Today was the longest day of my life. It was the day of my Master’s oral exam.
But I won’t hold you in suspense. I passed.
I passed. I need to repeat it because I was sure I was going to fail. I didn’t start my day off with this attitude, of course. In fact, I wasn’t even nervous when I entered the room. I had felt confident. I did read my reading list completely. I did go over everything more than once. I made sure I was able to connect concepts and theories with fictional texts. I was ready.
Last night, my advisor asked me to send him questions I’d like for him to ask me. I was thrilled that he was being so generous. I told him what I felt were my strengths. I reviewed Plato, Aristotle, Shelly, Wordsworth. Butler. Kant. I got this!
Last night, I scattered my color-coded flashcards on the floor. They had yellow stickies on them with things I forgot to include the first time around. I looked over my list and made sure I had read over everything at least once. Each work had been highlighted (except Henry James’ Ambassadors. That long, boring book!) to indicate that I had completely read it. On the left, each work had a checkmark to indicate I had read criticism in regards to that topic. On the right, each work had a second checkmark to indicate that I had made a flashcard with the most important points. I even felt proud when I remembered that I had spend two days listening to audios of Ulysses–I was sure to get a question on that rotten book!
Last night, I slept well. I slept early because I was comfortable that I had tried my best. I had read a lot and I had to relax for the exam. I slept well.
I woke up at 5:30am. I showered, dressed and prayed. I decided on the green chiffon scarf because it was bright and cheerful. I felt alright.
Everything did go alright. I passed. But I’m not thinking about the before and after. I always knew it would be alright. You know how soldiers who have been to war feel after they return from war? Disoriented, confused and a constant flashback of the situation. What could I have done differently? I was told I passed two hours ago, but I am in a shell-shock-like state unable to fully grasp it.
After I showered and dressed, I walked to the bus stop. I was meticulous about every step I took, ever move I made. Everything today had to be perfect, even the walk to the bus. On the bus, I took out my “theory” flashcards and whispered to myself answers to possible questions. I sounded good. I know this! I got this, Cristy!
I arrived at the Student Union with two and a half hours ’til my exam. I decided to sit at the cafe and order a big breakfast at this 60s diner–no calorie count today . I ordered a breakfast burrito with ranchero sauce. I asked them to replace the chorizo with turkey sausage. They did and that made me happy.
I drank coffee while I waited for my food. Between sips, I continued talking to myself about Kant and Longinus. I knew this! I got this, baby!
You’re gonna be sorry you were ever born. (Hey la, Hey la! My boyfriend’s back)! Cause he’s kinda big and he’s awful strong! Heyyyyy! He knows I wasn’t cheatin’! Now, you’re gonna get a beatin’! What made you think he’d believe all your lies, Ahh OOOOOO!!!!! You’re a big man now but he’ll cut you down to size, Ahhh OOOOO! Wait and See!
Arturo Islas and The Rain God. Masculinity, homosexuality, psychoanalytical lens, religion. I kept reviewing despite the unfit music in the background.
The burrito arrived. It was a huge burrito. This is the size of a freakin’ baby! I thought to myself. I ate slowly, painstakingly making sure each bite had a touch of ranchero sauce. For a few minutes, I put aside my notecards. I could take a few minutes to eat. Half way through the burrito, I pushed the plate aside. It was unwise to eat such a huge meal right before a two-hour exam. All sorts of bad things could happen. Nausea, stomach ache, sleepiness. I asked for the check but continued to sip my coffee and review the notecards between sips.
You’re my brown eye girl! Do you remember when, we used to sing. Shalalalalalala lala dida, la dida!…
I had to get out of this cafe. I paid $8.34 for my meal and forgot to leave tip. I still feel bad about that. I walked outside the cafe and into one of the lounges in the Student Union. Postmodernity–they play with the chaos; modernists, they try and organize the chaos and make meaning through language. Post-modernists emphasize incommunicability; modernists care about the possibilities of language–I hate post-modernists! But my feelings don’t matter. I got this shit!
One hour ’til.
I gathered my things and decided to begin walking to the building. Although it was only across the street, I had to make sure I got there. I could–who knows! Lose my way, or find out the doors are locked, or slip and twist my ankle. Be prepared for the absurd, Cristy!
The walk was smooth. I didn’t get run over. I walked to the cafe, sat down and continued to go through my notes. I got this!
I took the elevator up to the 4th floor. Room 451. I sat outside and flipped through my flashcards. What else could I possibly learn 30 minutes before the exam? I put all my notes away and called papi instead.
Papi: Hi, mama!
Me: Hi, papi! I’m waiting to take the exam now…
Papi: I know. Did you dress well? I hope you didn’t go in jeans mami…
Me: I didn’t. I’m business casual…I wore a suit (I looked down at my jeans)
Papi: Ok good. Make sure you say, “Hi and good morning” to all your professors…
Me: Of course papi…que tu crees?
Papi: Really. Show them you are an educated girl as well as smart…
Me: You are so old fashioned dad…
Papi: It’s important, mami. You will see!
Me: Ok, papi. I have to go….
Professor K_____ walks in. I said “Hi, good morning.” Professor P_____ walks in. I said “Good morning.”
Professor A____, my advisor, walks in. I couldn’t say good morning because he started talking right away. “Let’s just jump right in. I’ll ask you to tell us a bit about your research first and bring us up to date. Then, we can open it up for questions from the committee.”
Confidently, I began to talk about my paper. How I structured my argument, who my audience was, what general claim I was making, I admitted to some flaws, and I summarized my conclusion. That was good!
Professor A_____: What can Santiago do with the graphic medium that cannot be done in texts…
Professor P_____: Are you sure you cannot begin reading a graphic novel in the middle? Because if we were to have a graphic novel of Ulysses, we would most likely be able to skip around chapters the same way we do in the book…
…. Fuck! Yes, I knew that!
Professor A_____: Going off Ulysses, could you connect it with The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez?
…. Rechy….Joyce…what the fuck?
“I’m sorry. Let me take a moment to think about this….”
“Yes! Both stories take place over a 24-hour period.”
Professor A: _____: What other connections can you make with “Penelope”
….After reading the 17 chapters of Ulysses in two days, the only question I get is in relation to the only chapter I didn’t read?
….Can we move from this question, dear Lord?
It was time for the post-modern section.
Professor P_____: Beloved and Atonement are set in a particular historical moment in history. Could you talk about that…
Me: Yes! Well, in Beloved we are dealing with the memory of slavery…This is going well!
Professor P_____: Ok, good. Could you tell me about the year the story of Beloved takes place?
Professor P_____: Ok Good.
Good fucking guess!
Professor P_____: Could you say more on how the history carries itself throughout the story–I mean, through memories…what year does Sethe kill her children?
Oh. My. God. Is he serious? I don’t freaking know!
Professor P_____: Ok, maybe that is too specific. But tell me, is there a connecting thread between the actual moments in history and the story at hand?
Me: Yes! Sethe has scars on her back from lashings. In the story, we get a description on how her scars are still a very visible part of slavery–and the ghost of her baby continues to haunt her family–I think the ghost of Beloved is a metaphor for the lasting traumatic effects of slavery… God Cristy! Any undergrad could’ve given that answer!
Professor P _____: Good. Now can you tell me about the role of history in Atonement?
Can I just tell him I don’t want to answer this question anymore?
Me: Yea. The first half of the novel is set in WWI. The last chapter is in London 1990…
Professor P____: Say more…
I would have prefered medieval torture devices rather than continuing on this question!
In more than one occasion where I was being proven wrong, I sucked it in. I took each blow to my ego gracefully. I endured the two hours. They felt so long, but I hung in there. There were moments when I scribbled nervously or paused to search for the answers in my long term memory. Where the hell were the details I had studied so carefully? Professor K____ turned red at one point, sensing my pain. I couldn’t find the answers to half the questions! I had read and studied these texts.
I left the room so the committee could deliberate. I sat outside. All the answers started coming to me suddenly. Could we do this over? I had read them all! The professors came out and my advisor said “congratulations.” I began to sob and he hugged me. I kept sobbing like an idiot wondering how I could have possibly passed after blanking out so many times, after confusing the dates of the world wars, I had forgotten Blanche’s name in A Streetcar Named Desire! Once the fact that I had passed dawned, I began sobbing. The three men just stared at me confused and I finally said “I’m happy, I don’t know why I am crying…” Professor K___, the one with the kind face, said, “Go home and relax. It’s all over.”
It wasn’t all bad. Professor K____ was responsible for testing me on the critical theory section which took up the last 25 minutes. He had figured out that I had memorized things in a very structured way. I had only prepared myself for direct questions. What is Plato’s argument and why is he against poets? How does he fit with Aristotle?… I knew all his questions in detail. These last 25 minutes may have been the ones that saved me.
My advisor and I walked downstairs and he said, “those were tough two hours. It wasn’t great, but you did alright. You were nervous as hell…” I appreciated the honesty. I walked to the Oval where students were tanning, laid on the grass, called my dad, and cried some more.
It’s over! I have officially mastered the arts!
Don’t let’s us not talk about it ever again! –Lady Brett Ashley (The Sun Also Rises)