When it All Came Crashing Down

By our thirties I would say most of us have had a crushing moment that at the time we couldn’t imagine we would come back from.  And reminders of this moment might still cause a small panic attack.  My moment is nothing as terrible as a debilitating illness or worst of all losing a loved one, but still hurts all the same.

Five years ago I was finishing up my masters in musicology and about to give birth to my second child.  My masters had been a dream come true as I enjoyed studying music history, discovered there was such a thing as ethnomusicology, and had supportive teachers that were more of my friends than my other classmates.  With the support of this enthusiastic, warm staff, I applied to doctorate school so I could achieve my dream of being a professor of West African music, traditional and pop.  I applied to many schools, but only visited the school in my hometown area, where I would be near family and high school friends and in a large city for Wole to find work.

When I visited, it was obvious this little, elite, private school was vastly different from my accepting, teaching based public university.  The professors were more snooty, but I could deal with that right?  The one ethnomusicologist on staff seemed easygoing and fun to work with and the other professors said they didn’t see why I couldn’t make my West African pursuits happen there and eschew some of the traditional musicology courses that wouldn’t apply to my research.  So when the acceptance letter came I was understandably overjoyed and felt like everything was falling into place.  I was accepted to speak at the Black Studies Conference about my thesis and I was going to the school I’d wanted, so everything for my career was on course, right?

My first red flag appeared shortly after I was accepted.  The amount of my stipend was up in the air and I wanted to start planning for rent and child care, so I contacted the head of the department at my new school.  I was informed that I was not one of their top picks and they were figuring out what would happen with them first.  This was a punch to the ego, but I would prove my worth and the value of ethnomusicology.

The next blow came closer to the start of school.  I had moved, but Wole still had not found a position, so he was gone during the week and coming to us on the weekends.  Child care was a huge concern, so I tried to find out when my classes would be.  I was informed we “chose” classes the Friday before classes started on Monday, meaning I would have to scramble to make sure my children were watched.  Almost all my classes wound up being at night, so I had to hire a sitter.  That wasn’t the worst of it though.  I was going to have to take four classes, when I knew realistically I could only handle three and when I voiced my concerns I was basically told to deal with it.  I had to take an Intro to Research course I had already taken in my masters, because I hadn’t taken it with this institution (slam to my old school).  The course load was ridiculously hard.  I was expected to read a 500 page book of dense academic reading in every class every week (that’s 2000 pages if you’re with me) and write almost 1000 words in each class every week, while still working towards a final 20 page project in each class.  With limited finances, I could only afford to have child care during classes and another two hours most days, so I pretty much gave up sleeping.  Even that didn’t mean uninterrupted time at night, as I was breast feeding and attachment parenting, so I was reading and typing with a baby on my breast most of the time.  Oh and I forgot, I also had to take piano classes in an attempt to pass a proficiency test that piano majors were having trouble passing.  Again practice time usually involved a baby in one arm and a four year old trying to pound away at the same time.  Most nights I wound up breaking down and crying from exhaustion and frustration, only to push through and go on.

In class, I struggled with the teaching style.  Whereas my masters had been concentrated reading excerpts that we discussed in depth and mined for treasure, my doctorate became a roast on each writer.  Everything we read, our professors seemed to hate and we were expected to ridicule the books with them.  Why would we read something that wasn’t any good?  Why would we spend our time tearing down other academics who had strove and struggled to present us with this reading material?  I refused to be so dismissive and hateful, so I was labeled as not discerning.  At the end of the semester, my work was done if not perfect.  I thought this was acceptable and would get better, because Wole found a job in town!

The next semester, I was crushed to learn there were no music courses that pertained to me.  I was forced to do another retake of Advanced Research, an anthropology course, and Medieval Music.  Ugh.  If there was any way I could have not taken Medieval Music, the least useful, the most uninteresting possible way to go, I would have happily gotten out of it.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t and I therefore sealed my doom.  It was quickly clear, this one woman professor in the whole department, was dismissive of us student peons, particularly the women.  We quickly learned to send any of our questions to the one male in the class to ask her.  She met with each of us individually, and when she met with me it became clear I was just going to have to survive this class, not excel.  She felt I would need this class for anywhere I wanted to teach (who hires a West African expert to teach about chant?) and that with two kids I couldn’t do this.  I still thought it was just a matter of surviving this semester out, until I came to her for funding, because I had been accepted to speak on a paper in Amsterdam.  I’ll never forget her response, “That’s if your still enrolled with us after this semester, and I don’t think you will be.”  I felt physically punched.  I went to the head of graduate students and then to the dean, only to discover I was part of a war that had been raging with students as the casualties.  The newer professors accepted ethnomusicology students, while the older professors found ways to dismiss us.  I still stupidly thought I had a chance and pushed through to the end, going to the writing center, which found nothing wrong with my writing, and holding study sessions at my house as me and my classmates struggled to find the terms on our Medieval “review” sheet in our notes or book to pass an impossible test.

In the end, none of it mattered.  No one spoke to me, but on the last day when all the students were meeting for dinner, I found a letter in my mailbox.  It only said I would not be continuing on.  I tried to still go to dinner with everybody, but had to leave and get away as they discussed next year, a reality I was no longer a part of.  I went home and as soon as I saw Wole I collapsed on his shoulder and sobbed like I hadn’t since I was small.  He held me and reminded me over and over again that I still had an amazing family who loved me.

I talked to the dean and she assured me no more ethnomusicology students would be accepted and forced the department to write me a detailed letter on all my failings.  But the damage was done.  Even if I could get another program to accept me, I couldn’t move the family again.  We said, maybe someday we would, but I knew deep down it was done.  I’ve returned to teaching, which some days I love and other days I never want to go back.  I’ve gotten used to my house that is more than my younger self every dreamed of, a steady income, and stability for my kids.  Every once in awhile though, I still dream of writing, studying, and teaching about the history and cultures I love and fight an ache in my heart.

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4 thoughts on “When it All Came Crashing Down

  1. I am very sorry this happened to you. It is crushing and I know what crushing feels like. But if this means you get to blog more and write more, that might be another outlet for your creativity, and I do enjoy your blogs. And this is NOT to make light of your setback – and it is just that a setback. I know how crushing it is to you. I read an essay about a woman who divorced in her fifties (the husband had an affair with someone half his age – cue eye roll), she said one thing that hit home was, when you start over in mid-life you no longer have the optimism of youth which propels so many of us forward when we hit roadblocks. She didn’t just mean divorce, she meant job loss, career setbacks, life setbacks, health setbacks, when you are mid-life you are less to look forward to even if everything else is going well. I am in my late thirties (ok I am 37), hence I am in a panic to sort out my life and aspirations and goals straight, I still have *some* optimism of youth left but I know if I don’t nurture it and when it’s gone, my ‘setbacks’ would go from temporary to permanent.
    Next – what the hell is wrong with your school?

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    • Sorry – hit enter too soon – they don’t want candidates who study ethnic music (if I am understanding correctly)? I have little contact with Nigerian or West African music but I am HUGE fan of Nigerian literature and – they have a beautiful way with words – which I am sure translates into music, better than any westerner. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of my favorite writers, I listen to her Ted Talks over and over again, especially the bit about storytelling – and I can’t even pronounce her name properly though I try. When I read Chinua Achebe in college I was blown away.

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      • This is mostly correct. Technically ethnomusicology is the study of music and society, but it usually translates to non western musics. Musicology is more focused on history and music mechanics. A lot of the older professors wanted to stick to this older discipline.

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