Yesterday I finished those last final steps to doctorhood. Afterwards it was more than surreal to walk out of the Administration Building and across the quad, recalling the time just over 20 years ago that I first walked across that same space…at the beginning of my freshman year at UCI. So today when I walk across the stage to be hooded by my adviser, it will be the close of a long and circuitous journey that began in 1989 when I aimed to become a physician because of my medical history, and ended when I became a professional historian who researches the history of medicine.
Being a doctor doesn’t make me feel any smarter or more worthy. Instead, it’s a testament to the fact that I persisted and knew when to call something “good enough” to be finished (after 35 years of school, one would think that it was definitely time).
As I thought about all that’s happened to bring me to this point in my life, one small story from nearly three decades ago stood out in my mind. I was 13 and was nearing the end of my chemotherapy treatments for bone cancer. There were warnings given to me and my parents that the treatments would have cognitive side-effects, including memory loss.
Yet that spring, as an ailing 8th-grade cancer patient wearing a wig and walking on crutches, I won my school spelling bee. I then went on to the district level and won that match, and moved on to the state championships.
The details of that experience are dim in my mind now. I would imagine that it must have been tedious for the audience to watch me stand up and use crutches to walk to the microphone each time I had to spell a word. Or perhaps the judges allowed me to remain seated for the competitions because of my limited mobility? I don’t remember.
But even though the details are fuzzy, the thought that keeps bubbling up about that moment now, is one of persistence. I just kept at it. Kept doing my best at spelling each word slowly into the microphone whenever it was my turn. I wasn’t thinking too hard about what I was doing, I was just doing it. I didn’t let the doctors’ predictions or my own self-consciousness at being a one-legged-and-bald teenager bother me. I just spelled.
Today I’ve got the urge to take that fragile-yet-determined 13 year-old me in my arms and tell her a few things…
I want to let her know that someday she’ll be walking confidently across a stage to earn another award because she worked hard at something, and kept at it even in complicated circumstances. I want to tell her that she will be rejected the first time she applies for graduate school, and will be rejected from most schools the second time–but what matters most is that she found one match among the many attempts. I want to tell her that during her years of coursework she will sleep less than those years when she was caring for a newborn, but that she ought to get up when that alarm rings anyways. I want to warn her about how tough it will be to TA and tutor and do odd jobs to pay her tuition, but remind her that she can do it even while keeping things balanced with mothering and gardening and researching. And I’ll tell her that when she does have funding she ought to make sure to work and write everyday, that it’s a luxury she can’t take for granted. I want to explain to her that getting your PhD isn’t about doing things perfectly–often it’s about doing things as good as you can while facing down the fear of failure (oh, comprehensive oral exams, I am looking at you right now). I’ll leave some of the hardest parts out–about the drug-resistant infection that would persist for so many months that there were fears of losing her other leg and about the unraveling of her marriage. Instead, I’ll remind her that she will find true friends to support her through the long dark nights ahead, and remind her that there will always be roses (and roses and more roses).
Most importantly, I will tell her that by the time she’s earned the PhD she’ll be stronger than she’s ever been before, more satisfied with her life than she could have ever imagined, and more sure that there are great things ahead if she’s willing to just keep at it, everyday.
*Photo is from my recent visit to Tuscany, where we stayed in a villa with so many blooming roses that their petals lined every pathway.