Not Impossible

Today marked the final sessions of ModPo, a ten week course offered online by University of Pennsylvania through coursera.org. In honor of the completion of the course, I would like to share a personal reflection about the course.

As many of you know by now, I have always been a person with a plan. My moment to moment life has always been thoroughly planned, often times for months in advance. I know my responsibilities and I keep them, always. I have always known where life was going to take me (ha, what a funny joke!), and would often find myself panicking and anxiety ridden if things did not go according to plan. I was always the list keeper, the one who kept all the rules and never, ever tried anything different. Except, when I did.

About seven months ago, I found myself in a “crossroads” moment of epic proportions. It was a crossroads that I was somewhat familiar with, but made me just as anxious as it had the first time I stumbled upon it.  I was a little more than a year out of seminary, working full time (two jobs), and Shattered Illusions was in the early stages of the publishing process. My twin sister was engaged to be married, and would soon be moving to Israel. Until the period of her engagement, we had never spent more than three weeks apart. To say the least, I was in “major freak out mode” about where my life was headed. I didn’t have a plan past the date of my sister’s wedding. I knew that I had a a job, I knew that I had a book finishing publishing, but even those two major time consumers didn’t seem to fill the void I was feeling. On top of that, I had been complaining for months on end that I felt like my brain was melting from the stunted growth I was giving it by not applying myself to a higher education. The subject of school was on my mind, and it was driving me crazy.

Originally, the plan was to apply for NYU before graduating from High School, and arrange to begin a year later than other freshman my age, in order to attend seminary first. The application never made it to the hands of the dean. While the rest of my classmates made duel arrangements for seminary and college, I shrugged off the idea and buried it under the sand. I was scared, and I didn’t have the guts to admit it.

I tend to romanticize my schooling experience. I loose sight of how difficult school was for me, or how often I fell behind in my classwork. I was smart, and strong willed, dedicated and willing to learn, but it didn’t make things any less difficult for me. I tend to forget how getting a spot into my schools AP Lit course was only done so after my Vice Principal called a meeting to tell me in the most awful way, that I was not smart enough for the course. It was due to my English teacher’s persistence that she finally gave in. Not only did I do well in the course, but I excelled. It was a slippery slope at first, but at the months wore on, I progressed and found myself succeeding beyond any ones expectations, my own included. 

I tried again when I found my seminary year quickly drawing to a close. I decided to begin small, at Brooklyn College, and then transfer to NYU later on. Due to a complicated set of events, such a path was not paved for me (yet).

For the past two years, I have been complacent. Sure, I was constantly working on Shattered Illusions which kept my mind sharp and focused. Yes, I was working two jobs which kept me incredibly busy. But, it didn’t take away from the fact that for the most part, I was bored out of my mind. I felt myself loosing touch with the reality of a sharp, hard working mind, a reality that I had come to enjoy very much. I always considered myself bright and well rounded, but I began to find myself slumping down a slippery slope of laziness. Not only was I not in school, but I was also falling behind in my “extra circular activities.” I found myself with no time to practice piano (in High School it was 4-6 hours a day, every day), and my creative flow was seriously lacking some mojo. My sister’s engagement was a wake up call for me to get a move on. I saw her moving on with her life, and it gave me a push to move on with mine.

When the topic of school came up in the early summer months, I found myself frustrated and confused by the options. There was no longer just school to consider. I would have to juggle school with work, and the remains of Shattered Illusions. I knew that the novel had to be my main focus, and that until the release, I would not be able to commit myself to anything else full time. In a certain sense, I had also grown used to the life I was leading and could not imagine forsaking a paycheck for an education. I had to start somewhere, but I wasn’t sure where. I knew that online courses would be waist of my time, so I never made that an option. That is, until I stumbled upon coursera.

It happened, as it did for many people I know, when I came across Daphne Koller’s Ted Talk about advancements in online education. At first, it was just another Ted Talk (my morning routine consists of at least 2 Ted Talks to get my brain juices flowing) in my morning routine of Ted Talks. Her ideas sounded magnificent and life changing, but they seemed too good to be true. So, I decided to do a bit of research about this so called “life altering advancement.” I was completely blown away by what I found. Free online classes offered by some of the top universities in the world. Courses in every subject, about every topic, for anyone and every one who wished to attend. Without thinking twice, I signed up for six courses, all due to begin well after my sister’s wedding, which would give me plenty of time to prepare. I then proceeded to call all of my friends and bug them to join along with me. The first course on the list of six was Modern and Contemporary Poetry, taught by Professor Al Filreis at the University of Pennsylvania. I enrolled, and then turned my mind back to preparations of the wedding and of my sister’s departure.

About two weeks before the course began, I began receiving emails from the professor about the materials that we would be covering in the course, and what to do in order to prepare. The syllabus excited me. That alone awakened the slumbering voice within me which was dying to break free and be expressive. I had studied poetry expensively in high school, but never as an isolated course. Poetry was always mixed in with my regular literature courses, and most times, unfortunately, it was given the back seat. I was thrilled to take a course in which I would get my hands on some of the best poetry known to man, with a professor who’s reputation was known far and wide.

I went in without expectations, which, in my limited experience, is the best way to uncover the deepest treasures that the world has to offer.

I could tell from the first video introduction how dedicated Al and the TA’s would be to making sure that the course ran as smoothly and as efficiently as possible. I’m not sure when they launched the course that they realized how many people would become dedicated to the course work, and how many lives were about to be forever altered by the beautiful world of poetry.

We began with course Emily Dickinson, a wonderful place to begin. Though her poetry and her legacy were familiar to me, I have come to see her with a fresh pair of eyes. I understand her words, phrases, and even dashes, in ways that I had not before. The door to endless possibility was opened, and it was with this initiative that my mind began to flourish once again.

Throughout the past ten weeks we covered every type of poetry and every form of poetry. From Early Romantics to the Beatnics, there was never a dull moment. From discussions forums, to the lectures (wisely titled “video discussions), to my own place at my desk, the world of ModPo was on fire, an it burned brightly. I felt more connected to the discussions and the topics than I had in any other classroom for a long time. I was sharing the experience with over 30,000 people from around the world, many who used ModPo as a way to enhance their English reading and speaking abilities. I was joined by students, young and old, who wished to enhance and broaden their minds, as I had. ModPo formed a community of sorts that stands proudly.

On top of the weekly course load which included video discussions, quizzes, and on occasion essays, about once a week or so, Al and the TA’s would gather at the Kelly Writer’s House for a live web cast where students could call in with questions about the course. The web casts were the one of the most enjoyable parts of the course, because it made me feel as though I was part of more than just an online classroom with thousands of faceless names. They wanted to make sure that every student felt as though ModPo was their own, that it was a personal experience. In that, I believe they were successful.

I dove head first into the course work. Everything else in my life suddenly came secondary to ModPo. I sacrificed many a nights out in the past ten weeks to dedicate my free time to perfecting my essays, keeping up with the discussion forums, and watching the video discussions. I was hooked on ModPo, and now that it is over, I already feel myself suffering withdrawl pains.

I wrote earlier that I went in without expectations. Well, that isn’t entirely true. I will admit that I assumed that it would be a bit impersonal, I must say that I was absolutely proven wrong about that. If anything, ModPo was more personal and more engaging than any other traditional classroom setting I have ever been apart of. I only hope that when I do make the decision to attend school, my experience within a classroom and with my professor will be as engaging and as personal as this experience has been.

As the final week of the course began to creep up, I considered traveling to Philly for the final live webcast. It would have been an incredible opportunity to meet everyone in person, to connect with my fellow classmates outside of the Internet. And of course, as luck should have it, things simply did not work out to my advantage. If it wasn’t my boss, then it was my ride. Al suggested I walk all the way to Philly…that’ll definitely be something worth trying one of these days.

The final webcast aired today, in honor of the completion of the course. I watched from my desk in a bit of miserable mood as Al introduced for the final time, the TA’s, the crew, and the audience members, which consisted of a large amount of students. I managed to steal away from my desk for a quick moment to call in and say hello. It was fabulous to get a chance to speak to Al, share my final thoughts about the course, and end off my experience with a personal touch. I was incredibly honored and shocked when Al, almost regretfully as he later added, told me that when I decide to apply to graduate school, I should let him know so that he can write me a letter of recommendation. I was absolutely honored. (You can hear my conversation with Al here. It begins at the 21:55 minute mark). If that’s not an initiative to go back to school, then I don’t know what is.

What I gained from this course cannot be measured or explained in simple terms. From the first day, and for every day until the end of the course, I was continuously awed and impressed by the intense, all inclusive experience that the course offered. I had never felt as much a part of a classroom community as I did during the 10 weeks of this course. It was more than just a class. It was a second home, a community, a safe haven. Whenever I needed someone, Al and the TA’s came to the rescue with their words of wisdom on various poems that I had read and heard hundreds of times, but which suddenly became fresh and new. I feel now more connected to the world of poetry, and by extension to the world of the written world as a whole, as I never have before.

Nothing is impossible. This course opened up a world of endless opportunities, thousands upon thousands of possiblities, which I can already see sprouting before young eyes. I am ready to take the next step into the future of my education.

To Al, the TA’s, and rest of the ModPo family: Thank you for creating such a beautiful community. Thank you for helping me retrace my steps and find my way back to the strength and power that I felt was long lost. Thank you for readjusting my eyes to the world of poetry, as well as to the world as a whole. I hope that you will be able to say as I did that the hard work and dedication paid off.

Cheers.

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