Digging Deep

By Margaret McNellis

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Back in August of this year, a friend asked me if I could handle driving to and from New Hampshire to teach twice a week. From my home in Connecticut, the drive is 170 miles each way, which can take anywhere from two and a half to three and a half hours depending on weather, construction, and traffic. 

My initial response was, “I don’t know but I’ll figure it out.” I’d done the drive for two semesters already. But Fall 2017 only required one trip a week, and in the Spring 2018 semester, I sublet a room in a friend’s apartment for the winter so I wouldn’t have to worry about traveling that great distance in the snow. (Incidentally, the snow didn’t get really serious until I moved back home.)

This semester, Fall 2018, was different. I was teaching—not just observing—so it was more important than ever that I was there, on time, every day. And there’s been only two days I didn’t make it: once due to a tropical storm and the significant threat of trees falling because we’d had so much rain; plus, the other day, I had a fever and could barely stay awake.

On the day of the storm, I ran class remotely in an “Adobe classroom.” It was better than nothing, but it was like speaking to a wall. I couldn’t gauge my students’ reactions when we were all together as a group (though the breakout session feature was useful). The day I was sick, I sent a packet of work out to my students.

Around midterms, I came up with a better answer for my friend: “When you want something bad enough, you’ll do a lot to achieve it.” My drive, which at that time felt like running the gauntlet, was the price I was willing to pay to achieve my goal: a certificate in teaching composition. At that point, the drive was not easy; most of the roadways I take through Massachusetts were being repaved. These are also the areas with the most traffic.

There were potholes galore. People speeding and swerving and failing to use blinkers (what’s with that, anyway? It’s not like it’s a hardship).

On a recent trip, I hit a severe drop in temperature when I crossed the Connecticut-Massachusetts line, and as tire pressure does in the first cold snap of the year, mine dropped. I knew the yellow light glaring from my dash wasn’t serious; my car wasn’t pulling to one side or the other. However, the idea of driving another 110 miles on low tire pressure wasn’t appealing—especially because freezing rain fell from the sky.

I was prepared for freezing, but not freezing rain. I’d grabbed my wool coat at home because I checked the weather in New Hampshire—cold and cloudy. I’d failed to check the weather in Massachusetts, not figuring that I’d have to even get out of the car there.

I left the highway and found a gas station somewhere in Worcester. The place was packed, and through the curtains of rain, I couldn’t see the air pump, so I parked and went inside. I waited on line for ten minutes to find out where the air pump was. The second piece of information was unwelcome: “The card reader is broken, but we can change a dollar for you.”

I had the dollar; that wasn’t the problem. The problem was, like all my belongings save my keys, the dollar was in my car, which meant another wait in line. This side trip took a half hour total, which made me late for my office hour, and left me freezing and soaked as all four tires needed refilling.

On that day, I thought back to the many martial arts rank tests I’ve taken and given, black belt tests in particular. I’ve taken three and helped administer three. The way the tests are given at the dojo I attended takes about five to six hours. Sparring is always saved for last. By then, the test takers are physically and mentally exhausted. They must then defend themselves from this state of exhaustion. When taking a test, strapping on sparring gear is both a relieving and daunting moment. The test is almost over, but sparring is also when there’s the greatest chance for injury since everyone is so tired. Adrenaline spikes, and people tend to hit harder than they should for what is essentially a game of tag. Missing a block could mean a broken nose or some other comparable injury.

The day I hunched over in the freezing rain to fill my tires was like that moment right before sparring. I wasn’t done with my road-warrior days yet, but I was close. I was tired, cold, and soaked through, but finishing strong is not only something I’m capable of, but something I must do. For a moment though, at the height of my mental and physical exhaustion, there was that shred of doubt: Is this worth it?

My sensei, or teacher, in the dojo always taught us the new belt was ours for the taking. The test was the final lap in a long race, and in fact, we’d been under watchful eyes for months and years leading up to it. The test was our opportunity to prove to ourselves we have the right to that new rank.

We’re taught to dig deep, not because others expect it of us, but because we expect it of ourselves, because a black belt of any rank wouldn’t be worth having if it was easily obtained. I decided that day, as I got back on the road and blasted the heat, these trips were my tests, and these tests will make the certificate—and more important, the hours I have left with my students—worth all the more.

All told, I’ve made 23 340-round-trip-mile journeys to New Hampshire this semester. I have four more trips to make. When this term is over, I will have spent $1,000 in gasoline alone. (Admittedly, I feel awful about that carbon footprint and will try to do something to make up for it.)

My answer to my friend’s question has evolved, yet again: “I drive the distance because it adds even more value to the entire process, because it requires me to dig deep, and because when you’re this close to the finish line, you don’t slow down.”

Margaret McNellis is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.