Someone Else Entirely

Someone else enitrely.

I climbed the narrow, metal stairs leading to Joan’s office, heard her on the phone and smiled. I deposited the bag of two large coffees on her huge desk. This was our morning routine on the days she taught at the University. She was the Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Masters program. I was in my final year of the program and her graduate assistant. As I set the bag down, I noticed the file she was reviewing was mine. I held my breath and was flooded with anxiety. After previously unremarkable results as a student, in graduate school, I finally found my footing. I loved it and excelled academically for the first time. I was proud of myself and my accomplishments but my past left a lingering sense that my true self, the screw up, would eventually be discovered and I thought that moment had come.
Weeks before, Joan started talking to me about applying to doctoral programs. I thought she was nuts. ”I can’t do that. I’m a screw up,” played in my head. She didn’t see me that way. The truth is, I was never a screw up. I believed that particular truth because I didn’t know there was an alternative. It was a defining idea in my life. I was a bad student, a disappointment, a screw up. It eventually became the story of who I was. That day, in Joan’s office, the real meaning of my story was still elusive and would remain so for another two decades.
As Joan prepared me for a doctoral program, I came to see learning is a journey that never ends. I watched and learned as she researched and wrote numerous journal articles, book chapters and books. She published two journal articles with me and taught me a great many things about family therapy theory and practice. More importantly, she believed I could do it and I believed her.
When I started to see clients in my internship, I realized my 3.85 GPA wasn’t enough. My clients, both at that time and in the future, would depend on what I knew. I needed to know everything I could about marriage and family therapy because I had a responsibility to them. The weight of that standard was enormous to me at 23. My anxiety had been building for days and finally, one night, on the way to class, I told Joan what about my revelation. She was pleased I saw it that way and impressed that I came to it on my own. I was right, what I learned and the grades I earned weren’t only about me. She talked to me that night and many other times about quiet competence. For her, that was the acquisition of skills, experience and confidence which would make me an excellent therapist. The very fact that I saw my learning as being, not just about my grades, but also about the experiences of my clients and my responsibility to them, was one of the things that told her I would be an exceptional therapist.
She looked at the file on her desk and then at me, with a puzzled look. I was scared. I thought, “This is it. Now she’s going to know I’m a screw up.” She asked, “What is this?” I shrugged, reverting back to a younger version of myself. She paused and said, “You must have been doing other kinds of developing.” In that moment, the view I had of myself collided with hers. I wasn’t a disappointment or a screw up. I was exactly who she thought I was, a bright, competent, talented, young woman who was simply doing other kinds of developing as an undergraduate. The B’s and C’s that peppered my undergraduate transcript didn’t fit with the young woman who sat in front of her; the young woman who would go on to get a Ph.D. and understood what she learned in graduate school was bigger than just her. That one sentence changed my view of myself as a student and as a therapist and created a cascading effect on how I defined myself in more sweeping ways. It wasn’t just about my academic accomplishments but something much bigger. I wasn’t the screw up who got B’s and C’s through high school and college, I was someone else entirely.

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