(If you’re here for the first time check out excerpts 1-28 in earlier Blogs )
…and if we taste of this cup, we shall cast away the world.
The Seven Valleys
Maddie had come back, but her whole self was rebelling. She had spent Christmas break with her family in Chicago. There had been lots of love and lots of warmth. The family had done everything to heal the fright and she had said she was okay to come back. But it was proving to be pointless. How could she focus on her class when her mind kept flying in a million different directions? How could she buckle down and study for prelims this semester when all she wanted to do was run away from this place?
She had felt this way ever since that morning when John Pitts had taken her to the police station to give her statement and the detective had reluctantly admitted that the chances of apprehending the rapist were very slim because she couldn’t give a good description. John had been angry and had lost his temper at the policeman. He had wanted the police to do more. She was startled by his vehemence, by a side of him she had never seen. Was this the same carefree, partying guy she had carried a secret disdain for?
But perhaps she had underestimated him. Maybe there was more to him than met the eye. Anyhow, she had felt strangely reassured by his anger. He was voicing an emotion she herself could not express. She was still numb and in shock. Whatever scream she had was still paralyzed in her throat. She felt strangely disembodied and incredulous that such a thing had actually happened to her. Even now, sitting at her desk, trying to plan out her semester, she questioned it. Maddie Hawkins, who was always organized and in control of her environment, meticulous about details, almost compulsive about order, an enemy of chaos, confusion and helplessness – she was now totally, utterly helpless. Her sense of security was shattered, her carefully constructed world was a myth, she was naked and exposed. At any time, at any place someone could jump out of the shadows and—
“Hello,” a soft voice sounded beside her and she looked up to see John Pitts with a thick stack of binders. He set them down on her desk.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“What’s this? What’s this? Well, this is everything you need, to study for your prelims!” he answered.
“My prelims?” She didn’t remember ever mentioning them to him.
“Your prelims are scheduled for the end of the semester aren’t they?” John asked.
“Then you’re definitely going to want to read this. It’s a journal, kept by the graduate students who have taken their prelims. Good stuff!”
“Where did you find this? When I tried to track this down no one seemed to know where it was.”
“Well, let’s just say I have my ways,” he answered, dismissing it.
“And what’s this?” Maddie asked, picking up the heaviest three-inch binder.
“Oh, those are my summary notes for my prelims” he said, “and a couple of books you might want to look at. Also, you can borrow my notes for any of the classes I took. My handwriting’s not all that great but it’s legible.”
“You’re letting me borrow your prelim notes? Gee, John, that’s really nice of you.” She looked up at him and smiled, but she felt it was a fake smile.
“So how was your Christmas?” he asked, sitting on the next desk.
“Oh, it was okay” she answered, “I mean, we don’t really celebrate Christmas. That is, my family doesn’t…” she stumbled, feeling the familiar sense of awkwardness whenever she had to explain her non-traditional behavior to others.
“Oh, really?” John seemed to be inviting further commentary.
“Well, yeah. We believe in Christ, you know, so we commemorate his birth but we don’t do all the commercial stuff.”
“I see.” He seemed satisfied with her inadequate explanation.
“How was yours?” she asked, to fill in the pause. It wasn’t an uncomfortable pause, but a lull in the conversation.
“Oh, well, it was just me and my mom most of the time. Kind of quiet, you know, but nice.”
“Don’t you have any brothers and sisters?” she asked, and then wasn’t sure if she was getting too personal.
It was not lost on John that she was showing an interest in his personal life, perhaps for the first time. He himself had wanted to ask how she was doing, but wasn’t sure how. He didn’t want to make her uncomfortable.
“No, I don’t. My dad left us when I was about two, so it’s just me and my mom.”
“Oh!” she looked as if she would have wanted to know more but stopped at that. Looking for another subject of conversation, he turned back to the topic of the prelims.
“So what have you done so far on your prelims?” he asked.
“Not much,” she answered, “I… I haven’t been able to concentrate…” she stared off into the horizon.
Her dejection was palpable. He knew why she couldn’t focus, but grasping at anything practical, he asked, “So who’s on your committee?”
“Ellison, Pinkerton, Gillian, White—and Dr. Gates, of course.”
“Have you had a meeting with any of them yet?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can meet with each prof and ask them what they’re going to ask you.”
“You’re kidding! How can I do that?” Maddie asked.
“Easy. Just ask them. Of course, they won’t tell you specifically what they’re gonna ask you, but they’ll give you some general guidelines as to what they feel is important. You can even pick up some clues if you read between the lines.”
“Did you do that? I mean, did you meet with your committee?”
“Okay, John. Thanks for the idea. I’ll get right on it.”
He left and she felt deflated again. As if she had to swim up a river of tar. But something told her she had learned some skills to cope with the feeling. Just put one foot in front of the other, Maddie, she thought.
A few days later John Pitts stopped by again to ask how her meetings had gone.
“Great.” she answered, “I’ve met with all except one, and aside from confirming the general areas I thought I had to study anyway, I picked up a couple of specifics they want me to focus on.”
“Good” he said. “Have you done your outline yet, for how you’re going to study?”
“Yes, it’s right here” she said, pointing to the papers on her desk.
“Can I see it?” he asked.
“Sure.” She handed him the papers, a little self-conscious that he would be looking at her work, but grateful that a “senior” student would take the time to review it.
“Uh-hum” he muttered several times as he scanned down the list. “Looks great, thorough, well-organized!” he uttered, at last, and Maddie felt herself blushing slightly.
“Now, what’s your time frame?” he asked.
“Well, I just thought I’d start at the beginning and proceed to the end—”
“No, no. That’s exactly what you shouldn’t do,” he countered. “You’ll run out of time and find that you studied quantitative genetics and epidemiology thoroughly, but barely touched cytogenetics and plant anatomy. No, what you’ve got to do is give yourself three days to cover a subject and then go on to the next thing. Stay on schedule, don’t fall behind and leave some time for general review at the end.”
She felt as if she was being coached, but what he said made sense and so she went on to map out a time frame. She was a little miffed that Dr. Gates had not mentioned this, but perhaps he was just a little bit too busy to care about the details of a student’s prelim preparations.
The process proved arduous and not at all confidence-building. It seemed the more she studied; the more there was to study. She was feeling that her initial outline had left out a lot and now was at a loss to find extra time to cram in other subjects. As hard as she tried, she just couldn’t stay on schedule. She was a perfectionist and couldn’t abandon a topic until it was adequately reviewed.
But most difficult of all was that she had to divide her time between studying and keeping up with her research.
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