Monday, November 16, 2009


I have not been in the best of moods lately.

In part it's due to the normal stresses of teaching here. Friday, I gave a quiz in my 7th grade AM mathematics class (85 students). Being the end of the week as it was, my nerves were pretty frayed, and the kids just WOULD NOT BE QUIET. I spent the first 10 minutes of class waiting until the noise was down to a dull roar before I put the quiz on the board, and spent the next 30 minutes patrolling the class trying (and failing) to keep them from looking off of each other's papers. By 20 minutes into the quiz, the entire class was talking again, and when I lost my patience and raised my voice to yell over them “BE QUIET! KEEP YOUR MOUTHS SHUT AND BE QUI-ET!!!!” they laughed at me and then returned to talking, reinforcing my complete lack of any authority in my classes. I almost cried, I was so frustrated.

(The silver lining to this story is: I graded the quiz and they actually did really well. And the evidence of cheating was not as bad as I had anticipated. So that is good).

In larger part, the bad feeling is due to the stream of medical school rejections that has begun pouring in. I knew that it would happen, and I think in part this is why I've been putting off applying to schools (aside from the bigger issue that I just didn't know what I wanted to do with myself until recently). I had no desire to repeat the ego-bruising that characterized my application to and subsequent rejection from undergraduate institutions, even though it's a necessary unpleasantness.

There's something about having an unknown group of people objectively analyze your accomplishments and label you Not Good Enough that's incredibly demoralizing. Especially when it's multiple groups of unknown peoples, all coming to the same conclusion about your inferiority.

It's especially rough after spending the majority of last year doing demeaning work, and not doing a very good job at it at that. And the fact that I don't seem to be a very effective teacher here doesn't help (although, despite the fact that I suck, this job is still about a million times more fulfilling than the one I was working at before I came). It's hard not to think, damn – maybe these med school people have a point. There really isn't ANYTHING I'm good at. I should give up, call it a day, maybe bum around Africa for awhile and then go back to cleaning incubators ( . . . OK, not that. There were too many other factors, aside from the tedium and pointlessness of that job, that made it incredibly unpleasant. But I could do some equally menial job that requires no skills whatsoever).

To be fair, I do have one confirmed interview, and was offered a second that I won't be able to schedule. But that almost makes it worse – is it really worth the extremely expensive plane ticket all the way home for one lonely interview? What are the odds that I can actually get in to that one place? (I should note that there are still a few schools I'm waiting to hear back from, but given the trend toward rejection thus far, I'm not optimistic about my chances with them).

In retrospect, I made the same mistake in applying to graduate schools that I did in applying to undergraduate schools, which was applying to way too many competitive schools and not enough less competitive ones. But it's too late now.

Anyway, it's not all bad. As I said, I'm generally quite happy here; even though teaching can be extremely frustrating, at least I feel like I'm making an effort to do something worthwhile (whether or not it succeeds). And while there are plenty of dull moments, there's also an unpredictability about living here that I love. A walk into town may take me past a woman carrying a chimpanzee, or a pet monkey tied to a tree, or a dead monkey hanging off of a motorbike. Or a storeowner might randomly give me a fresh Liberian honeycomb, or a kid bring lemongrass tea to the door. So, despite the beating my self-esteem is taking, there are certainly things to keep me from dwelling on the negative (most of the time).


  1. I think you let your self esteem get a beating too easily. Strangely you hang your fate and worth on the frivolous judgements of academic institutions who can, by their nature, really only see you through the extremely limited eyes of formulaic essays and obscure class lists which are nearly the same as thousands of other applicants. This is no doubt why you will never do well enough in this arena in your own eyes - and your doing this probably affects their perception of you as well. It would be damaging to anyone to rest so much self-worth on something so fickle and relatively meaningless (in reality at least). And it's especially sad to see someone as unique and intelligent as yourself continuing to do this.

    We are always building something for ourselves, even if we don't see it or realize it at the time. You might feel like you're doing badly - and maybe you are - but no doubt you're getting better at things as well. You're also developing new relationships and connections that few others can claim and which might be able to take you to even better places than what you had in mind.

    Life has a billion possible paths - it's probably best not to stake your life's worth on your ability to walk down one in one specific way.

  2. You and I are very similar. As I read your story, I understand both the self-fury/doubt/pity and desperation that comes with an institution's rejection. Once while I was living abroad I got a rejection letter from my school of choice, and I am pretty sure I went through all the stages of grief (very violently and much to my roommates alarm). The fact is you are in a situation where you have to question your abilities everyday. Being a foreigner means that you are always reminded of how you don't belong or how you don't fully understand everything around you. It's exhausting and tiresome! And when you reach out to your place of origin, a place that you feel reasonably confident in navigating, the last thing you want to hear is that same message of "you don't belong here."

    The best thing to do first, is have a good long hard cry, because it feels damn good and no one can stop you.

    Secondly, take a deep breath and think about your accomplishments thus far. Go on and compare yourself to the majority. Embrace the fact that you have more courage than most US citizens to leave their comfort zone. Enjoy the idea that you can even consider medical school as an option due to your own hard work. And realize that no matter how shit you feel about your teaching, that these kids are showing up and have learned at least one thing.

    ........i know this was an old post...but I had to write this out. You understand what it is to be alive, and it makes your blog a pleasure to read!