How the Academy Saved My Soul--and Maybe My Life

From the DOC to the PhD.
By James Ferry

Goddard College campus with cloudy sky and cherub fountain

I’d been in custody for nearly an hour. The cops had thoroughly searched my person and the sniffer dog had rummaged through my Mustang to no avail. But now that same dog, Rusty—whose name I would later learn from the police report—was headed straight for my druggy apartment in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.

Of course, there were onlookers. The sight of a lit-up patrol car, a couple of homeboys pressed against the graffiti-laden wall—that’s showy. I’d never been the object of so much fuss and inconvenience. I was embarrassed, more because I felt like I should be than because I actually was. I wanted to look at people, to look at their faces. I felt a strong urge to connect with something other than my own apprehension, so I craned my neck and squinted through the cruiser window. I wished I could be one of the people I saw, any of them. Anyone but me.

That was ten years ago. While tossing through my belongings, the cops found a salable amount of cocaine plus some pills I had lying around. It was enough to charge me with intent to distribute. A felony.

I’d been dealing for five years. On the surface I was just breaking the law, but there was something beneath what was happening, a subtext I neither anticipated nor acknowledged. I was slowly dropping out of society. People were afraid to say no to me, and if you can imagine what that does to a man’s ego, then you can begin to imagine what it must’ve been like to be around me. Since my personal habit was “moder­ate,” I neglected to factor in the deleterious long-term effects. Cocaine use inhibits your capacity for empa­thy. Not only that, you see no reason why others would empathize, either. Only when you’re sober do you acknowledge the darkness of your thinking.

I bailed out of jail and sank into lethargy.

I remember sitting on the couch one afternoon as usual, thinking of the mess I’d made of my life, when suddenly it occurred to me that I was going to be okay. I had to be. My misdeeds, my impending incarceration, my confusion—something had to come from all of it. I got off the couch and walked into my little office, sat down at my desktop, opened Micro­soft Word, and sat there for a moment, watching the cursor blink. Then I typed this: There’s something perversely satisfying about having catapulted yourself into the vortex of your greatest fear.

Overwrought and unspecific, that sentence was my first step out of the woods, and I had trouble parting with it. Soon, I would be spending my penal purga­tory generating lackluster pages: poorly built sentences, expendable characters, extraneous plot threads, knottily structured drafts. I was working up the nerve to apply to grad school, a modest MFA program, if one would have me. But first I had to appear at the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. The public defender (I was plainly guilty, so why bother paying for an attorney?) had arranged for my “plea” date to coincide with my “surrender” date. It’s a strange feeling: locking your front door knowing that you won’t be home for six months. Three years on probation after that. I consid­ered myself lucky.

Anyone who’s ever been jailed in a major city knows the anxiety of the unknown, the utter sensa­tion of doom. Without any knowledge of your fate, you’re dumped into a loud, dark cell filled with large, scary people. If you saw any of them approaching you on an empty street, you’d run the other way. There’s no place to hide, just rows of thinly padded, mostly occupied metal bunks. No blankets, no pillows—just bodies. There’s incessant howling, long and low: the coalescing of so many unpleasant voices assaulting your ears the way a garbage dump assaults your nose. Not that the smell was much better.

There’s no worse feeling than waking and realizing where you are. I thought of times when I’d dozed off on a bus or train, waking disoriented, wondering if I’d missed my destination. How great it would be now just to have a destination.

When I got out I bought a book: The Creative Writ­ing MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Students by Tom Kealey. I felt better just owning it; the thought of being “prospective” about grad school made me feel like less of a miscreant. Then I read it. Well written and filled with what sounded like masterful advice, the book made me realize how slim my chances were. I had no GRE scores, obviously, and the work involved there just seemed too mountainous, hence any school that required GREs was off the table. Every applica­tion would require letters of recommendation (who the hell was I going to ask to write a letter, my probation officer?) and something called a “personal statement.” My application was bound to be viewed skeptically by anyone, let alone a committee member at an accredited institution. For starters, my genre was creative nonfic­tion, specifically memoir, so the personal statement had to jibe with the writing sample, which meant that I had to be honest about everything. Just imagine applying for a job in corporate America and predicating your whole pitch on five years of felonious activity. I knew that certain employers hire ex-cons as a matter of principle, but I had no reason to believe that academia would look past my record. Kealey’s book emphasized that the writing sample would be the determining fac­tor. All of the MFA programs wanted at least twenty pages of prose. So I began obsessing over them.

I applied to the University of Massachusetts Amherst thinking that, because I’d gotten my under­grad degree there (in psychology), I’d have a better chance. No matter that they offer concentrations in poetry and fiction only. No matter that they wanted an additional writing sample of “expository prose” (of which I’d never even heard). They politely declined, which was obviously for the best. I didn’t think I had much of a shot with the top-tier programs anyway, plus a low-residency model appealed to me because I liked the idea of working independently. Besides, I couldn’t really move. I’d already secured a probation transfer back east: a tidy little document, the epitome of bureaucratic red tape. So, I applied to Lesley University in Boston and got invited—I think I was invited—to go on a tour and to audit a class. I remem­ber the professor calling on me by accident; I had to confess that I wasn’t a student. What could only have been ten or twelve turning heads felt like a mass, bovine shift. Funny how those situations send you right back to childhood. I was not accepted at Lesley.

I applied to three schools only—against the advice in the handbook—figuring that if all three turned me down then I probably wasn’t grad school material, or that my writing wasn’t good enough, or both. I had planned on applying to Vermont College but somehow ended up applying to Goddard College by mistake. (I can’t recall how this happened, honestly, but it smacks of cluelessness, doesn’t it?) I had just started working at a local restaurant. My phone wasn’t ringing much anymore, so when a call came in early one morning from an unknown number, I was curious enough to answer. The man identified himself as the program director at Goddard. I’d been accepted, he said.

I don’t know what he saw in those pages. Must have been a kernel of something, a spark maybe, but I know that they weren’t very good (and I’d be mortified to see them now). I was thirty-five years old, washing dishes and renting a small room in a run-down house in west­ern Massachusetts. I was pretty humble, but the call almost brought me to tears. I was used to bosses bark­ing at me and probation officers watching me piss into a plastic cup. The feeling of being given a chance when you don’t see one coming—when you don’t believe that you deserve one—this is a sensation that everyone should experience from time to time. It puts you back in touch with human frailty, and it makes you want to help. Others, you remember, feel like you do.

Goddard turned out to be a good fit, which was a relief. I got to work with some great people. The program does exactly what it’s supposed to do. The residencies are intensive and the workshops are well rounded, but then you get to work one-on-one all semester with a faculty adviser, simulating the relation­ship that a writer might have with an editor or mentor.

I graduated with a good manuscript, one that I con­tinued to work on and that I hope to publish one day. I would never have been able to produce writing of that quality had I been on my own. But I had a new problem: being in school made me feel productive, and I wanted back in. But where would I go, what would I study? I was nearing the end of my probation but I lacked the resources to move. I decided to apply to UMass, again, this time for a master’s in English. I was confident now. I was getting savvier about the application process, and I had good writing samples and solid letters of recom­mendation. Cum laude as an undergrad at that very campus, fresh off a successful run at a respectable MFA program—why wouldn’t they take me?

The day the rejection notice appeared online there were about three feet of wet snow on the ground—one of those wintry cyclones that wallop the Pioneer Valley in February. I had to get out there and fire up the snow blower, the clunky kind with the auger that clogs every few feet and the jittery motor that dies at random. Then I had to go to the restaurant. I decided then that I was going to get into that program. I had never reap­plied anywhere, I don’t think, but my experience with grad school thus far had taught me something impor­tant: it was the application that had gotten rejected, not me. But it was up to me to make it better.

No getting around the GRE this time, so I enrolled in a Kaplan course nearby and took the exam twice. Then I emailed every English professor teaching a grad seminar at UMass that fall and asked if I could audit. I got some very polite “no” responses. And two yeses. Looking back, I see that this was extremely fortunate. Because the low-residency model at Goddard is so unique, I had no idea what to expect from an in-person graduate seminar. I’d planned on being a model auditor, attending every class and turning in all the work, even if it got thrown out, so if more than two professors had said yes I’d have been completely overwhelmed. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

In my rhetoric class, I found Plato fascinating. All those dialogues surviving and his work still being ana­lyzed and interpreted. I was unprepared for the density of the material, but I soldiered on. I learned words like pedagogy, episteme, and epideictic. We were going over The Encomium of Helen one day, and I recall raising my hand to comment on the parallelism employed, how it “democratized” the language (my first time using that word). The professor peppered me with follow-up ques­tions, which made me feel worthy, though my answers were probably specious. I was having a harder time in Performance Studies. Brecht, Adorno, Butler . . . for someone who’d never even heard of “critical theory,” it was like a new language. But I learned about performa­tives and infelicities. I learned how to do things with words. I apologize for my criminal past. I promise to be a better person. I declare war on my insecurities.

I had uttered something once about not being a “real” student, and the professor contradicted me. I was being self-deprecating, so I figured that he was just trying to prop me up. Then he emailed me at the end of the semester to tell me that he enjoyed having me in his class and that I was getting an A. I was elated and somewhat confused. Why was I getting a letter grade?

Then a bill arrived in the mail. I hadn’t been audit­ing at all, it seemed; I’d been enrolled as a nondegree student. I’d never heard of such a thing. I just thought I was being particularly nerdy, showing up to every seminar and turning in the assignments as though I belonged. Apparently I did.

I embarked upon an email correspondence with the program director. He remembered me from when I’d first applied and was very sympathetic. First I get declined. Then I beg to sit in on classes, then a bill for six grand lands in my lap. I was extremely careful with my wording. I was more curious about how this could have happened than dismayed. The bill would get settled. And now I had the beginnings of a transcript. “The bright side is,” he said, “if you get in now, you’ll be six credits ahead.” I’d have been surprised if I didn’t get in this time, the B+ in Performance Studies notwithstanding. (It still stings. Had I taken it after my first survey course in criti­cal theory, I’d have gotten an A.) The program director sent me a personal email congratulating me on my accep­tance. I didn’t even have to wait for the official notice.

Indeed, those six credits counted toward my MA. I decided to write a thesis, a book-length treatise on the unreliable narrator. I argued that it could be used ethically and effectively as a rhetorical device for auto­biographical prose.

I had always wanted to earn a PhD, long before I had any idea of what that actually meant or what it would entail. Prestige might be the proper word. (How a young person develops a desire to profess at the college level is still beyond me.) Now that I had an MFA in creative writing and an MA in English, not only did a PhD seem plausible, it seemed logical. I had enjoyed writing my thesis on the unreliable narrator, so I wanted to find a program that offered a concen­tration in narrative theory or narratology, and I could find only one: Ohio State University. I was certain that my research interests were perfectly aligned with the program. I was confident in my writing samples, and I could only assume that the recommendation letters were flattering. My GRE scores were respectable, I had good grades, everything. When the rejection—the first one—arrived from Ohio State, I was crestfallen. In my mind I had sidled up to the ideal partner at the dance, so my confidence took a hit. But I was smart this time: I had applied to six programs.

One by one the rejections rolled in. I was steel­ing myself for the worst—a feeling with which I was intimately acquainted. I had always been an outsider. A superior had once described me as a “square peg” in a sea of round holes. That was the corporate realm. Clearly, I wasn’t cut out for a life of crime either. Now it seemed that academia was about to close the book on me. I would not have felt jilted, honestly. I would have simply blamed myself and moved on.

When the acceptance arrived from the University of Rhode Island, I almost didn’t trust it. We’ve probably all had these moments—we know and understand the words semantically, syntactically, but they just don’t jibe with the template in our brains. It wasn’t until I had completed all the acceptance prompts and was told that I was “fully matriculated” that I really felt welcome.

I’ll probably always carry traces of my disreputable past. (When most people hear someone say, “R and R,” they think rest and relaxation. I think of those buzzers and sally ports at the county detention center: reception and release.) I may never feel as though I “belong” in academia, but this is in no way attribut­able to how I’ve been treated. The English department at URI has a small but dedicated staff, and the director of graduate studies likes to meet one on one with all the new enrollees during the first semester. When we met, she immediately asked me if I was okay. The Bos­tonian in me wanted to crack wise. The “redeemed” part of me wanted to assuage any anxiety she might have concerning my ability to do the work required. But I realized that she just wanted to know, genuinely, if I was doing all right as a new student on campus. It reminded me of my broader experience with the academy thus far: these are people who care. Or else they wouldn’t be here.

A pattern had been forming, beginning with that first acceptance call and continuing up until the present support I was receiving from my professors at URI. The list of people who helped me is inexhaustible, but the point, I hope, is clear. The academy saved me. Without it, I might not have ended up back on the street, dealing and doing drugs, but I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s not that you can’t find good people in the private sector, corporate America, or a government agency—I’ve had experience with all of these, not always by choice—but you won’t find nearly as many, and every­one’s busy. But the academy is unique. No place else will you find so many selfless people willing to devote their time, to give you a chance, not in spite of who you are but because you simply are. Because you exist. A human who needs help.

How beautiful is that?

James Ferry is a PhD candidate at the University of Rhode Island. His creative work has been published in several literary journals, and he currently teaches college writing to prisoners preparing to reenter society. His website is http://www.swirlsinthenegativespace.com.

Comments

Good job Mr Ferry.

Thanks, Chris, but "James," or even the less formal "Jimmy" is perfectly acceptable :-)

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