Cooper Chronicles: I.21

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

thursday morning, 11 AM.  i hadn’t slept more than 12 hours all week long.  last night, i had pulled my first all-nighter — something i *swore* up and down i would never be a part of.  but i had worked through until 7 in the morning before sneaking out to take a shower and return at 8 when the building opened.  now i had three hours to finish my final drawing, i had no idea where i was going with it, i wasn’t sure about my idea for the project, i had four or five models to present but no clear way of tying them all together, and the thought of standing up in front of my professors and trying to explain to them what the heck i was doing struck fear into the deepest recesses of my heart.  (my thoughts actually sounded this melodramatic.)  i knew that the professors were unhappy with the class in general; they felt that we weren’t working hard enough or exhibiting the same “energy” that we had put forth in the first semester.  so they had split us up; instead of having a group, i was now left all alone.  thirty-four students, thirty-four individual proposals.  thirty-four pairs of knees knocking.

i stood at my desk, trying to clear my head and tell myself it was all hype, trying to finish my drawing.  i drew a line, erased it, drew it again, stared at it for twenty minutes, erased it again with a vengeance.  finally, i threw my pencil down in despair, and did the one thing that made sense at that moment: i called mommy.

i thought maybe if i told her what was bothering me, i would feel better.  so i started to tell her the story of last night, when penley and i had made a food run right before the building closed and gotten caught coming back.  the guard confiscated our id’s and angrily threatened to report us to the dean.  then, this morning, one of my professors (the least important one, but nonetheless an authority figure) called me into his office (his OFFICE!) and warned me about the building’s new policy: no all-nighters, and offenders would be

prosecuted and possibly kicked out.  his words echoed in my mind: “i was surprised to see *your* name on the list, emily.  i didn’t think you’d get caught up in this.”  the thought of disappointing someone, even someone for whom i had virtually no respect whatsoever, was too much for me.  two sentences into the story, and i was in tears.  “and i have a crit in … three hours … and i don’t … want to … talk … in front … of them … ” i managed to squeak out. 

maybe they take classes on these situations in mommy-school — but for whatever reason, my mom has always been an inexpressible comfort when i’m overly stressed.  she diagnosed my problem to a tee — no sleep, nothing to eat, guilt feelings over “breaking the rules,” nerves because of last semester’s grade and my professors’ bad moods.  just hearing her voice was enough to calm me down, and we prayed over the phone — that i would have strength and clarity of mind when i stood up to present, that i would be able to go near the beginning so that i wouldn’t have to suffer while everyone else was being critiqued, and that my words would express my thoughts without earning criticism for not being “architectonic” enough.  (i refuse to adopt a standard of language that i don’t completely understand, and i’m continually getting scolded for failing to pick up the jargon.)

i hung up the phone and cried it all out — something i hadn’t done since i had been here — and then washed my face, decided i didn’t need to finish my drawing, and pinned up my work.  my emotions were no longer rampant; in fact, i felt quite stoic.  if they tore me up, which i thought was probable, it didn’t matter.  i would learn from it, as i had in the past.

precisely at two o’clock, the professors stormed in.  they wanted to look at the work for half an hour undisturbed, and then they would choose a few projects to discuss.  i breathed a sigh of relief; this meant i would probably not be chosen.  we returned to find four scowling faces and a list of thirteen projects: out of a class of thirty-four, only thirteen were found to have “a clear idea that we can have an argument, a dialogue, with.  if there is no idea, you don’t deserve critique.”  they were none too happy about that fact; “i don’t feel like giving a pep talk,” abraham retorted.  apparently, we were beyond help.  waltemath whipped out the list, and as i was sitting next to her on the floor, i saw my name right in the middle.  i would have been terrified, but at this point i was too exhausted to care.  they were sitting directly in front of my work, and each time one paused to take a breath, their eyes rested on my drawings for a moment.  i remained calm.

“emily, since we’re here, why don’t you go first,” abraham said gruffly.  i stood up, being conscious of my posture, body language and nice dress, and cleared my throat.

abraham held up a hand.  “you don’t need to say anything.”  the other professors nodded.  “it’s not necessary — we can tell through your work what you were thinking.  we see your idea.  now we can have a discussion.”

for the next thirty minutes, i stood nodding and smiling as they explained how poetic and beautiful my idea was, and how difficult of a task it would be to transform a shadow from a phenomena to a reality.  i hadn’t done that, but i had tried — and they could see that.  “that’s what i call an idea,” abraham repeated.  gersten expostulated (as he is wont to do) on the virtues of creating a drawing that needs no word spoken by its creator to explain it.  waltemath, with whom i had had a long conversation with earlier in the week, said she could finally sense the direction i was taking and the means of expression i had chosen. 

and, for once, i understood every word of it.  it was nothing short of a miracle.

my crit looked better and better as we progressed through everyone else’s projects; more than once abraham failed to express himself except by cursing.  he told my friend julia that she was headed for “geometrical purgatory.”  (“i was going to say ‘geometrical hell,’” waltemath interjected.)  they hated the drawings; they hated the models; they hated the choice of materials; they hated everything.  they were disappointed in our class, whom they had thought had so much potential.  they wanted us to drum up some inspiration, pick a direction to go in, and follow it.  then they left. 

i was in a daze, but somehow i knew it was a happy one.  i went and called my mom back, and she told me she had called the prayer chain for me — it made sense.  only through the prayers of so many loved ones could i have come through what seemed a lose-lose situation as a winner.

well, now you know what happened to me this week.  i got very little sleep — i made it through one more crit — and i witnessed the power of prayer and the love of my family and friends.  i’m sorry that i have no jokes or witty anecdotes to share — but i think this is enough.