Episode 6: Returning to the scene of the crime
I had to go back to my work-town. I had to empty my house and prepare it for rental. I had to empty my office so it could be usable for someone else. The whole experience was surreal. I always felt like a foreigner in that town. And yet it took care of me enough for my survival. I had some comforts – a few friends, my little home that was my sanctuary, the restaurants where I liked to eat, the pride of a tenured position, quiet nights in a town where you can see the stars, a view of green hills out my office window.
Leaving that town feels like Tom Hanks leaving the island. I know I’ve got to leave. It’s not a full life. Yet it gave me some things I needed to survive. It sheltered me and comforted me enough to keep going for a long time.
The day I went to the office and took my degrees off the wall was filled with mixed emotions of awkward guilt and anxiety. Was I no longer a Professor? Was I no longer worthy of those degrees? Did I quit? I felt shame in that office. And shame again in the face of colleagues who had succeeded at the profession, who never seemed to feel too much stress, who had never shown struggle, need, vulnerability, who simply don’t get what my problem was. To them, there must be some idiosyncratic problem or sickness that I’m dealing with. “It’s just a shame,” they think. But I find some sort of validation (in a sad way, I guess) in the face of so many professor friends who eagerly asked what I was up to, what I might pursue, confidentially telling me they hoped for an answer for how to get out too.
In one week I emptied my house. I sold all of my furniture and gave away most of my house wares. I filled up a tiny pod of books and files and sent it home. I can’t yet sell my house because the housing market is still too depressed in my work-town for me to break even. Kind of like an ex who won’t sign the divorce papers, unwilling to let you go. I spackled the holes in the wall, took a final mop over the hardwoods, strapped down the stuff in my pod hoping that the two wine glasses I kept would make it through all the rumbling of their journey cross country, and drove away with my framed degrees on the passenger seat . . . saying to myself “these are mine.” They reflect me, my value, my knowledge, my skill. They don’t belong to the college, or the office, or the title someone else gave me. They are mine, and I take them with me wherever I go.