Permission Slips: Graduate School


When we moved back to Texas after living in Arkansas for a few years, I needed to change my driver’s license. I had let it expire in Arkansas, and since we were moving to Texas soon anyway, I didn’t do anything about it. Then I dragged my feet in going to the DMV, and so when I finally sat down in front of the DMV clerk to get it changed, my license had been expired for an embarrassing amount of time. I wasn’t too worried because I had let my license expire once in Texas when I was in high school, and nothing happened when I went to renew it except a scolding, so I expected to waltz out with a new license, having not learned my lesson.

However, as I looked around while the clerk entered my information, I was unprepared for what it meant to let my license expire across state lines. Because my license was from another state and it had expired, the clerk informed me that not only would I have to retest for my license, I would also have to attend Drivers Ed. DRIVERS ED. I felt the dread sink from the top of my head down to the pit of my stomach. I taught sophomores, and many of them were learning how to drive, and all I could think of was that I would be classmates with my students. I was a new teacher that year, and I was desperately trying to prove myself. I pleaded with this clerk, who had been transfigured into the one person who could save me from humiliation and hours of boredom: what about my Texas license that existed before the Arkansas license? Isn’t there anything we could do?

I’m happy to report that she was an angel of mercy that day because even though technically we couldn’t use the Texas license, we did, and all I had to do was get my picture taken to be issued a new license. May the Lord rain down blessings on her for the rest of her life. May my pride and procrastination be cursed to hell.

Of course, this story could be framed as a lesson for not making assumptions, for doing things in a timely manner, for extending people grace, for pride going before a fall, etc. But to me, it’s a moment in which the hierarchy of authority with my students almost became flat before I was ready for it. I was almost a classmate to a group that I was supposed to be in charge of and imparting wisdom upon and bestowing knowledge on, etc. I think back to this moment as I sit here on a Saturday morning, getting ready to begin some pre-homework for class in the coming week.

I begin a graduate program on Monday. Many of my seniors from last year will begin their first year of college on Monday, too. Former students will begin their second and third years of college, and they probably feel like old pros at this point, which makes my 26-year-old self feel a little old.

I’ve been reflecting on this parallel course with some of the best 18-year-olds I know for the past few weeks. As a new student again, I feel small and bright-eyed and timid.

I stare at my campus map looking for the right office and I consider getting new rain boots as I step into another puddle.

I search Amazon for the cheapest book option and I stand alongside 7-year-olds at Target as I choose a pencil bag.

I twiddle my thumbs and try not to stare at my phone compulsively so that I can look welcoming for a new friend.

I wonder about making friends.

About class discussions (I’m used to being the facilitator, not a participant, and I suddenly regret making the quiet chime in over the past few years).

About looking stupid.

My mind reels from the deluge of information and interactions at orientation, and I chatter incessantly to JD about the things I’m excited about and nervous about, and I wonder if I will be able to fall asleep on Sunday night. The hierarchy has finally become flat.

Last Christmas, I read Brene Brown’s newest book, Rising Strong, and in it, she talks about writing herself permission slips for certain seasons of her life. I latched onto this idea the moment I read it, and I wrote permission slips for myself for grieving, for teaching, for moving to a new place.

They have been significant in letting myself feel my feelings instead of saying to myself, “You shouldn’t feel this way! You shouldn’t do that!” It is good to come back to these slips in the midst of stress and noise and deadlines because they hearken me back to the time of hopefulness and perspective and stillness.

Now, I write permission slips for beginning graduate school. I think these apply to undergraduate school, too, and as I type out, “I give myself permission to look stupid,” I think warmly of my students, especially the ones who may be afraid to get a B in a class, or afraid to speak up in a heated class discussion, or afraid to raise their hand and give an answer they are unsure of.

It’s okay to be afraid. You can still be brave if you feel afraid.

So for new students, for those who are beginning something new, for myself, here are my permission slips:

I give myself permission to…

Be really nerdy (color-coded notes? Yes, please. Giddy laughter over readings? For sure).

Get to class early.

Not know the answer.

Feel stupid.

Be wrong.

Change my mind.

Fail big time.

Fail little time.

Be uncertain of my belief.

Look up big, fancy terms that my classmates or professors may use.

Be myself.

Be an introvert.

Find other introverts.

Practice being an extrovert from time to time.

Connect with others instead of compete with them.

Speak up.

Stay quiet (but not forever!).

Remember fear is normal.

Remember being brave means showing up and trying, even if I still feel afraid.

“Remember ego feels pushy and afraid, and calling feels kind and free” (Emily Freeman)

Remember everyone is coming from a million different places and respect that.

Study things that intimidate me.

Cry when I’m stressed out.

Make mistakes, and then apologize.

Set things aside when I need to rest.

Listen to my body for cues.

Take naps.

Take care of myself through exercise, sleep, down time, coffee, chocolate, puppy time, etc.

Binge-watch Netflix when I’m tired.

Try new things, even if I end up not liking them.

Stutter when I get excited.

Ask a million questions.

Verbally process things.

Let ideas stew inside for awhile.

Get a B in a class.

Be frustrated.

Make unlikely friends.

Make likely friends.

Take time making friends.

Freak out, but then calm down.

Be honest.

Be vulnerable with safe people.

Wait for safe people.

Take a moment to accept myself instead of hustling for approval.

Be gentle with myself when I fail, fall, rush, shame, or frustrate myself.
May we give ourselves permission to be human and to experience new things in our own way. May we not lose ourselves in the waves of change, but rather learn how to swim. May we be patient and gracious with ourselves always.


Permanent Markers

The first year I taught in Austin, I had a chalkboard. I felt like it was a rite of passage—chalk on my pants, in my nose, on my books, and occasionally on the board. Then at the beginning of my second year, I got whiteboards—glorious, shiny, used, dirty whiteboards. I didn’t care that I had to put two whiteboards together to make a reasonably good size board. I didn’t care that the left side had a three-inch tear or that the right side was covered in scrubbed permanent marker stains. They were not chalky. They smelled of Expo. They were mine.

My third year began—the year that you think you’ve got everything figured out (ha!), and the day before school began, I stared at the right side of my board and thought, “What kind of moron used permanent marker on a white board? What kind of idiot thought it would be wise not to read the one word on the marker that could have prevented this mess?” I huffed elitist-ly and organized my syllabi and went home, ready for my year of saving the world and inspiring every single student Robin Williams style.

The next day was a blur as all first days are. I wore heels, so my achilles was blistered, and I drank too much coffee, so my hands were shaky, but I was having a great time giving the “I don’t take no crap from nobody” speech (don’t worry—I didn’t say crap or use a double negative). I wrote reminders on the board with a fancy new, blue marker, the smell of First Day jitters and fear filling the room. As the last student shuffled out with a nervous giggle, I patted myself on the back for a job well done. This year would be a breeze. These kids would stay in line. They would never dare to cross me and all the parents would respect me. I am teacher, hear me roar!

Around 6:30 pm, I started gathering my things and remembered I needed to change the information on the board for the next day. I slipped off my shoes for one last heel stretch, and started running the eraser over the board until I realized with horror what I had done. The shiny, blue marker I had used to write things like “No late work!” and “Happy First Day of School!” was in fact a permanent marker. Here I was, the moron, the idiot.

I started sliding the eraser frantically over the markings, trying to recall all the Pinterest posts about permanent markers but I was drawing a blank, which unfortunately was not happening on my board. I summoned the help of the teacher next door, googled remedies, and scrubbed until my arm was sore. The markings, while dulled, were still very clear all over the board. I gulped, wiped some sweat off my brow, and went home.

The next day before the first bell rang, I pondered what I would say to the kids about the board. They would notice it, I knew. Should I blame someone else? Should I make a joke out of it? Should I offer bonus points for the person able to get the marker off? I shook my head. I knew what I was going to do.

As the first class settled into their seats, I reminded them of the speech from the day before: I expect excellence. I don’t take no crap. Then I pointed to the board and told them what happened—the smug feeling of a new marker, the horror as I was about to walk out the door, the sore arm and rolodex of excuses.

And then I said this:

“If you are worried about messing up this year, about failing big time, about looking like a fool, don’t worry. You won’t be the first one. I have made the first mistake for you. I have looked like a fool first—we still have the very public evidence of it staring you in the face. If you are wondering what will happen if you make a mistake, I’ll tell you right now. I will point to the board. Don’t worry about making a wrong move or looking stupid. I have done it first for all of us.”

The kids, in true teenager fashion that many teachers will tell you about in tears, nodded their head empathetically and said things like, “It’s okay, Mrs. Dargai. It was an honest mistake. The blue actually looks really nice. I’ll look up how to fix it. What’s the lesson today?”

As the students filed out that day, I realized that this was it. The board, the markings, the speech, the responses. This was grace.