Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Academic Stress in Perspective

I spent 45 weeks as a student at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio Monterey from 1980-1981 studying Arabic. The workload was heavy and the dropout rate was about 50%. The thought of being dropped from the course and shipped out to sea as a non-rated seaman terrified me. One day in class, the guy sitting next to me, a really strange guy named Goegre Zimmerman, had a complete anxiety attack and got sent back in training. So not only was I afraid, I was afraid of being too afraid. I learned that the Presidio Monterey’s Health Center had a counseling center that I could visit gratis. I figured I would do a little bit of what in the Navy is called “preventive maintenance”—that’s when you fix a part before it is due to break down. I would visit the counselor each week and count my marbles to make sure I wasn’t losing them.

Some of you may know the name of the counselor I saw was a bad actor named Frank King who was court-martialed for making advances on his female patients and spent 6 years in Leavenworth. I also saw a man named Frank Thompson who gave me some good advice. When I told him about my anxiety over not completing the course (at that time, the date of June 4, 1984 seemed to be an eternity into the future), he told me that years before, while completing his doctorate, he had been in an academic program so intense that the joke was if you could complete it, you really don’t need it. He looked around and saw a great many bright graduate students who were training to be able to help other people who appeared to be coming apart at the seams themselves. He went to see the departmental chairman, a gentleman well-up in years who told him a story that’s a real doozy.

This departmental chair had served in the navy during WWII, and on Feb 19, 1945, he was in charge of a landing craft headed towards Iwo Jima. As a landing craft approached the beach, he could see that not all the gunfire was headed inland. Japanese machine guns were firing out at landing craft any way they could and he was quite understandably terrified. The thought occurred to him that he had been that terrified once before. Years before, in grad school, he’d had a prof notorious for assigning voluminous readings and then assigning essays on an unrelated topic. Before took that exam, he was absolutely terrified. He made a resolution that when he got back from the war, he would never let any professor scare him as badly as a Japanese machine gun and artillery fire. He pointed out to me then that 3 years at sea would be scary, but not that scary, and if I could accept that, I’d be well on my way to completing the course, which I did.

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