That whole grad school thing

Didn't take this picture but I felt like I needed some kind of image...

Didn’t take this picture but I felt like I needed some kind of image…

When I started writing this I was sitting in the kitchen, eating a bowl of jasmine rice and some baked cheddar sour cream Lays. I was slightly buzzed, but it was okay because tonight is the first night that I finally feel like I’m in grad school.

Tonight was The New School’s MFA creative writing program orientation, and I have to say it started out kind of rough. I rushed uptown from work, not wanting to be that person who came in late. Visions of savvy copy-writing and resume writing from work were dancing around my head and a thin layer of sweat coated my nose. I felt so unprepared as I walked the four or five blocks to W 11 St, and it didn’t help that as I got closer and closer I realized that the reason why I’m in NYC in the first place was about to hit me full force in a few minutes.

Oh yeah, I’m in grad school.

I passed Duane Reade and Walgreens and Starbucks and another Duane Reade because seriously, they’re everywhere, and I began to worry that maybe The New School made some kind of mistake. Maybe this whole time I’ve been telling people I’m going to grad school there but there was really a clerical error. Besides, there are tons of Zakiya Harrises; just look on Facebook and see for yourself.

But then I arrived at the pretty new building and it was too late to turn around. I joined a caravan of people waiting for the elevator and squeezed myself somewhere I wouldn’t be a nuisance. As the floors went up it occurred to me that perhaps that was when I was supposed to start meeting people.

It’s been awhile since I’ve truly had to make new friends. UNC was easy enough because you have roommates and floor mates and everyone is young and clingy and unashamed because let’s be real, your freshman year of undergrad is about everything but how good at school you are (if you tell prospective freshman I said that I will deny it, but it’s true).

By the year your senior year of college rolls around you’re pretty much daring people to try to be your friend. If they succeed, great. But if they don’t, well, whatever. You’re graduating anyway and you’ve already got a pretty good home base. Why make more?

Am I wrong? Maybe. But that’s how it was for me.

Now, though, pretty much my entire social life hinges upon The New School. If I don’t meet anyone there, it’s going to be a long three years. Besides my classmates, the people that I would interact with outside of my apartment are as follows:

  • The lovely elevator man at my job (although he’s on vacation now in Toronto);
  • the man who works at the little bodega in the lobby of my job right next to the elevators (once he gave me pretzel M&Ms for free because I didn’t have enough change to pay);
  • the owners of the Thai food restaurant down the street (they’ve been there for about three years);
  • the guy who works at the Mexican food restaurant down the street (which reminds me he owes me free food next time I go there;
  • the baristas at Au Bon Pain down the street from my job (they make good iced mochas)
  • some random bartenders…you get the idea. Oh, and my coworkers.

But as much as I enjoy all of these people, it’s not the same as having peers who share the same love of writing as I do.

Anyway, we’re all riding up the elevator, me feeling disgusting and tired and terrified of what’s going to happen after the doors open, and a girl in front of me makes a comment about how we must all be going to orientation. Everyone laughs awkwardly at her stating the obvious and I mentally give her props for being so brave for saying anything at all.

We get to the fifth floor, and there are tons of people wearing name tags and looking like they’ve been doing MFA orientations for years, so naturally I feel uncomfortable. The thing hasn’t even started yet and it seems like everyone has known one another since the turn of the century, or at least since MySpace fizzled out in ’06. And then there’s me, with a film of sweat on my nose and a heavy purse hanging from my weary shoulder filled with some of the reading for next week, my laptop, and eye drops.

I go right for the table with the blank name tags and write my name down. I consider adding something witty but I can’t think of anything. Hindsight has granted me with the idea of jotting down a pronunciation of my name beneath the real spelling for anyone who read it (trust me, a lot of people stared at my chest confusedly), but at the time anything that could possibly stir something within another individual to talk to me escaped me.

I did end up meeting a few people, both of whom seemed really nice and established and had decided to go to grad school after having pretty sweet jobs. It was even more intimidating when the director of the MFA program announced that all 90-something students would have to stand up in front of everyone one by one, announce their names, their jobs, where they were from, and what field of writing they were doing.

I’ve never been much of a shaker, but boy was my left leg twitching. I’m not normally that visibly nervous about things, but the first guy who stood up said he’d already drafted several books and was just looking to have a contract written out and get them published. I envied him so much, even wondered how he could be so cruel to do that to the rest of us writers who were there to write a book in the first place.1

The funny part about me and public speaking is this: When I’m put on the spot like that–when I have to prepare some kind of introductory speech that could determine how people see me for the rest of the night or even the semester–I spend so much time trying to think of something to say while everyone else is having a go at it, and most of the time I come up with a pretty decent ditty.

But this time was of course like every other awkward time I’ve ever had. I’d planned out what I was going to say, how I was going to explain my job, what I wanted to write about…all this stuff that was enthusiastic but not too much so that people wouldn’t want to talk to me during the reception part afterward.

Then it came time for me to stand up and speak and none of it was the way I wanted it to be. I don’t even know what I said–I got a few chuckles at something I said about the subway–but by the time I went to sit down I was wondering what had just happened and wondered where the real me had been when whatever entity it was invaded my body. A lot of other people had really meaningful things to say–some of them had been in Iraq, had families, had manuscripts, wanted to enact social change, and I’m pretty sure the words “awkward random thoughts” and “people are cool” left my mouth. Yeah.

It only got really good when the wine came out, to be honest, and I don’t care what that says about me. I almost wish they’d handed me wine as soon as I stepped off the elevator.

A couple hours later we got kicked out of the building and all of the students at orientation went to a bar called The Treehouse, which is apparently the unofficial bar of New School students. I met a nice girl from San Diego and few really cool guys who were from a slew of different backgrounds and occupations. One guy worked for HBO and Showtime and has a three month-old son. Another guy was from Philly and worked for a publishing company.

What was great about the whole “stand up and say who you are” thing at the beginning of the orientation (even though it sucked so badly at the time) was that while there were some people who had book ideas and struggles they wanted to write down and put into a novel, there were still others who were just as unestablished as I feel, or even more so.

A ton of people just moved into the city a few days ago, if not literally today. A ton of people also live in Brooklyn. An even greater ton of people are unemployed.

It definitely put things into perspective, seeing that even though I am in the youngest of the barrel (the oldest is a really cool-seeming 60-something year old woman), I have a pretty decent amount of things figured out. At least for now, anyway. I’m so excited to pick everyone’s brains and learn new writing techniques and go to weekend workshops and “get literary.”

Oh, and I met a couple of people who’ll be in my mystery class next week, so now I have people to sit with on my first day of classes omg.

Just kidding! Kinda.

1I ended up meeting this man later that night at the Treehouse, and he’s actually very nice. He made fun of me for being so young, though, in a ha-you’re-only-21-but-you’re-so-fortunate-to-know-what-you-want-to-do-so-early-on-in-life-that-I’m-jealous kind of way. It turned out he actually went to Wake Forest for undergrad and Carolina for grad school. Small world.


2 thoughts on “That whole grad school thing

  1. Jon Butters says:

    Wonderful writing, Zakiya! The self-questioning and lack of pretense quickly drew me in and had me rooting for the heroine of the story. Can’t wait to hear what happens to her next.


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