I had an epiphany this week: I am fearful of following my heart.
After 20 years of presenting research at conferences the same way: preparing the method, analysing the data, and presenting the findings in a powerpoint, I was tired. Uninspired. I wanted my participants’ voices to be the centre of the research, to have their authentic words be what people left remembering.
No more boring powerpoints. This time, I was going to represent their findings entirely in their voices. I was going to write my entire paper in narrative, a story of their world.
I spent weeks on the writing. It was more difficult than I realised, like exercising and expecting a muscle you had never used to perform. I revised again and again. I admonished myself for breaking back into the same old expository form that I was trying to shatter. Then it was time for the conference presentation, presenting these voices, in an unconventional narrative, to colleagues I wanted to belong.
I had not thought about how to convey the same voices to a traditional academic audience. No powerpoint. Would I simply read the stories? Shouldn’t something visual be up on the screen? How long would it take to read the 15 page paper aloud? Wasn’t that going backward to the 1950s? Just reading?
I panicked on the day. I had nothing! The chair asked me to load my powerpoint. I said I didn’t have one; I was just going to read the narrative. She looked at me with scepticism. I felt fear. My session was scheduled at the end of the day: 17.30. Surely no one would be there? It would be a good time to experiment with this form. Why not try it? What did I have to lose? Aren’t I always asking my own students to take on Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’? Who was I if I could not even risk modelling the mindset: Just risk, try something new; learn from the failure.
More and more people arrived for the session. People came that I did not want to fail in front of: the editor of our national journal, a professor from our largest rival university, the chair of a research group I wanted to be part of! Why were they all there? For goodness sake, why did they have to come to this one?
I was announced, and began to explain the paper I was about to give. I explained it in expository form! My face felt hot. It was red. My chest tight. I started to read from the paper, but then realised there was no framework for them to put it in – only the words. I explained again. My face went crimson. I lost my place. I searched for the next section, the next narrative. I continued to read, to stutter. I looked at my watch and my time was almost up. I looked at the chair. She shrugged.
I gave another explanation and tried to sum everything up, ‘well, that is a taste of the narratives within, and the important thing here is that…’ I stopped embarrassed.
It had not gone well.
‘Are there any questions?’ the chair asked.
An older professor, not sure of his name, but everyone seemed to know him. Quantitative I think…
‘Where are the statistics about the students? Your title says you were going to be presenting on students!’ he accused me.
My face went red again. I was taking it all in. He didn’t like it. I could tell he didn’t like it. No one in the room said anything. There was stunned silence at the assault. At the question? At me?
Humiliated publically, I stumbled awkwardly, ‘well, it’s a narrative, I mean, it’s presented, or written, as one narrative. There are no statistics on students. It is just the voices.’
‘Okay, that’s all we have time for at the moment,’ the chair said. Either saving me from further humiliation, or admitting defeat.
Hurt, I retreated to a table at the far side of the room. I wanted to cry, but simply pretended to be busy. I have ruined my career, I thought, what will these people think of me now? Why did I do this?
I went over and over the session on my way home, and none of it good. I should have done this,…if only I had said this… In the end, living through the failed attempt made me realise what my own students must feel. They want to belong as well, and yet I have far less to risk than themselves. If I cannot reflect upon this, and overcome such adversity, why in the world would I expect them to?
Why did I hate myself so? Who is more important? A room full of respected strangers, or my own heart?
I went for a walk that evening, and happened across a set of stain glass windows in the lady chapel in Bath Abbey.
I sat and continued to reflect upon the day. I looked up at the windows. In them, was a familiar reformation scene (even though the windows were not created until the 20th century). The King’s guard or soldiers look as if they are ready to seize control of the church (the knight has his hand on his sword; there are keys with the sword between), and the priests are standing on the other side of the altar with the ‘word of God’ open in defence, golden slippered feet slightly off the ground in the stars. The caption below states: ‘In memory of Sydney Adolphus Boyd…faithful guardian of this church.’
It must have been courageous indeed to stand up against armed men in defence of the church as you believe it should be. You could have been hanged, burnt at the stake, your very church and all you have worked for desecrated. I have always believed this to be the very epitome of integrity. And yet, on this day, looking at that window, I thought, But why should there not be change, once and while? There must have been an underclass who suffered under the church as well. Why and what are these men guarding? Why should the people not have a say in reforming their church, their own spirituality?
It struck me that there are men guarding my profession as well. They stand with ancient ways in defiance of difference and opposition as well. And these are the men I most fear. I always thought it would be the soldiers I would fear, taking away my church. But as I sit here tonight, my church lies within my heart. It is the traditional guardians I fear more. I fear that they are not open to new members; that myself and my divergent ways are unwelcome.
I fear the opposition to the path I feel, in my heart, is the right way (for myself, if no one else.)
In the end, following one’s heart may be more fraught with fear. Yet, that is why the path less travelled is so rewarding.
In the weeks to come, this series will reflect upon those children’s stories that have guided me in my life. Perhaps the guidance is not always what was originally intended, but a message has assisted me, nevertheless, in the telling.