Monday, April 6, 2015

MFA BFF: “A circle is round, it has no end, that’s how long I will be your friend”

I have friends: a kind group of girls whose passions (baking, pressing flowers, community organizing) do not stir me. I feel guilt about this, a sense that my inability to be at home with them proves, once and for all, that I am no good. I laugh, I agree, I find reasons to go home early. I have the nagging sense that my true friends are waiting for me, beyond college, unusual women whose ambitions are as big as their past transgressions, whose hair is piled high, dramatic like topiaries at Versailles, and who never, ever say ‘too much information’ when you mention a sex dream you had about your father…. They would see the good in me so I could, too. - Lena Dunham on Friendship, from Not That Kind of Girl

There is a week of orientation seminars before I take my position as a graduate teaching assistant.  On the first day, I sit under a palm tree and eat my lunch alone, studying the “Emerging: A Teacher” manual and shooing away lizards.  During orientation we watch videos, plan exercises, and somehow all of these things leave me feeling more unprepared and scared for what lies ahead.  I can’t sleep that night, so I call my brother and ask him about his time as a TA back in graduate school.  He says he remembers loving teaching, that it was an extremely rewarding experience that enhanced his own studies, and that he often learned from his own students –he barely felt like it was “a job.”  He also recalls the array of misfits he met along the way: his “coworkers,” his “classmates,” his “friends.” 

There is a girl in the front row on the first day with a binder full of pre-planned exercises and the largest purse I’ve ever seen.  She adjusts her glasses and turns around, flashing an endearing smile and asking what I'm studying.  She labels us “nonfiction buddies” and begins asking questions about my personal life and where I got my purse.  She writes about her trials and tribulations, the times she danced to Taylor Swift and tried to find meaning in a sea of orange traffic cones, and she is brave and strong and fearless always in all ways.  We eat lunch together that day, and to this day Risa Shiman and I often share meals together at Chipotle, where we delve much deeper into our nonfictional lives and containers of guacamole –don’t worry, we know the guacamole’s extra.

The new assistant to the Director of the Writing program raises his hand upon being asked for an interesting fact.  “I want to be an Imagineer because I'm obsessed with Disney,” he says, smirking in his colorful top and trendy haircut.  I beeline my gaze to him as I share this love for anything Disney-related.  Scott Rachesky and I have not only met up to hang out in Disney World multiple times, but we share Disney music, Disney facts, and Disney recipes, and we plan on riding the Snow White Mine Train together in May after graduation.  His writing continues to be as surprising and colorful as his tops, and he’s not afraid to be honest, to be himself, to show his Disney side.

A tall, dark and handsome man enters the room late on the last day of orientation.  He slips into a chair wearing a polo shirt and tousles his lush hair as he begins to draw boxes and alien-like figures on a handout.  We have a class together where he asks to borrow a book from me that he never reads, but we do end up going for a walk on the El Rio Trail.  He writes fiction about faraway planets and creatures, and his nonfiction makes me cry not only because it’s true, but because it’s happened to him and he is a true artist with his words.  We’ve continued our urban explorations together, making it all the way to the Flashback Diner just the other week. I still find comfort in Donovan Ortega’s wise words, warm heart, and damn good head of hair.

A girl with a braid and a fantastic, scholarly looking sweater is sitting at the end of the bar at my first Coastlines gathering.  I pull up a chair beside her and listen to her tell stories of her hamster collection, her experience working at a Taco Bell/KFC combo, and the poncho she wore at each and every one of her workshops.  During her final weeks of the graduate program last year, she wandered around campus offering me rides to class because she was bored but didn’t want to leave.  She wanted to linger around the lakes overflowing with ducks, to be close to the place where it had all happened and continues to happen for all of us, whether we know it or not.  At her reading, Mikaela Von Kursell spoke beautifully in her fiction and I wondered why she was friends with me, but felt honored to call her my friend anyway.

I wish I had known all this at orientation.  I wish I had known the amount of comfort and support I would receive throughout my time here and that will hopefully continue when I graduate in a few weeks.  That I would be in a group text where I am offered coffee and advice and funny videos that make my day.  That I would have meaningful sessions with the Palm’s Forest stoop kids: everything from dinner parties to Mario Kart tournaments.  That I would attend academic salons to hear my peers read prose and recite poetry and eat more cheese than I ever thought possible.  That I would meet my idol, Jo Ann Beard, and introduce her in front of all my friends, and that they would all congratulate me on a job well done.  That I would wake up every day excited to see what the MFA had in store, what new opportunity would be presented, or what new member of the program would become my friend.

There are many people I have not mentioned specifically in this final blog post, but everyone in the program, students and faculty included, are integral links in my chain of friendship.  I sympathize with Dunham in her book as I always felt alone as a young writer in the world.  Like her, I had this feeling that my true friends were waiting for me somewhere, perhaps sitting at a table outside the Culture and Society Building smoking a cigarette (although that’s not allowed anymore), or spinning around in their office chair to ask me about my day, or even waiting to sit in an uncomfortable position for three hours to discuss a piece I wrote about Space Mountain, validating it and me, showing their love through their encouragement and care. 

These are my people; the writers of the FAU MFA Program, and I am so glad my friends have waited for me because I’ve certainly been waiting for them.

Brittany Ackerman is graduating this semester with her MFA in nonfiction. She will miss wearing leggings and flannels to workshop, but is excited to expand her horizons and perhaps invest in a pair of jeans. She will visit Disney World instead of walking at graduation, and fully expects Mickey Mouse to hand her a well-earned diploma. 

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