I never used to be nervous on the first night before school started—until I began teaching. Tomorrow, I know that no matter how early to the English department office I arrive, there will still be a line at the copier. And I will still have forty-five syllabi to copy. I know that when I address my new students, my voice will crack and my hands will shake. I’ll make bad jokes. I’ll ask them to share one interesting thing they did over summer break and at least half of them will inevitably say, “nothing.” Some of my new students will hate me so much on the first day that they’ll drop the class immediately after meeting me.
That’s what I tell myself even though I know that most likely their continued enrollment or un-enrollment in my class has nothing to do with me. This will be my fifth semester of teaching freshman composition and the first day never gets any easier. Tonight, more than ever, I’m reminded of the importance of self-care in graduate school.
Tomorrow is not only the start of my fifth semester of teaching, but also the beginning of my third year of graduate school. I’m a first year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at West Virginia University. Earlier this year, I finished an MA, also in creative nonfiction, at Ohio University. I imagine that one of the things I may discuss in future blog posts is the MA versus the MFA, and why I ultimately chose to pursue both degrees.
For now, I’ll simply say that after the first year of my MA, when I was faced with losing the opportunity to be a part of community of writers, I was terrified. I applied to ten programs in both creative nonfiction and fiction. I focused on applying to fully funded programs, either in locations that sounded appealing, or at schools with faculty I admired. I was outright accepted at one school, waitlisted at three, and rejected with varying degrees of professionalism and timeliness from the rest.
When I first decided to come to WVU, I was more relieved than anything else; the process of applying to programs and then hearing back was exhausting and often discouraging. But in the months since I’ve received my acceptance email, my relief has shifted to excitement at the prospect of working with the WVU faculty and about meeting my new cohort (which seems full of truly delightful people, I’ve gotta say).
At both Ohio University and at WVU, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a teaching assistantship with the understanding that my time should be divided between my studies and my teaching.
“You work forty hours a week,” I heard last week. “Twenty hours on your graduate studies, twenty on your teaching responsibilities.” Although this statement is rightly intended to illustrate teaching should not encroach on my writing, I think that a crucial component of a graduate student’s time is missing—the need for self-care.
In my MA program, I felt like all of my time should be spent on my teaching if I wasn’t writing. I felt guilty if I took a few hours in the evening to do something nice for myself that wasn’t related to my teaching or my studies—maybe making that pasta sauce from scratch, binge watching a crappy TV show, or enjoying a glass of wine (or two). Sometimes it was all three of those things. And what I learned was that I needed to be okay with that; I realized that if I don’t take the time to do these things for myself, my writing suffers, my teaching suffers, and my overall attitude towards my program suffers.
It doesn’t make me a “bad” writer or teacher or student. Instead, I’m actually more engaged with my work if I make time for myself. Maybe faculty assumes that we graduate students already know about the need for self-care, but I actually think that it’s important for us to hear that it’s okay and something we should prioritize along with our course work and teaching.
My nights have become sacred, except in rare situations. I don’t check my emails after ten o’clock. I drink a cup of Celestial Seasoning’s sleepytime tea, which has all of the effects of melatonin minus the weird dreams and the next day hangover-like symptoms. I watch old movies and nature documentaries. I don’t open my laptop. I rub my cat’s ears. Those last two or three hours between waking and sleeping are not my students’ and not my peers’. They are mine. And I desperately, unapologetically need them.
I need them tonight.
I’ve started to think that the new year really begins in August, not in January. Everything that will happen in the next few weeks will color the next eleven months—which is a pretty intimidating thought. Right now, I’m clinging to the scant remains of summer. My hands are wrapped around a mug as I wait for my tea to cool. I’m watching Gilda and admiring Rita Hayworth’s hair. My cat is sleeping next to my feet on the ottoman. Her whiskers flex. Steam rises from my mug. I relish the silent, dark street outside my apartment. Tomorrow, I will meet the happy noise of a new year. My hands will shake. And then they will steady.
Currently Reading: Serena by Ron Rash