our sense of self.
Unfortunately, we never have the perspective of hindsight as we go through the breaking down and building up anew process. If we did, we would know that we will come out the other side intact. What we thought we knew before will not be gone – only altered and enhanced.
A while back, I wrote a flash fiction piece entitled, New Beginnings. Though not autobiographical in the strictest sense of the word, I once was an older graduate student setting out to learn to be a counsellor. Of this piece, I will only say . . . some truths are best represented through fiction.
“Well . . . I didn’t think it was the right time to challenge her . . . I suppose I could have been wrong.” Shit . . . why had she tacked on those last words in that tentative, weak tone? It made her sound like she didn’t have a clue about what she was doing. As if she was openly admitting her client would have been better off telling her problems to the first passerby she saw on the street. Shit, shit, shit.
Monica clutched at the file in her hand and told herself to breathe. Weekly peer supervision rattled her composure. Members of her graduate cohort were required to pair up and share case notes from their practicum counselling sessions. They were supposed to be helping each other identify blind spots and work on their learning edges. What a colossal load of shit that was. It was pure one-upmanship spurred on by mutual insecurity. The first person in the dyad to show a hint of weakness would be brought down like a crippled zebra before a slavering lion.
And who the hell did this guy think he was to be questioning her judgement? The thought that someday this egotistical blowhard would be a counsellor made her pity anyone who might end up as his client.
What a joke the entire program had turned out to be. Why she had ever thought that going back to school, to get her Master’s degree, would be a good idea was a total mystery to her. At her age . . . it was laughable. She knew how to help people. She’d been doing it for years. But instead of being out in the world doing what she was good at, she was stuck in a corner of a classroom being grilled by a know-it-all, stick-up-his-butt wise guy who was young enough to be her son. Peer my ass, she told herself.
One month into the program, if she let herself dwell on what her experience had been so far, she was sure she’d vomit. The program was taught, for the most part, by a group of out-of-touch-with-reality professors who were – by the way – also younger than her, all busy nitpicking over ridiculous crap. One half of her fellow classmates had come into the program thinking they already knew everything. The other half were so busy spewing back every word the professors said – as if those words had just come down from God on high – they couldn’t possibly open themselves up to learn anything.
Voluntarily placing herself in this world, allowing this process control over her and going into debt for the privilege . . . it was quite simply the act of an insane person. It was all a huge mistake.
“Monica, can we drop the peer supervision roles for a minute? I really need to talk to someone.”
The tone of his voice propelled her out of her spiral of negative thoughts. She sat up straighter and met his pleading eyes, “Sure . . . what’s up?”
“I haven’t slept for days. Work is crazy right now and I need the job. I’ve got to pay for school. I don’t have a silver spoon in my mouth like some people in this program. My girlfriend is on my back every minute about how much time I’m spending on campus. I’m behind in the readings for every course. Forget about that bloody theories paper for Mr. Dickhead – it’s not going to happen.”
Monica watched him drop his head into his hand and rake his long fingers through his hair. When he looked up his voice shook, “I admire you. You’re the one person in the whole frigging cohort who seems to care about anybody else or even slightly have her shit together. I watch you and I wonder what the hell I’m doing here. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before they find out what a total incompetent I am and kick me out of the program. Sorry to dump all my crap out like this. I feel like I’m going under.”
Monica took a deep breath and reached across the space that separated them to put her hand on the young man’s arm, “Let’s take things one step at a time . . . OK? Maybe, together, we can figure out where you can get a little room to manoeuvre.” As she smiled warmly at him, she felt her world pivot back to where it was supposed to be.
I love everything you write, Fran. Your second and third paragraphs of this post really resonated with me. I enrolled in my first writing course 3 or 4 years ago with an overconfident attitude like your protagonist in “New Beginnings.” I had this writing thing in the bag — I knew this because family and friends had been telling me for years what a great writer I was. Enrolling in a course was something to do for fun, since I my learning curve would be rather shallow.
Sheesh. Too bad I didn’t have the benefit of hindsight, as you write above. I now realize the instructor was way too kind (translation: didn’t do me any good), but the other students in the class let me have it, thereby deflating my unjustifiably large head. I think the most valuable lesson I learned from that class was a little humility.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Gwen. What fascinates me about any time we struggle to ingrate new learning with the knowledge we already have (and often what we already know is lots more than we think and valuable) is the pain involved in this growth process. And it doesn’t seem to matter how often we go through it. When I moved from being a student to teaching and supervising beginning counsellors, we tried out the model pictured at the end of this post – Panarchy – to try and explain to them what they might be going through. I think for some it helped them relax and let the process run its course.
Terrific post, Fran, and so appropriate to this back-to-school week. I did my final post-grad work in my late 40s. It ALL resonated with me!
It is quite an experience to do graduate work when you are older. There is definitely something to that old saying that higher education is wasted on the young and something else to be said for life experience. I know I came at so much of my graduate work with a totally different attitude than some of the younger members of the cohort. Glad to resonate.
Nice twist Francis – shows how vulnerable we all really are. If only we could read each others thoughts!! I think it’s so important to keep an open mind when taking on new learning, there’s not a person out there we can’t learn something from. Great story 😉
Yes – every story should have a good twist, shouldn’t it? In my reply to Gwen, above, I write of how we used this Panarchy model to try and help new counsellors understand the process they were going through as they integrated the helping knowledge they already had with new learning. It helped some. At the same time, there are always some people who cannot allow this process to unfold and that is sad. They make it through a program and they get the credentials they sought when they decided to go to school, but the change that comes about from being radically turned around by new ideas, theories, and perspectives never happens.
Oh, this is very good. Something we can all relate to, too, I’m sure. This is a scene that plays out, almost daily, in the workplace. People are afraid to look stupid or incompetent — especially towards the middle or end of their careers – and thus afraid to seek out the answers that would make them anything BUT. It’s a vicious cycle. I read this and see a happy ending. 🙂
I’m glad you could see the light at the end of the tunnel for the woman struggling with a choice to learn new ways of carrying out the work she was obviously so well suited for. Right after this blog came out a friend emailed to let me know that she was using the panarchy drawing in a class she was teaching and it was really helping people put words to some of the anxiety they felt about opening themselves up to new ideas. There is definitely a bit of dying to the old – which is painful – but what people really fear is that everything is on the chopping block and that isn’t true. What a process! Thanks for stopping by the blog and making a comment.