Sunday, October 26, 2014

Personal Testimony: Me and my university

I've never done witnessing, never made an altar call, I'm not big into evangalism, but I'm told that telling your story is something you should do on occasion.

I came to the University of Southern Maine after a year spent doing nothing.  I don't mean a year spent relaxing.  I mean that I have clinical depression, it'd be almost a decade before we found a treatment that worked, I hadn't even met the psychiatrist who makes up the other part of that "we", and I did nothing.

If you've never done nothing, I highly recommend against it.

Depression sucks.  I remember a time when, for months, beyond eating, using the bathroom, and occasionally drinking water, I could not muster the energy to move.  I watched the Shawshank Redemption too many times to count because I couldn't mange the effort needed to stand up, cross the room, and change the DVD.

Pushing, "Play," on the remote every time it looped back to the main menu after the movie had finished was preferable to listening to the menu loop or having nothing going on at all.

And so my time was spent semi-supine on the couch during that period.

That was a not-so-bad time as these things go because there was something (the Shawshank Redemption) going on as opposed to nothing.

But then I managed to apply and then went to the University of Southern Maine as a math major.

I took Latin as an elective because I'd done it in high school and figured I'd keep on doing it.  I didn't know it but that choice landed me in a stellar program even though the university, even then, didn't acknowledge it.

At the time Peter Aicher was in charge but that passed back and forth between himself and Jeannine Diddle Uzzi.  Peter Aicher you know from TV.  If you missed him on the National Geographic Channel you probably saw him on Discovery, if you missed him there then probably The History Channel, if you missed that then Nova, and if you missed that then probably some other channel.

He is, quite simply, the world's foremost expert on Roman Aqueducts and he gets asked to speaking engagements around the world.  In addition his understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of Greek Mythology is incredible, and if you want to understand the architectural propaganda of Rome as the Romans understood it, you'll want to buy his latest book.  Plus, who else can make James Joyce make sense?

Jeannine doesn't have quite the same level of fame, but she is no less good at her work.  She realized that an incredibly important area of study had been overlooked by two thousand years of scholarship and, with her debut book, worked to fix that by writing what is still the definitive work on the subject.  She has advanced our understanding of childhood, both actual and symbolic, in the ancient world, particularly that of outsiders.

She's taught a class for Harvard via the Center for Hellenic Studies and done so in Greece on a trip that visited virtually every major archaeological site in Greece, Crete, and the Cyclades covering over three thousand years of history.

Her translation of Catullus, which is revolutionary, awesome, and, unlike so many, not diluted for the purposes of sanitizing, will be  published by Cambridge soon.  (I've had the good fortune of reading some of it pre-publication.)

Which is to say, when I chose to take Latin as an elective I stepped into an amazing program without realizing I had done so.

If I'd done some research I'd have found out that the University of Southern Maine had a stellar reputation.  Since then I've heard some say that the reputation has been tarnished.  That's inaccurate.  Tarnish is what happens to silver when it's allowed to age like a fine wine.  Plus a layer of tarnish forms a protective layer on the surface of an object preventing further degradation.

If one takes a whiff of my university's reputation now they'll quickly realize that what the reputation is coated in is not oxidation, it's been dragged through copious piles of excrement.  Despite popular rumor, excrement is apparently not corrosive, but it is toxic and it does tend to make things worse if not cleaned up.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

For four years I showed up to classes every day, despite my still-untreated depression and the two hour walk to get to the university, kept my head down, and earned a degree.

Then my sister was going to start a business.  Though I was told I only had one class left to graduate I decided to take a semester off so that I might help her.

This was 2008.  The global economy collapsed before our eyes and the credit market froze.  The loan we would need to start the business became impossible.  (Since then someone else used the same idea and has been a great success.  Having an idea first means nothing if you don't reach the market first.  That said, I'm happy someone else did it because it fills a need that was previously unfilled.)

Inertia and depression took over.  I spent another year doing nothing.

When I returned with the plan of taking that one class it just felt weird to come for one class only, so I looked for an elective.  I'd never studied ancient Greek, beginning Greek was being offered, so I took that.

It turned out the one class I supposedly needed was just a computer error.  I could have graduated before the year I spent out of school.  I could drop all my classes, put in the forms, and gradate with no more effort if I wanted to.

I took the Greek anyway.

In getting ready to apply to graduate and receive the degree I had already earned I realized that, via electives, I had earned a classics minor.  All I had to do was declare.  While filling out that paperwork Peter pointed out that in another year I could turn that minor into a major and graduate with a double major in Math and Classics.

So I stayed.

At this point something needs to be explained.  I don't make friends well.  I get along with people at school well enough, but I've never been good at the transition between friends at school and actual friends who you see for reasons other than having the same class.  But because of seeing them a lot and small class sizes I got to know the classics students and the two professors very, very well.

They've become like a second family to me.

When the time came to graduate with a double major there were two things on the horizon, both of them tempting.  Peter gives a class in etymology that everyone who takes it raves about how good it is.  Jeannine specializes in art but I had never once taken an art focused class with her.  Peter was giving the class, Jeannine was teaching an art class.

I decided to stay around just one more year to take those two classes.

I am not good on buses.  (I'm getting better.)  Especially the kind of buses that a multi-city university would hire to run people between their different campuses.  People are crammed in like sardines, unfamiliar voices assault you from all sides, it's like chaos itself rammed through your senses assaulting your brain.  And above all it's uncomfortable.

The art class was on the distant campus.  The bus over was generally sparsely populated and thus not so bad.  The ride back was a level of Hell that is omitted from the Inferno simply because bus technology did not exist in the time of Dante.

Jeannine gave me a ride back to the Portland campus almost every class.

It was a hard time in her life, both personally and because she was chair of the Faculty Senate and this was the semester of the no-confidence vote against Selma Botman.  Controversy and attention she never wanted was dumped on top of her.

In spite of that she was able to help me, and I don't just mean with the ride.  My depression was still untreated.  At this point it wasn't because nothing tried worked, which has historically been the reason, but because nothing was being tried at all.  I'd fallen out of the system and wasn't even getting people trying to give me treatment.

Those rides, the talking done during them, and her support in other areas, made me better.  Being better is not the same thing as being cured, it is not even the same thing as being good.  It's less bad.  When everything is bad, less bad is something vitally important.

Indeed, sometimes I did actually leave a conversation with her in a state of actual good.  Mental wellness in a time when unwell wasn't just normal but almost, if not quite, uniform.

The rides between campuses might have been a one-semester only thing, but the support was not.  At times when I couldn't think, couldn't work, couldn't accomplish shit, Jeannine was there for me.  She was always supportive.  For the longest time she was the only person in my life without high level professional training in mental illness who had even an inkling of how destructive depression could be.

She showed me compassion when other people didn't give a shit.  She showed it consistently, and she did it regardless of how badly things were going in her own life.

She isn't just my teacher, she's my friend.

It wasn't too much later when I went to the university's Counseling Center (for the second time) and got on the road to getting not just better but getting well.

Two things happened before I got on a medication that worked.

One was that I looked into what staying around for longer could be used for and settled on getting two separate degrees instead of one degree with a double major.

The other was that I got laid very, very low by a depressive episode.  (Without getting into medical terminology too much, I have both chronic and acute depression.  Chronic makes everything bad forever, acute makes some things really, really, really bad for a while.)  I failed everything.

Right now what I really want to do is overwrite that period.  I can do that, I just have to retake the classes I failed.  For some reason the classes are scheduled such that I can't retake them in nearly as short a time as I failed them.  (It was possible to take them all at once before, that's how I failed them, but now their times conflict with each other.)

I've earned my two degrees.  I just want to replace that failure with success.  This isn't for GPA, though it will help with that, it's for myself and my mental health.

Since I started paying attention, the university has been claiming huge deficits (and then earning surpluses every year which always earns an, "Oops, we were wrong about the deficit, but this proves we're awesome and credit to us, not those who did the work," from the top but never gets a, "There seem to be systemic problems in our accounting mechanisms that are making us think we're running deficits when we're actually running surpluses year, after year, after year.  Maybe we should fix those problems.")  The solution offered is always the same, "Cut everything."

The cuts always, without fail, target profitable programs which makes no sense.  If you cut profits you lose money, not save it.  In previous years pointing that out was enough to stop the lion's share of the cuts.  This year not so much.  Two days ago I was at a Board of Trustees meeting.  After hours of citizen testimony, some from CEOs saying that they would find a way to pay for one of the programs because they needed it to train their employees (there had only been 18 days notice so no one had time to come up with a plan, you see), some from economists and accountants pointing out that cutting profitable programs would loose money, some from people saying that cutting French in the state with the second largest French speaking population, an extremely large boarder with Canada, important trade relations with France, and a steady stream of French speaking immigrants, was probably a bad idea, and so forth, the Board voted to cut the profitable programs and lose money.  Logic ("This will make you lose money, and is thus counterproductive") is no longer persuasive.

When they came for others, I spoke out;
When they came for others, I marched;
When they came for others, I demonstrated;
When they came for others, I stood up to be counted;
Now they're coming for my degree, my teachers, my friends.

In spite of snow and rain, in spite of blizzard conditions that sometimes, somehow, don't get school canceled, in spite of an ongoing stream of ephemeral administrations that don't care about me, in spite of once falling into an open manhole (the snow made it so you couldn't see it was open), in spite of the fact that I've worn holes in the soles of all of my shoes and now they let water in, in spite of the mismanagement at the top wearing a hole in my soul, I show up.  I come to school.  I walk two hours in and two hours out.  In eight years of attending (non-consecutive) I've missed only four days of classes (had a nervous breakdown; didn't set foot outside my house for a week.)

I've put more energy and effort into the University of Southern Maine than any of the bastards who make decisions.  I've certainly put in more money.

These days it's always a question where tuition will come from, in the beginning I put it in up front.  Believe me, I wish I still had that money.  The first two weeks of this semester I miscalculated and ran out of food two weeks before I had money to buy more.  I scoured my house and found peanut butter.

I lived on that for two weeks.  Not peanut butter sandwiches.  I didn't have bread.  Just peanut butter.

I happened to mention it to my teacher afterward, the teacher they want to fire, and she said that if anything like that ever happened to me again I should tell her.  She'd get me food.  That's Jeannine, she doesn't even know if she'll be fired (she'll find out on Halloween, which is strangely appropriate) and she's wishing she'd known that I needed help because she would have given it to me without hesitation.


If you would like to tell people not to set the university on fire:

The Board of Trustees (for the entire system, my university is USM):

The Chancellor (again, of the whole system):

The University of Southern Maine President (finally just my university):

1 comment:

  1. This is an excellent testemonial. I really get a feel for why you care so much about this.

    I'm sending best wishes to Jeannine in particular, she sounds like a treasure.