Sunday, July 12, 2015

On Seeing My Grad School Campus Again

Today I finally returned from my 16 day road trip with my wife and two daughters.  It has been a long, strange, tiring trip.  The sound of the Frozen soundtrack (played to placate my toddlers) is still ringing in my ears, and I feel like I have a bit of the white line fever.  We took a meandering path on the way to and from my Nebraska homeland, stopping to see all kinds of friends and family along the way.  On Friday we happened to pass through Champaign-Urbana, where I did my doctoral studies.

We had already taken an extended stop in Springfield to see various Lincoln sites and to have lunch with some friends from my grad school days who are living there.  I was hoping to stop in Chambana and take my daughters out of the car and walk them around the quad while my spouse took a well-deserved rest.  (I drove, she tried to keep them entertained.  Not sure which was harder.)  Toddlers being who they are, they had just fallen asleep in the back seat after a morning of being less than easy to deal with.  (That was the exact point at which I think they hit the wall, poor kids.)

I was not going to mess with nap time, so instead I drove through downtown Champaign, campustown, and the campus itself.  Earlier that morning I harbored ideas of going back into Gregory Hall and seeing if any of the profs were about.  Once I gazed upon campus again, I knew that such actions would be totally out of the question, and not just because my daughters were sleeping.

Unlike a lot of other people, I had a very pleasant grad school experience.  Until recent years, it was the happiest that I've ever been in my life.  I was living the life of the mind, young, and surrounded by great people in a town that was affordable and had a lot going on.  I knew that the job market was going to be difficult, but I had always put that in the back of my mind.  After leaving the nest I ended up in a dead-end, temporary "visitor" job for two years, then three increasingly unhappy years on the tenure track.  (I'll spare you the details, but my interpersonal relations at work were setting off panic attacks on a daily basis by the end.)  I gave up on my grad school dream and left academia at that point.  Gazing upon that golden campus, I felt an intense wave of sorrow.

Looking back, I was a completely different person in those days.  A vast gulf of painful experience has estranged me from that person.  While I am happy these days with my personal life and my job, my five years in the cauldron have made me distrustful, cynical, and even a little bitter.  My sorrow was the sorrow for losing the hope, belief, and optimism that I once had that I know will never really come back.  Of course, I am a whole lot wiser, pragmatic, and driven than I was back then, too.

I've come to see my decision to go to grad school to be, in the words of Elvis Costello, a "brilliant mistake." I had no clue what I was getting into back then, and from a financial standpoint, I fucked my life over pretty good.  I also developed my mind and gained friends who I wouldn't trade for anything.  I've met plenty of good people since I left the academic world, but none have shared the bonds of friendship that I wove back then.  I was lucky enough to see many of these friends on this trip, and today I was hit with the realization that it is not Champaign-Urbana or my old campus that means something, but the people I met there.  I'll continue to keep going great distances to see them, and will likely not bother to revisit my grad school campus anytime soon.


Unknown said...

Here's what you should do. Buy a U of I sticker for the car and wink at the people with Illinois plates giving you sly smiles when you stop at lights. It's the best!

bmi said...

This is a very sad piece, but I understand. Since my folks live close to Champaign, I find myself passing through there frequently. I still like to go back and visit the town, and I will even drive through campus like you did. Every year, though, it gets harder and harder to get out of the car and walk around campus. It's been several years since I was in Greg Hall, and my desire to go back there has dwindled in the intervening. I have fond memories of my time in C-U--especially my friends and the good times we had together--but I agree that what the job market has done to my life has made memories of grad school itself less than positive.