All Cylinders

Yesterday I ran 18:24 in the Washington Heights 5k.

I’ve run that race every year since I started racing regularly in 2014. My first year, I ran 19:15. In 2016, I set a still-standing PR of 17:55. Three other times I ran between 18:51 and 18:56. So yesterday wasn’t a PR, but it was a good sign.

I’m hopeful I can at least get back under 1:21 in Brooklyn in May. My mostly-indoor training has paid off since I was faster today than in the Superbowl race and that was only 4 weeks ago. I just need to build up my endurance and consistency.

But I’m gonna big myself up for a second.

I’m lucky to have a supportive wife and job etc. Because right now I am trying to help train a puppy, excel at work, excel at school, and be supportive at home (on top of the puppy stuff). This is not the same as having a child, no, but it’s a lot of balls to juggle.

And for whatever reason, I tend to look at running times and grades as barometers because they’re definitive. I finish a race in a specific amount of time. Etc.

I look back on times when things weren’t going as well in my life, well, I often excelled at one or two things (e.g., my best racing year was 2015, but I wasn’t exactly responsible for anything or anyone), but never all aspects.

This may not last forever - maybe I’ll fail the midterm in statistics - but there’s a balance needed to what I’m trying to do that would not have been possible without inner stability I didn’t even realize I lacked until I talked to someone who could help.

Yeah, sometimes I think back to the days when I was erratic internally and externally, and I wonder where I’d be if I had gotten a handle on myself sooner. But this isn’t a bad place to be at all, and most people aren’t fortunate enough to be able to say so.

I always thought I was healthy because, mostly, I was, at least physically. But there’s more to health than that, and I think I’m finally healthy now.

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Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

A Long Walk to Neptune

Neptune is almost 5 months old now. He’s basically doubled in size, even with a haircut. He knows to sit and lay down, and he only occasionally pees on everything. And today he helped me realize something.

I think it started for me in eleventh grade. I just started to feel off-balance a lot, and I thought it was just how teenagers felt, so I started going for these extremely long walks.

Particulary when I was at my dad’s place, I’d just pick up and walk up to 86th, 96th, even 103rd, basically all over the West Side. (At my mom’s I played playstation into the dark.) And my dad didn’t really bother me about it so long as I did my homework, and I wasn’t going anywhere unsafe. By this point in my life, I did all my homework as early as possible - something that remains true even now in 19th grade - so I had a lot of my evenings free to just watch TV and think. I didn’t see my friends much when it wasn’t a weekend - and even then it was just movies, really - so most nights I would just go out and walk.

It never really made me feel better. But it felt like a good way to distract myself from my thoughts. So I kept doing it.

Whenever things got really bad, I got back into walking. I walked all over Princeton in college, just listening to whatever boxy iPod I had, staying out of my head.

I did it a lot after college, when I didn’t have a job, and then in Korea, when I thought the change of scenery would fix everything but only created different problems.

By 2014, I’d become a runner, and I turned all my wandering energy into running fast, no matter the weather or time of day. It did make me a good runner, this single-minded pursuit, but I still never patched the hole.

I finally started to do the hard work I (and probably a lot of you) need to do. I finally sat with my thoughts and the discomfort and the reality instead of trying not to look in the mirror.

Alissa likes to go for walks. She asked me years ago why I didn’t seem to like going for walks, and particularly wasn’t really able to stay silent while walking, and I didn’t have a good answer. I realize now that a long silent walk would just bring me back to all those nights I beat the pavement in all those different places I lived.

But now we have a dog. And dogs need walks. Neptune, with his age and breed, he really needs walks. We hired a walker, and we go to puppy class once a week (yeah, we’re those people), but he still needs long ones, especially weekends when we don’t have the walker.

I started feeling That Way this afternoon, for no real reason in particular. It just happens sometimes. And I realize, looking back, it happened on Fridays and Saturdays a lot. I think those were nights I really felt isolated, and I’d walk to be out around people.

Tonight, I decided I’d take Neptune for a walk, but I kept adding to it and adding to it as we went.

My mind started to wander, as it does when I walk alone, but every time I felt that way, I got a tug from thigh-level, and I remembered I wasn’t alone.

We walked longer than we ever have, nowhere exciting, just around Long Island City, but for all its faults, it’s our (and his) home. We stopped in Queensbridge Park at sunset, and it was getting cold (no gloves like a moron), but it was empty, aside from a guy doing laps on an electric scooter.

We ran on the soccer field and chased a pigeon for a second. I picked him up and hugged him and he bit me because he didn’t want to be hugged (jerk!). A lot of people care about me, I know, but my brain doesn’t care when I’m walking by myself, unless I’m running hard enough to think about other things.

I don’t have to walk alone anymore, though. I’m doing the work, I’m getting right, after however much time it’s been. But it’s never going to be completely easy when I’m by myself, and I can’t just force everyone to prop me up. But Neptune is happy to hang out, and happy to play, and happy to walk when I need to walk.

Sometimes I just need to walk, probably always will, but I’m not really scared anymore.

1 Comment

Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Nerd Status

This weekend, I ran a couple times, including a really good bridge run this morning where my psoas muscles felt long and strong for the first time in a couple years. Sore, yes, but I can do sore. They extended and I didn’t have to compensate from other areas. This really makes me feel good about my future goals for this marathon-less year.

I did find out I can’t run Staten Island this fall (same day as wedding, oops), so the Pelham half will be the fall goal race. Someone run it with me, we’ll win age-group awards!

But I was happiest this weekend when I got uninterrupted time to just obsess over my educational goals. Literally just doing homework and dreaming about what I can accomplish through my education and scholarship.

I think this is what it means to be a nerd.

So let’s talk about that.

There are three related words: dorks, nerds, and geeks. No one says dweeb anymore.

What are the connotations of each, and how do they differ?

“Dorks” are everywhere. In fact it’s so used that it’s kind of meaningless. In my view, it just means “socially awkward.” Hence the term “adorkable,” and the classification of Jess from New Girl as a “dork.” I mean, I guess, sure. But my point is, it’s not really an insult. Also dorks aren’t necessarily considered smart.

“Geek” is, in my view, specifically technologically or numerically focused. Computers, math, even certain parts of finance, geeks. And geek used to be an insult, but considering tech titans mostly run the world now, it’s not anymore. Geeks are definitely seen as smart.

And what’s a nerd? Well, you think Steve Urkel, right? Wasn’t he a geek or a dork too? Probably. You can certainly be all three (this is the dumbest form of intersectionality, hahaha).

But to me, nerds are people who derive joy from the specifics of things that the general public is mostly only interested in the surface thereof (so, usually academic type things, the sort of things you can mostly find in books). These days it might be more accurate to call nerds “wonks” (as in a “political wonk”), but the connotation of nerds/wonks, the one part of it that is still considered negative, is that they are not particularly skilled at relaying their interests to the general public. And this is something I do struggle with, sometimes.

The ability to communicate is vital for an educator, of course. You can’t just be a nerd with subject knowledge out the wazoo. And you can’t just be a geek. In my doctoral programs, we’re kind of all nerds - that’s what doctoral studies ARE, right? - but learning how best to communicate our burning passion to people who live outside of our heads is the only way we’ll succeed.

Circling back to my original point, why would I say I’m a nerd more than the other two? Well, not a geek as I lost interest in math and computers as study subjects after they were forced down my throat by adults who wanted me to be a math superstar (when I wanted to be a writer). And I used to call myself a dork because I thought I was socially awkward, but, uh, I just have a brain that works atypically for better or worse, so that’s not really a personality attribute.

I’m a nerd because there is nothing more joyful for me than learning and using my knowledge and sharing it with others.

Do you see these words differently?

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Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Non-Neptune Notes 2/3/19

  1. I had a really racist friend growing up. I mean like he really found black people inferior. He didn’t use slurs so I didn’t really recognize it much at the time. I was a pretty naive kid who wanted everyone to like him. But I mean, this dude was basically Steve King. But because he’d known me since we were little, all the stuff he said didn’t faze me. Homophobic and sexist too. And he eventually became a cop, which he quit after a while because he thought cops were dumb. I don’t really care about him (he sent me a facebook request last year which I ignored), but I wonder how many people, in a very white space, were actually pretty racist but thought they couldn’t be because they spoke to me regular. For how many people was I the token or the buffer? It happened in dating, too, being told, “you know my parents would never be okay with this,” as if this was something useful to say. I was probably a lot angrier about all of this at the time than I realized. In retrospect, being a black guy in white spaces carries its own trauma. White friends, don’t think that knowing one or two of us excuses things you think about the rest of us. Anti-racism is really your responsibility, not ours. Please do the work needed to support us. Unfortunately we still aren’t in a position to do it by ourselves.

  2. Happy to run a strong race this morning. Not under 6, but wasn’t expecting that. Ran smart, consistent, 6:05, 6:01, 6:17 (Cat hill, booo) and then dropped to 5:55. And that was without really fully training. Will be sure to push it these next four weeks. PRs will be set in 2019.

  3. I feel much more plugged into the broader education world of late. And I no longer feel ashamed that I’m not a public school teacher. I still think “adult educator” sounds like it’s X-rated and wish we had a different name, but the fact is, there isn’t really one, so that’s how it’s going to be. Follow me @JPBGerald, people.

  4. Someone sign Harper and Machado already.

  5. I guess after you win the WS you don’t need to have a bullpen?

  6. A year ago at this time I truly didn’t think I’d get into my program. Now it’s just… normal. And I’m very excited I get to actually do a pilot study this spring.

  7. Speaking of which, I had been drifting away from the TESOL field since I got my current job (professional development/employee training). But I realize that my disinterest has never been in the field but in the linguistics/language acquistion side thereof. It’s just never resonated with me. But there’s a lot, a lot, a lot of room in TESOL for racial activism, since it’s still a very white field that could stand to evolve. I’m coming back to TESOL (I’m not quitting my job, I mean in my study focus), and I’m going to change the field.

  8. I would say that one of my most harrowing racial experiences was the week I spent knocking on doors for Save the Children. Developments make people feel like the rest of the world shouldn’t interfere, and boy did those people find me repellent. They didn’t train us at all for the racism we would experience, and the sad thing was I was a five mile drive from my college campus (not that they knew that). Add that to my friend I wrote about above, and it took me until the last couple of years, in professional treatment, to unpack the impact that these many microaggressions had on me.

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Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Neptune Notes 1/22/19

Sorry I’m not writing about much else. I’m not training for any races right now (that’ll start in mid february I figure) and I’m still off from school soooo that’s really it.

  1. There is a family in our building with a puppy almost exactly the same age as ours. I see every other dog in our building either in the early morning or the evening when I take Neptune out. I have never seen this dog. I suspect they’re following the super strict guidelines their breeder gave them - breeders are like that, ours was - and following the letter of the law rather than the spirit. That poor dog has probably never been outside and is going to be terrified when they take him out.

  2. They say a puppy is truly all-consuming and he really is. It certainly would have been easier to adopt an older dog and skip all this training stuff. Easier financially, too. But I mean, that’s probably true human babies too - we could just pick them up once the diaper stuff is done and it’s easy! There’s a joy in the struggle, though. It’s made parts of our lives much more difficult, but overall he’s a sweet little boy who is mostly just loud when he’s confused or bored or scared. And I can relate to that.

  3. I have learned how to carry him in one arm and do many things in the other, including using the bathroom, picking up things, taking out garbage, and, best, way back the first week, cleaning his own waste off of him in the sink while he tried to escape.

  4. He looks a lot bigger than he is because he’s got really long hair. We’ll get it cut someday after his shots are done and he’s all set to run around in a few weeks. I wonder what he’ll look like.

  5. He doesn’t get cold easily. He does get hot easily. I think summer is going to be a lot harder for him than the winter has been.

  6. He loves peanut butter and yogurt, so, again, he is basically me as a child.

  7. Most people react positively when he runs up to them. A lady cursed at me last night. That was a first. But I didn’t like when random dogs came up to me before I had one. I wouldn’t go so far as cursing though.

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Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Neptune Notes 1/13/19

  1. They need to write advice for keeping cigarettes out of dogs’ mouths.

  2. Also, people, stop smoking, Jesus Christ. I usually can ignore it but not with Neptune.

  3. I am exhausted on weekends since it’s basically all Neptune all the time. But I tell myself it’ll be worthwhile to have a long-term companion once he ages a bit.

  4. It’s clear to me that a ton of people are lazily raising their dogs. Alissa will not allow this, so we are up on the research daily and incorporating new things. I am exhausted.

  5. In a way, this period without homework was good time to be occupied with Neptune, because I can’t fall behind at school, but on the other hand, I can’t really take a break from him since, well, not much going on otherwise. We’ll see how it goes once school starts again.

  6. Planning everything around his limits is a challenge and has really re-shaped our plans from day to day. The adjustment has been difficult for me, especially with my emotional challenges, but I think in the long run it will prove to have been good. At least I hope so.

  7. Ultimately, it really is difficult to be a first-time pet owner in a small apartment. I’m lucky I already get up at five so that waking up to take care of him isn’t an issue. But this isn’t for the faint of heart, and I remain very annoyed that all the writing is from a white, suburban, wife-stays-home-or-works-part-time perspective. This isn’t good for owners, it’s not good for dogs, it’s not good for anyone who has to interact with city dogs, either.

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Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Neptune Notes, 1/9/19

Hey, look at that date, that’s cool. Last time we will see that in our lifetimes (month/day/year as such).

Anyway. Neptune trains easily, he knows how to sit and to lay down. He is very good with the bathroom with rare accidents, and he sleeps through the whole night most nights.

But he barks a lot.

Now, look, he’s three months old.

Everything we’ve said suggests this is normal. He barks for attention or if he’s confused, so he’s basically me, except we can’t understand him. (It’s just as annoying to Alissa when I do it.)

There probably isn’t much we can do about it. We asked the vet, he said it was normal unless he was barking whenever he saw a person. But he literally only barks at us when he wants something. When he sees other people he just runs to them happily becuase he’s Such A Good Little Boy And We Love Him.

We crate him to force him to rest (he needs rest but he will just keep running around if we don’t put him to bed). Sometimes he barks when we do that, and we give him a treat (he likes peanut butter, but doesn’t always digest it well, and yogurt, which isn’t a problem). Or we give hi a chew toy. But sometimes he just barks.

It’s only really an issue because it’s hard to get anything done when he’s going at it. But ultimately, he really is a well-behaved little boy. Our neighors complained once - but really, he makes the most noise at about 7 pm, and never at all after 9, so it should be okay.

We’re getting close to being able to take him to puppy training and finish his shots (so he can really go outside for more than brief periods). By February, he’ll be a calm and happy boy. But until then, he’ll be a ball of energy and that’s okay.

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Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

On Being a First-Time Dog Owner in a Small NYC Apartment

Google advice about dogs. Go ahead.

Most of that advice will assume:

  1. That you have (or have access to) a backyard

  2. That you have (or have access to) a lot of money

  3. That you can modify your living space significantly

So, while we do have enough cash on hand, most of that isn’t really true of NYC renters. Frankly, dog owning advice is really written with suburban home-owners (or -dwellers) in mind, and I mostly find it off-putting. But regardless of my personal antipathy for the white flight that led to the expansion of suburbs and therefore my admitted lifelong bias, the point is it doesn’t actually help us raise this puppy, and that’s the important part.

You can specifically search for how to raise dogs in apartments, yes. But that also assumes people live in more permissive buildings, where dogs can roam free in common areas and the like. We live in a new shiny building that is very dog-friendly, but we can’t bring him into the lounge (which I understand, people could be allergic) or onto the roof, which he’d enjoy but, well, it’s probably not safe - he likes to jump.

So there’s also the fact that I, Justin, have never had a dog. I’ve never even really had a pet. We got cats in 2001 but I was only two years from college - and I don’t like cats - so that wasn’t much of my life. (Also, we mistakenly traumatized one of those poor cats by losing him for two weeks inside the house. After that he was skittish for the remaining ten years of his life.)

Alissa grew up with dogs, and that sure is a dog family. I have mostly experienced dogs barking at me or chasing me (particularly on beach vacations). I was nervous. But I did want the experience, and I think it could ultimately be good for our family, which will presumably grow in the next two years or so.

But I don’t know what I’m doing. We have a ton of books, literally all of which I find unpleasant to read because of their perspective and tone, so I mostly read dog sites and forums to seek experiences. And there just isn’t a lot that represents our lives.

We can’t create a doggy door - that would just put him in the hallway.

We can’t take him to a backyard. Even without considering that he doesn’t have all his shots yet, we don’t really live near a large park. There’s a tiny park across the street that our neighbors with dogs mostly use as a dog toilet, though.

Walking outside is fun for him, in the limited way we can. But it’s loud and there’s a lot to watch out for. Frankly I have to spend way too much time keeping cigarette butts out of his mouth.

“So why get a dog in NYC?” you might ask. Because we wanted a companion, and a friend, and he is becoming that to us. Neptune is happy and healthy (thus far), and though he barks whenever he’s impatient or confused, that’s mostly because he’s still only three months old. It requires a lot of moving our lives around, at least until month four when he can be alone for longer and longer stretches.

I just wish the dog internet wasn’t mostly Suburban Couples in Sweaters. Because, frankly, a lot of dogs in the city are raised poorly (or not raised at all), and the advice out there is much less applicable, especially if, like me, you’re new to the entire process.

This month we’ve had him has been hard, on us more than on him (he’s fine, really), but we’re figuring it out. We’re smart folks, and we’re lucky enough to indeed have the money to get the things he needs. Soon we’ll send him to classes, and he’ll be old enough to do everything he needs to do without us having to move everything around to make sure he’s okay.

But considering how common dogs are here, and how many are simply being raised poorly, the advice out there could stand to be diversified. All I knew about dogs growing up was the scary ones my neighbors had, and I thought that’s what all dogs were. That was incorrect, but so is the image presented by the information available at present.

We can do better, people!

But, well, I’ll write more about it as I learn more. And maybe someone will find what I have to say to be useful.

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Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Running in 2018

(Note, I’ll add 6 miles tomorrow, so this is inclusive of that, which will definitely occur)

Miles for the Year: 2596.8, give or take.

Goal is always an average of 200 a month, and I handily beat that, even with some low months.

Lowest month: Oct - 142, because I had two tapers that month.

Highest: Aug - 290, the heat of marathon training.

PRs? Yeah, one, Bronx 10M.

Marathons: 2. Neither was great.

Taking stock of the whole year, it was great. Not the best race results, no, but I was consistently second on the team, and if I can figure out a couple things I can lead the team at times in the future.

I decided to take a year off the marathon in 2019 because I want to try and set some shorter distance PRs and marathon training is just plain hard to do while also trying to hit top speed. I want to see how fast I can truly be.

5k, eh. I’ll shoot for it but it’s not my priority.

I really want a PR in the 5 miler at Team Champs, at the 10k in Queens, and at the half, ideally in BK but if not then at (sigh) SI or Pelham.

I’m forcing myself to take it easy through January and will return to full speed workouts in February to prepare for the real season beginning in Washington Heights.

I lost a lot of excess fat this year and I look and feel good. I need to work on certain muscle groups and I have two years to do it.

Here’s hoping. I most likely won’t have much to say about running before my first race (pre-season) on Superbowl Sunday. Thanks for reading.

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Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality

Grades

I hope this doesn’t come off as whining. I’ve been very fortunate to attend great schools and have supportive parents and relatives, even if folks were sometimes demanding. What I’ve come to learn, and what I know is true, is that to reach my absolute best, the motivation has to come from within me, and that I’ve only found that fire recently, with the results to show. So here’s an account of how I finally got to where I always wanted to be.

I’m in 19th grade now, technically. Due to take two more years of class after this one.

I was definitely told I was smart as a small child, and placed in schools where I could be around other smart kids. This, I’m sure, helped me a lot, but I also never really felt exceptional.

I did fine in school, excelled at math when I was 3 or 4, was apparently doing long division in kindergarten (even though I can’t really do it now), and eventually was skipped right over first grade. I was already small (and stood out in other ways), so that left me an undersized 6 year old amongst 7 year olds when I got to second grade, and I basically became deathly afraid of being myself because I got teased a lot. There’s more to it than that but I’ll leave it there.

I started struggling when I got to fourth grade. I, for some reason, didn’t really like my math teacher and also didn’t really understand what, at the time, seemed to be relatively abstract math (I believe it was “bases,” as in “base 2,” “base 5,” etc. It seemed dumb to me so I didn’t want to do it). So I started cutting class, by hiding in the bathroom during math. Eventually I got in trouble.

But I never really solved my issues with homework, and for the next 4 years or so, all the rest of middle school, I procrastinated and was only interested in class-clowning to become more popular (it didn’t work) more so than getting my work done and learning. I’m not sure I learned a whole lot from 1995 to 1998, but I was talented enough (and my school permissive enough) to skate by, barely, until it was almost too late, as college began to beckon. I was getting “See me” written on my science tests since my scores were so poor. And I think they all knew I was capable of the work but school just wasn’t clicking for me.

In retrospect, I was having some pretty significant emotional issues, but they were mostly internal so no one really figured it out. I don’t blame anyone for that. I kept up a brave face and told everyone I was fine. And I mostly was. For a black boy, I was going to school every day and was far from danger.

I cut a bunch more classes in 7th grade when I fell too far behind on homework one weekend. This time they caught me after three full days where I skipped school, and had I been at a public school, I am sure I would have been suspended and my whole story would be different. Indeed, the extra chances I got by virtue of being at a kind school were invaluable.

For whatever reason, I suddently got very anxious when I got to ninth grade. Maybe I was more mature, but by then I’d developed a reputation for never following through on anything, and it was something I believed of myself. I gave up easily when discouraged and certainly never went the extra mile, which is a funny thing for me to say now as a marathoner.

And then I started doing all of my homework early. As soon as it was assigned, I did as much of my homework as I could on the subway or right after getting home. My report cards at the time were narratives - and teachers were encouraged to include both good and bad things - so my mistakes were always harped on by… stakeholders, but I did improve. I still didn’t feel like I was very talented, though, since my peers were getting 4s and 5s on AP exams and I never got above a 3. When I finally got into Princeton, I was shocked, and convinced myself I was a combination of an affirmative action entry and a semi-legacy (my mother went there for a year). Considering how I ultimately performed, it took a long time for me to shake this opinion of myself.

My teachers have since spoken to me and told me I was a better student than I remember, though I’m not exactly sure they aren’t just being nice. Ultimately, before college, I never got letter grades, but I was, at best, a frustrating and unfocused learner with no real academic goals aside from not getting in trouble, and at worst I just didn’t do my homework and wasted my parents’ money. In retrospect, though, I was at a very good school, and still received a great education, especially in writing. But I sure did feel like I was mediocre in every way when college started, and then I went out and confirmed my own suspicions.

Some people go to college knowing exactly what they want to be or do. I was not one of these people. I vaguely wanted to be a writer - I still do! - but I couldn’t figure out how to do that. So I filled my schedule with “distribution” requirements for my first two years to knock those classes out of the way and focused almost entirely on my social life, which was a… poor choice.

That said, I actually did well in my very first semester, just because I happened to be taking classes that weren’t exceptionally difficult for me, and were pretty interesting. I was definitely more focused on beer, but I did all my homework and did it well. And I set myself up for trouble.

The second semester, the classes were harder and they weren’t classes I really wanted, so, with no interest, I slacked off. Unlike my no-grades high school and middle school, that mess doesn’t fly at Princeton, and my grades plummeted. I was never in danger of fully failing, but whereas peers were excelling and building themselves into achievers who were set for big careers, I just tried to keep my head above water.

The following fall was the most difficult of my life for unrelated reasons, but I did okay, not great, but okay. And then I finally improved my social life the next spring and focused on parties I actually enjoyed and my grades cratered again.

That summer I was told in no uncertain terms I wouldn’t be fully supported if I didn’t get my act together. And I literally sat down one day and became the absurdly over-planned person I still am. It’s probably not best to make changes out of fear, but, that’s what I did.

After that, I never fell behind again, not once. I clearly had it in me to stay on top of my schooling and needed to unlock the skill of time management. But this didn’t mean I became a top student overnight. I had spent two years not really learning much and blowing off the great privilege I’d been given, mostly because of the same emotional issues I’d had for a decade by that point - I thought I was lazy and worthless, but I was in pain - so I had to work extremely hard to keep pace with the increasing workload. I did keep pace, but overall I finished as an okay student, grade-wise. And I certainly had no plans to get additional degrees without being intrinsically motivated.

So I went to Korea and continued to ignore how I felt, but by the end of that I knew I did want to teach, and I applied and was accepted into my MA program. Yay!

The program was online (even though I was in the same city), and I was very, very underemployed, so I did all my homework as early as possible and called it a day. I did fine in my classes, but I never challenged myself, and I never read anything extra. I had all the time in the world but I never applied myself fully.

My professor (and, eventually, a mentor to me) told me, in my final semester, that she wanted me to get an A, and I accepted that challenge and became determined to do so, especially after she implied I had an attitude problem (she was right). I had spent so long inside of a cocoon of my own issues that I often didn’t realize how I came off to people who cared about me, and, even though there wasn’t much time left in the program, I did finally sit down and do what was needed to excel, and I got that A. But I didn’t get an A in my other class, and a 4.0 semester continued to elude me.

I really never thought about a doctorate, for several years after getting my MA. I’m not sure why. I saw friends go for it. But I had no idea what I’d study or how to make it work financially or logistically. My dad was trying to nudge me into various programs I didn’t really want to do, and I was finally way too old to do what other people suggested because I knew it would lead to more apathetic academic performance.

When I got into this program, I was told that the minimum cumulative GPA was 3.3, and I was terrified, which elicited more than one (appropriate!) eye-roll from my wife when I told her I was worried. I’d barely beaten that number in my MA, but I figured doctoral work would be more challenging and time-consuming, and I really thought I might be in danger of falling off the pace. I knew that several students drop out of every doctoral program, and I figured I, long convinced I was just mediocre (indeed I’m sure I said so in the early years of this website), would be one of these students if I bothered to apply.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the classroom: I finally looked my issues in the face after running away for decades, and though they’ll probably always be with me to some extent, I finally got a handle on them to the point that I was able to focus on work that interests me. I’ve been living - and studying - in a fog since I was a child, and though it’s not a completely clear day just yet, I can see much better now than I used to, and, just this week, it was confirmed that, even without all-nighters or quitting my job or whatever I might have thought necessary, I got what is my very first 4.0 semester. It’s only the first semester out of many, and I’m sure it’ll get harder as we are expected to learn more and more, but I finally know how it feels to be the student I’ve always been expected to be.

Now, sure, some folks are nodding saying, “well, we knew you could, so that wasn’t that hard.” Living up to my potential took me until I was 32, and if you read all this you might be thinking I should have figured myself out a long time ago. But I didn’t.

I want to cherish this moment because it really does feel good to be learning and growing towards a bright future. I am glad for all of my teachers who saw I had talent in me and never really gave up on trying to drag it out from within, especially as an occasionally frustrated teacher myself. I’m glad for my relatives and friends, who probably always wondered why I sort of struggled through my teens and twenties, and for my wife, who saw me lying to myself that scuffling through life was okay with me. For my parents, who probably pushed too hard at some times but knew what they had and spent absurd amounts of time and money supporting. But most of all, for the bright and sensitive little boy I was, who went to hide when he got scared in second grade and is finally getting to skip in circles and dream whatever he wants and become the man he always hoped he could be. I know I’m lucky I got so many chances - what happens if I got physically ill at some point? Or we had less money? Or I had a child? - and that my struggles are a pittance compared to those of many others. But I also know now that pain is pain, and to no longer be subsumed by it is wonderful.

I’m proud of what feels like more of an achievement for me than it probably should, and I absoutely cannot wait to learn more.

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Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality