Saturday, August 19, 2006

Reflections: Going to Grad. School -- Part I

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Note: Originally posted on the EAGLE online community site, behind IBM's firewall on 19 August 2006, at 12:37 pm, and posted here on 24 May 2007:

Returning to the Ladies Locker-room at the YMHA (Jewish Community Center) after swimming this morning, I am unable to use my favorite shower because the woman who had been sharing my lane has taken it...even though my towel and shampoo is hanging on the hook right outside it. My routine is disrupted. Now what?

She hears me move my stuff and says, "Oh, sorry."

"It's fine," but the alternate shower I choose has no soap, and really, it isn't fine. It's my shower. Every morning that I swim. At least when I'm not on vacation and arrive there super-early.

Noticing her shampoo-bag is a plastic shopping bag with "Graphos" written on it in Hebrew, I call from my shower to hers: "Did you live in Israel for a time? I noticed your bag."

"Yes. I just got back from a year there."

"How great." I step over to the next empty shower-stall to pump a handful of liquid-soap, saying, "I lived there for a year, too, a long time ago, in Jerusalem." The shower-water's louder than I'd like, but I talk over it, "What took you to Israel for a year?"

"Oh, I was in a seminary."

"Neat." So she's a rabbinical student maybe.

"Where were you when you were there?" she asks me.

"I was at Hebrew University during my junior year of college, and we used to have to take a cross-town bus every morning to the Givat Ram campus to swim. And now, there's this gorgeous pool, an infinity-style one, where the water spills over the edges on purpose, but not when I was there. Right on the Mount Scopus campus. Where did you swim while you were there?"

No answer. Oh, she left to dry off. For how long have I been speaking to myself, I wonder.

"Sorry, I didn't hear you," she says, apparently returning to hear my question and then answers:

"There was a pool in a building called the Soldiers' House. And I went there. There were soldiers everywhere on the main floors, and I went to the bottom of the building, where the pool was. It was nice, actually."

Typically, during vacation, my partner Pat would be with me and I'd talk with her in the locker-room, but she's volunteering at the soup kitchen today and so I'm alone. Or when I'm working, I get there earlier than Pat and my routine is simply to rinse off in the shower quickly, and then swim my laps and shower afterwards, all-the-while speaking with no one -- and there are far fewer people to choose from at the earlier hour in any case -- but the Graphos bag causes me to reminisce. She happened to have picked a locker near mine and so we continue the conversation.

"Are you working toward ordination?"

She looks at me oddly.

"I thought that since you were at a seminary, maybe you were a rabbinical student. Which seminary?"

"It's called Midreshet Rachel [], and no, I was just there to learn how to live according to the Torah [Jewish Bible]. I studied Hebrew and read in the original, which was just so great. Do you read Hebrew?"

Oy. I wonder what she'd think of my rejection of traditionally-observant Judaism, and how friendly she'd feel if I told her that after substantial Jewish education until high school, I opted to live a non-Orthodox life ultimately. "I do read Hebrew; I went to a [Modern Orthodox] day-school, growing up, and it is really rewarding to be able to read the text in the original, I agree."

I could finish getting ready and just leave, or I could introduce myself and maybe make a new friend. "I'm Sarah. What's your name?"

She tells me and I say, "Typically, I'm not here this late, but I'm on vacation this week."

"From what are you on vacation? What do you do?"

"I train our managers to be good leaders. I'm an instructor. I work for IBM, doing Leadership Development training."

"I love leadership development stuff. I worked for [a major U.S. airline] for five years, and I was a sales exec., and was always talking with HR on how to motivate the sales force further. But now, after 15 months away from it, and being back to work again -- this is my first week back -- it's just so hard....I did the year of study just for personal meaning. I mean, I didn't want to be one of those people, who says, 'I wish I had done XYZ....'"

"That's terrific. I'm going back to school part-time myself in a couple of weeks, for an M.A. in this field, actually: Adult Learning and Leadership." I see that her bag's packed. "Are you leaving now?"


"Me, too. I don't have to worry about drying my hair, since I'm on vacation."

"My mother tries to make her hair look like that. It's cute."

We're walking down the hall, which is decorated with children's art from the summer camp associated with the Y and I'm thinking about their stage of schooling and then fast-forwarding to my first experience with Higher Education, and it's as if she reads my mind:

"You are going to enjoy this education so much. When we went to college, we didn't really know where it was leading, but now, you've been in the field and you'll see that you'll be able to focus and learn so much better."

"You're right. When I went to college, I didn't know what it was going to be in service to [-- my Comparative Literature / Humanities degree] -- had no idea, and this feels so much clearer."

We approach the exit and reflexively, I follow the ritual of putting my hand on the mezuzah [the small rectangular casing on all the doorposts of Jewish homes or institutions (with the exception of bathrooms), which contains the "Shema,"the central prayer of Judaism, and which is meant to protect the inhabitants from harm] and then kissing my fingers as I pass through the doorway. She misses carrying out the ritual herself. I must have distracted her. As we wave goodbye to each other, walking to our cars, I smile to myself, considering how my early Jewish education really does seem to have stayed with me after all; I was first taught to kiss the mezuzah when I was six years old, if not earlier.

On the way home, I call my mom on my cell-phone and we talk about how school is around the corner, and about the swimmer I met.

"She sounds terrific; she said everything you needed to hear at this stage." It's true. My sister Kathy, whom I've mentioned before in communiques to my Leader Readiness facilitator community, is a professional educator (principal of Brooklyn International High School, with a Masters in Education and another in Applied Linguistics, and she says the same thing to me, or Master Trainers Lynne Cummins and Jim Soltis offer similar encouragement, fortunately, and yet hearing it from a stranger/angel(?) seems to help me the most.

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