Along the back wall, my parents. A doctor, a father, a fisherman, a teacher… a peacemaker, a wine connoisseur, a guitarist, a mother. At the end of the impossibly long table, my program-mates and forever friends. My best friend and partner in life and love. Two of my mentor-friends, who have traveled over an hour and taken time out of their ridiculously busy schedules just to be here, now. Some of the most important people in my life sit before me, and now I have to talk about the most important work of my life.
Sure, my committee is sitting closer, immediately to my right and left. They are there to ask questions, to challenge my thinking. But as I take a deep breath and launch into my acknowledgements, I know who I am talking to — these people at the back of the room, who have supported me, cried with me, laughed with me, told me their teaching stories, listened to my teaching stories. My little sister — a new teacher — is, in this moment, conspicuously absent, but I feel her presence. I think of her first as I begin to speak.
I began my Second Year Exam, one of many benchmarks in my graduate program, with the following sentence: “Many people begin at the beginning, but I am going to begin at the end – or, I suppose more appropriately, at the present.”
And so I start with the strangely still moments before I began my defense, moments in which I felt very present, very aware of what I was doing, where I was, and incapable of imagining a world beyond that very long room. I shook a little, relying on the notes gleaming from the tablet I held in my left arm a little too much as I started speaking, but soon my rehearsals took hold and I eased into the next hour and a half.
Beginning in the Middle
But before I go too much further, let me tell you a bit of the middle part of this story. The beginning part starts when my mom read me my first book, so I won’t bore you with that.
And I wasn’t sure, when I moved, whether I would (a) like this job, (b) stay in this job for more than a year, or (c) be ABLE to stay for more than a year. This was because we didn’t know what my partner’s job search would bring, or whether he would be able to move out here and join me. Really, all was temporary when I moved to Boston. The dissertation was almost done, but what would follow was very ambiguous.
And then he got a job offer the day I flew out for the defense, and everything fell into place like the universe was playing Tetris and got dealt the perfect block combination. Suddenly, we knew what the future held. Suddenly, there I was in Ann Arbor, saying goodbye to my house (for good), to my friends (for now), and to a town that had been oh-so-good to me, excited — but a little shocked — about beginning a life in New England with a job I love and a partner who supports me.
Back to the End
In a weekend that can only be described as one for the record books, Kristoff got an unbelievable job for an excellent company, I said goodbye to the Midwest with a 26.2 mile run through beautiful Detroit, and I successfully defended my dissertation and became Dr. Homan. And the weirdest thing?
The eeriest thing about defending (for me) were the moments that followed. After all the buildup (and my friends will tell you I’m good at the buildup — I’ve been chronicling my dissertative journey on Facebook for the past few years in order to keep the “social” in what can be a very, very solitary process), I defended, and then… all was the same. I don’t mean for this to sound depressing, because it felt in many ways poetic. Musical. As though someone struck that final resolving chord and then launched right into the next movement, no seam, no pause, no new stanza, no denouement. I celebrated, I got on a plane, and I went to a conference the next day.
Lost in what has been the chaos of my life for the past couple months, the defense was beautifully anti-climactic. Perfectly there and very exciting, but completely surrounded and consumed by other shit that also mattered, and in many ways mattered more.
And also, it was fun. Short of a minor freak-out the weekend before, I didn’t worry about the defense, because I didn’t really have the time to do so. As we launched into the questions segment — the part that most terrified me because really you never know what they’re going to pull out of Batman’s underpants and smack you with in these things — I was okay. Comfortable. We talked. They handed me some revisions that I agreed with. We hugged. And it was over.
And then I looked to the back of the room, at those people who have supported me every single day, no matter what. Who have been there to listen, to cry, to laugh, to raise a glass, share a pizza, run a marathon, read a paragraph, or sip a coffee. And I know while the doctorate is great and all, it wouldn’t have been possible without them.