It was nine years ago today that I sat with my head buried in my hands, sobbing in the Alamo. I realize that is a strange image and memory with which to begin a blog post. But, whether I knew it or not, that moment was…and is…a small point of light for which I remain grateful.
I had defended my dissertation the month prior to my San Antonio visit. I was “on the market” as a new PhD and actively interviewing for faculty positions around the country. At that time, this was the big weekend for those interviewing for faculty roles: the Society for Social Work and Research conference. In fact, my academic colleagues from around the country are all gathered together now. I am not attending this year (I’ll get to that later…)
Nine years ago was the first SSWR that I had ever attended, and I had several schools with which to have informal (and some formal) interviews about open positions. I suppose at the time, I was caught up more in the energy of possibility: which schools wanted to interview me, where would I be a good fit, what would this mean for my family?? I was walking a particularly challenging balance: finding a place where I wanted to be, and finding a place that wanted me while hoping wherever that was, my family would like it, too. Throw in the added pressure of mentors who had places they thought that I should be. I was besieged on all sides, but my head was in the clouds.
I had a mental image of where I wanted to be based on my one-sided gleaning of information about campus locations, glossy mailers of pretty buildings, proximity to research collaborators, and people telling me what was a “good” school. I had one school that stood out as the shining star in my constellation of opportunities. The campus was beautiful, the location was great, they had all the programs and collaborators I was looking for, I had my mentors’ seal of approval…from all I could tell it was the perfect place for me. There were some other standouts, too, and one of those “other” schools had already reached out to me, interviewed me by phone and was flying me out to visit them the week following the conference. I now realize that I was in an enviable position, although at the time I had no idea of what was typical experience…I was too lost in my own experience. I was trying to keep my eyes open and make it through the process intact, with a job waiting on the other side.
That particular Friday, I boarded a plane before the crack of dawn and flew to San Antonio. I was checked into my hotel by 9, and freshened up for an 11:00 interview with my “star” school. I was ready, armed with information about my dissertation and teaching experience, and how I would contribute to their faculty. I stepped into a room filled with people whose names I had cited, and whose bios I had read and studied for this pre-employment pop quiz. Things didn’t start well. The room was apparently not set up the way the search chair liked, and I listened to him berate the hotel staff as I sat quietly in the hallway outside the interview room. Insults were used, including an ethnic slur. I don’t think he realized that anyone was listening, especially a candidate. Eventually, several other people walked into the room and the person chairing the meeting came back out, which is when I popped up and introduced myself. I saw by the look on his face that at that moment, he realized I was sitting there the whole time. I smiled politely, but didn’t say a word.
I started the interview with some typical questions and was asked to give a brief summary of my research. As I began to describe my dissertation, Parenting after Pregnancy Loss, another member of the group interrupted me as I named attachment theory as an underlying foundation for my research. He asked (using the term loosely), “Don’t you think that’s a stretch? I mean…come on…it’s just a pregnancy, and there’s nothing really to attach to. It sounds like a fictitious attachment to me and you tell us you’re basing a whole dissertation on that?”
I felt my blood boiling, and knew that my neck and face were flushed red with the anger that I was holding back. Then, I noticed a younger woman faculty member with her jaw dropped in disbelief by this scene. But clearly, not feeling like she could speak up to stop it. That was all I needed to see. I turned to face my questioner and said, “That’s obviously the way you see it. It’s not the way that many people see it, though, especially people who have been through a pregnancy loss. I’m sad to hear that your need to assert your opinion could trample over another person’s subjective experience. That isn’t how I learned to practice social work, and it isn’t how I intend to practice my research, either.” That was the last lucid thing I remember saying. There were other questions, and I had other answers. It became awkward, uncomfortable and was an hour that felt like it would never end.
Like every experience, it finally did come to a close. I stood up and the search chair walked me to the door, pushed it open for me and patted me on the shoulder and said, “You did a good job, dear.” That incredibly patronizing act (not to mention, patronizing term) was the final straw for me. I didn’t acknowledge his statement; I simply walked away. In re-lived dreams, I imagine being bold enough to have found words, or to have said, “No, I didn’t and neither did you.” Instead, I just walked and kept on walking. In order to get back to my hotel by the shortest route possible, I had to cross The Alamo.
I held my hotel in my line of vision, trying to walk and not think about the crushing blows that had just been dealt. I was desperate not to make eye contact with anyone I might know. I just wanted the privacy of my room for my thoughts, my anger, my disillusionment, and my tears. My feet were trying to move my body forward, seeking private shelter for overwhelming emotion. I just had to cross the Alamo.
I didn’t make it.
I found myself in The Alamo, behind an old stone wall. There was a stone bench, and I sat and I wept with my back to passers by. My constellation had been destroyed. Not only did they not like what they saw in me…I couldn’t stand what I had seen, either. I wouldn’t have taken a position as a colleague in that group if I were offered twice the salary of another place. Although, that was irrelevant, because I knew none of us were going to be continuing this conversation. I sobbed as my assumptive world of “star” schools came crashing down around me.
The beauty of a good cry is how cathartic it can be. Soon, I was brushing off my business suit and walking to my hotel room to freshen up. There were other interviews, and a lunch with the school where I would be visiting a few days later. There were friends to lean on and social networking events with acquaintances old and new, and I was caught up in the whirlwind again in no time. I fell in the love with the school I visited the following week, and that led to a job offer with the place that has been my academic and professional home for eight years now. My family did like their new home-town, and we have put down roots here where we could grow and flourish personally and professionally. I’m grateful to have been emptied of my assumptions so that I could see a different opportunity with new eyes. The place I chose…and that chose me…has allowed me to be myself, and to continue my journey of becoming even as we change and grow together with all the ups and downs that come with that. A fit of mutual respect is a beautiful thing, in work and in life.
When my assumptive world of “the perfect school” came crashing down, it emptied me. I remember the Alamo because it was the place where the siege I didn’t even realize was happening overtook me, emptied me, and dropped me to my knees. But like those stone walls which tourists file through, I wasn’t destroyed. I was just empty.
The beauty of emptiness is that it opens us to being filled.
Fast forward nine years. My social work research friends are at our annual conference in New Orleans this year, and my Facebook feed is filled with pictures of beignets and cafe au lait…check ins at jazz clubs…pictures of scientific posters and rooms filled with familiar faces. I am on the program to run my special interest group, but others have stepped up to lead when I announced I wasn’t going this year. I miss it. I miss spending time with special people, and I miss the energy of large groups of acquaintances and small groups of friends catching up. Let’s be honest…I also miss the ego-rush of people who want to talk with me about my research and who know me from what I write and publish and now get to know me as a person (I want to live into that with integrity, too).
There is an empty space I am feeling this weekend that I recognize is about more than just a conference. I am on a journey that is changing, and the course that I have been on for the past nine years is altering. Many people don’t know that yet but I am aware of it, and I honor the feelings that go along with it. I am emptying myself for a reason. I am charting a new course on my journey for which I needed to free up space so that new growth can emerge. Transformation has already happened. Now, I sit on the edge of noticeable change becoming very evident in my life, and I can welcome it with openness and freedom. I didn’t need to be knocked down this time. And I don’t need to hide. I learned a lesson nine years ago about that.
Today, I am remembering the Alamo. I am grateful for the lesson I learned, a lesson that I share: We need to be empty in order to be filled.