snarky & judgmental
Written by Molly Shilling, this piece tells the story of Molly's rocky start to college.
This piece was published in the Penn State literary journal, Kalliope.
I walked into my Chemistry class for the first time more terrified than I have ever been. It was in a building twenty-minutes away from my dorm room and had over four-hundred students enrolled; although, by the end of the semester about half would drop the class. Walking down the aisle toward the front of the lecture, I was met with awkwardly wide steps on the staircase leading toward the front of the room. This caused students to either make oddly small steps toward their seats or long, stiff strides down the staircase, (although, this approach carried a greater risk of slipping and landing painfully into the splits). Lucky for me, because I am terrified of the consequences of being late, I always arrive more than twenty-minutes early to each class. That way I have free time to carefully choose a seat near the front, but on an aisle, as not to get claustrophobic.
The room itself was shaped like an auditorium or a stadium, with the audience’s focus on the platform at the bottom. This is where my professor would lecture, eyes scanning the students in the front row and the students who had walked in late and were forced to stand in the back of the room due to a lack of seats. I was glad I chose a seat in the middle because the professor almost never made eye-contact with my row of seats. I was able to lay low and stay off his radar. Unfortunately, this also meant that I was not meeting any other students. After the first ten weeks of classes, I still had not made a single friend in any of my classes.
So, when my grades started slipping, there was nobody to turn to. My shy nature made conversing with other students difficult, and with my diagnosis of social anxiety, it became impossible. Soon I found my complete isolation intolerable, and I did not know what to do. I sought help from the on-campus mental health program, but I was told that I likely would not get an appointment for at least five weeks, (little did I know, it would be more than fifteen weeks). I decided that it was important for my happiness and wellbeing to meet with a counselor as soon as possible, so I stopped by for a drop-in session. The psychologist was very helpful and mentioned that CAPS sponsors group therapy sessions and that she could sign me up for their group. I thanked her excessively and left feeling like I was finally heading toward progress.
I went to an introductory meeting with the orchestrators of the group nervous but eager to start talking with people who have shared similar experiences. I met with the leader of the session in her office to see if I would make a good fit for the group. I explained how I had been doing and that I was anxious to get started with the sessions. I also mentioned that, due to my heavy work schedule, I had to miss the first meeting but that it in no way portrayed any lack of enthusiasm.
Apparently, missing the first meeting was a serious offense, and I was removed from the group before I could even begin. The psychologist did offer to teach me some techniques to cope with the stress though. She began by telling me to close my eyes and to think. I have no memory of what she told me to think about because all I could feel was crushing disappointment. The wind was knocked out of my chest and an overwhelming sense of panic set in. Immediately, I could feel the heat claw its way up my cheeks and dig into my eyes. The sensation was overpowering, and the tears came swiftly and violently. With my eyes still closed, the tears streamed down my cheeks before being hastily mopped up with my sleeve.
This was something that happened more often than I’d care to admit. Most of the episodes took place directly after my chemistry lab sessions, which occurred in room 115 Whitmore and held about twenty students. The room was set up like any chemistry lab around the country; black counters atop long benches that continued down the center of the room until it nearly hit the wall. The stools were set up two in a pair and moved down the bench accordingly. The back of the room contained two large windows facing the sidewalk. By five o’clock, my eyes would be automatically scanning the students who were free from their responsibilities for the day, and longing to be one of them.
The building itself had a smell of disinfectant and the walls, despite being almost entirely covered in bulletin boards, had a sign prohibiting outside postings of any kind. The hallways seemed wide, but when walking down them as class let out or began, it was as if the walls were closing in on me. The building also came with an uneasy sense, like I forgot something. The fact that the halls were often crowded with panicked science-majors cramming for their weekly quizzes did not help the panicked reaction that came when I would enter the building. The eerie sensation crept up on the occupants as if someone was watching them. That person for most students was the TA standing above us, able only to speak in riddles. She gave the instructions in slick, cutting sentences that were difficult to grasp. I often missed the directions as I struggled to digest the concepts. I would consider raising my hand, but it’d be too late and she’d be discussing what mistakes to avoid. I’d go up to her and ask about the instructions and she’d answer in a way that would make me feel compelled to nod along as if I understood them. Then, I’d peek over at my lab partner beside me. He’d already have completed the first section of the lab in the time that it took me to become completely disoriented. I’d mutter a few panicked sentences about the lab and he’d reply in complete gibberish.
When I think back to my lab sessions, I remember the times that I sat numb and panicked more than the times when I reacted in some practical manner. In the battle between fight or flight, I froze. The four hour time period seemed like it should be more than enough time, but often I found myself sweating, my fingers too slick to hold onto the beaker and my hands shaking too badly to accurately release the pump of the sterile pipette. Then, I would miss and the contents of the pipette would contaminate my samples, but there wasn’t time to go back. Of the four hours, it seems I spent three of them panicking. Maybe with a partner, this would all have been easier, but he had already finished and left the lab with an hour to spare.
I don’t know what to do.
The words echo in my head over and over and over.
I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home.
But it’s five-thirty. I’ve failed and I don’t get to go home.
I abandoned my laboratory notebook in the TA’s basket and prayed to never have to see my grade. I exited the building and took the long way around to the alien room I was forced to reside in. My cheeks were burning and I could feel the lump in my throat growing. It was a crisp, autumn evening and I wasn’t wearing my coat. I sought sanctuary on a park bench. No one was within view, so I called my father and imploded. I was trembling, the sobs shaking my body. It took me a long time to gain control of my voice and to stop the stammering. He just listened. Not long into my recounting, a couple biked past. Then two professors strolled by, chatting casually about their days. I hid my face beneath my hands. It was six o’clock when I began to shiver. My dad repeated what he’d been saying for the past few months.
“I’m sorry.” and “It’s going to be okay.” but there’s nothing he can do. I tried to make it easier on him.
“No, no. It’s like a game. You see, I bet you that I can cry in every one of my buildings before the end of the semester.” I didn’t bother to wipe away the tears.
“That’s not really a good thing, Molly.”
“Yeah, but I’m already halfway there. All I need is the Forum building, the Milkmaid building, and Willard.”
My dad paused, “What’s the milkmaid building?”
“You know, poli-sci? The dairy husbandry building? Where milkmaids go to get married?” I wiped my nose with my sleeve, got up from the bench, and started back towards my dorm room.
“I want to go home.” I muttered, still on the verge of blubbering.
“I know. We’re going to visit soon.” he said, although his voice was muffled by the
construction. I took this opportunity to sob quietly without my father hearing me.
This was how most of our conversations went. I’d complain and he would listen. Sometimes he would offer his guidance but more often than not, he would just recite some cliché quote.
“Life is a bowl of cherries.”
“Box of chocolates, Dad.” I would groan.
“Sometimes it’s the pits.”
Or sometimes he would just repeat over and over: “Suck it up and deal with it, Cupcake”, and I’d try.
Surprisingly, in our little game, I actually left out the freshmen packed Willard Building. However, to compensate that loss, I told him that the park bench episode equated that of a wild card that I could transfer to a building, (It’s my game, after all). I explained to my dad that with my wild card, I achieved my goal. Obviously, that is not an actual triumph, but it was a way to cope with my current situation that also lifted my spirits, if only slightly.
My prize for winning the game was winter break. My father and I drove from Penn State to my brother’s apartment in Kent, Ohio to break up the eight-hour car ride home. When we walked into his apartment, the stench of vomit gut-punched us. My brother had been having parties ever since he got his apartment. And, as any freshman would, he and his friends were enjoying the freedom.
I knew that I shouldn’t have been jealous of my twin brother’s puke-soaked bedsheets. I knew that the fact that we would have to spend the next four hours in a car with them should have been the reason I was mad. Not the fact that he was excelling academically and socially, unlike me. At the moment, it almost seemed like he was doing this to spite me. I scored one point higher than him on the ACTs, was going into a STEM career, and went to a better college, so now that arrogant theater major had to show me up. When he and my father urged me to check my Chemistry exam grade on the first night of winter break, I knew this was his chance. I had felt good about the exam, but I knew better than to ever hope for a score above a C. A C is what I needed to pass the course. Anything lower would force me to retake the entire class; an impossibility for an out of state student with only enough money for three years.
I was sitting on my brother’s pull-out couch in his kitchen-living-bedroom when I saw
my score. As if she could sense my distress, my mother called my phone minutes after the reveal. My dad easily plucked the phone from my fingers and explained the situation.
“Hey, so... Molly didn’t do so well on her exam,” he said. I brought my hand up to my mouth and clutched my chest. I didn’t want her to hear me cry.
“Dammit!” My mother swore, “She did everything right! Review sessions, TA meetings, practice exams. Well, tell her that I’ll print out some pages on criminal justice fields that don’t require chemistry. She can look at them when she gets home. Also, tell her to email her professor and to ask if she can go over the exam. Maybe she can get extra credit. Maybe I’ll email that Ohio University professor and get her advice too.”
I just shook my head. “Thanks.” I croaked.
“Well, tell her to feel better. It’ll be okay.” I went to the bathroom to be alone. She and my dad whispered about me. I knew that they were just trying to help. I just wanted to hold my dog.
When I finally came out of the bathroom, I curled up onto the sofa-bed and wailed, “Ugh!”. I buried my face into a pillow and took a shaky breath, “What am I supposed to say at Hanukkah? How do I respond to the ‘How’s college going?’ question?”
“I’ll let you decide that. I’m not saying anything.” My dad said as I grabbed a box of tissues from the desk near the bed and wiped my nose.
“Just tell them the truth. Unless cousin Annie's fiancé John is there. Then, I’m doing amazing and acing every exam.” I cracked a smile. “God, I hate that guy.”
“Well, you’d better start liking him. They’re moving to Cincinnati.”
“Crap.” I collapsed back into the pillow.
I calmed myself down enough to try to sleep, but it wasn’t long before the couch-bed became stiff and the stupid crosswalk across the street that beeps every time someone crossed it, turned insufferable. I rolled off of the couch and crawled over to the kitchen-zone of the room. I hid behind the bookshelf separating the kitchen from the bedroom and began my research. I googled dream jobs first: TV writer, director, police officer, FBI agent. But, eventually, I just began looking up career tests that could just tell me what to do. Here’s a shocker, there are none. I had just discovered that I should be a military officer when my dad woke up.
“Molly? What are you doing?”
“Research,” I whispered back, crazed. He just shook his head and turned over.
The car ride back to my hometown of Loveland, Ohio was long. My brother fell asleep immediately after entering the rental car, and my dad was fixated on the blizzard outside. At least the person who rented the car before us had ignored the four stickers on the dashboard not to smoke. The smoke clung to the upholstery and was strong enough to cover the vomit coming from the backseat. The ride consisted of small talk about the smell and the entirety of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 soundtrack multiple times in a row. When I returned home, I embraced my mother and cuddled my puppy, Mimi. Then I collapsed onto our couch, perfectly named ‘The Magic Couch’ for its comfort. It's worn and the fabric is faded but can put someone to sleep in seconds. Soon the tears returned, but they were brief because I was finally home.
The next day, it was just the dog and I. My brother had gone off with his friends and my parents were at work. I was continuing my research at the kitchen table with my pup on my lap. Together, we looked at the available classes for the spring semester and listened to the musical Ragtime. I quickly learned why people don’t dramatically change their majors long after they’ve chosen their semester classes: there aren’t any left. I could feel my chest tighten and my breathing become shallower. I did the only thing I could think of; I called my Dad.
“How am I supposed to change majors now? I-I-I-I-” I stuttered. I took a deep breath. “The classes are all full.” I said.
“Well, whatcha gonna do?”
“Complain!” I said, exasperated and throwing up my hands. “No, I’ll just sign up for whatever’s available, I guess.” I buried my face into my dog’s fur.
“Okay, then do that.”
“I will… You know, I almost thanked you for helping me, but you really didn’t do anything.”
“Okay.” He said.
I rolled my eyes and we disconnected.
I chose classes based on their availability and whether they seemed like fun. I’d been curious about anthropology for a long time, so I signed up for a class about it. Then, I saw that there were classes in film production, which also sounded fascinating, so I signed up for one. When I was looking at the classes about film, I realized that I wanted to take all of them. Just reading the description gave me butterflies. That was when I began looking up majors at Penn State and reimagining my future.
When I was a freshman in high school, I discovered Penn State and their marvelous forensic science program. I even had a meeting with one of the heads of the department. I decided that I was going to enroll in that program and, because it was essentially a pre-med program, I was going to go to medical school. In order to pay for medical school, I was going to apply for a military scholarship and work for them through my medical internship and residency. Then, I was going to become a forensically trained doctor and work for the FBI in Washington D.C. I had planned to live in an apartment, when first starting out, and then in a townhome in either Georgetown or Alexandria, Virginia. Although, I was considering living in Foggy Bottom as well. I was going to be the real-life version of Doctor Camille Saroyan from Bones. Everything was organized, all I had to do was succeed.
But sitting at my computer, my grandmother’s blanket wrapped around my shoulders and in my Captain America onesie, I realized that I didn’t want that life for myself. It just wasn’t possible for me to be that unhappy every day and also healthy. I will never be Dr. Saroyan. And that’s okay, I’ll work toward a Liz Lemon from 30 Rock instead. An awkward but lovable workaholic writer for a TV show. This is what I explained to my psychologist during our first meeting. I just have to get used to the fact that I may just have to be like Jane Craig from Broadcast News. She’s an extremely hard worker and good at her job, but neurotic. She has so much stress eating her alive, that crying and breaking down is the only way to relieve it. In the movie, the scenes often open with her sobbing at her desk in the middle of the open-concept office, before jumping up and running with the scene as if nothing ever happened. It was difficult to realize that the future I had always envisioned was no longer possible, but if I could become a Liz Lemon, Paris Geller, Jane Craig hybrid, I would be so much happier in the long run.
When I returned to Penn State after winter break, I found the left side of my room empty. Before I could mentally assess what had happened, I was crying. Again. I had been alone for the entire fall semester, but I always had my roommate to complain about it. Now, it really was just me. I could feel the desperation and anxiety growing. I needed to get help.
Two weeks later, I had my first meeting with a psychologist. I was so grateful to be given the appointment, it didn’t even matter that my therapist outright insulted me. I even took amusement in saying the phrase, “Today my therapist said that I am snarky and judgmental,” to my dad as I practically danced down the soggy brick path toward my dorm room, suppressing the urge to jump onto the lamppost like Singing in the Rain.
"That's the name of the second episode: ‘My Therapist Thinks I'm Snarky and
Judgmental’, or it could be the title of my memoir. Which would you prefer? Actually, why not both!” I could hear him laughing over the phone. I was so invigorated, I nearly missed running over an elderly woman with a cane. I dodged her in the nick of time and shouted, “Sorry!” over my shoulder.
“What else happened?” My father asked me.
“Well, she asked me what I was good at, and I said that I had been a theater critic for two years and that I was published in the Cincinnati Enquirer multiple times, but that I wasn’t very good. Then she insisted that nobody was the best. I interrupted her and said that someone was the best and I had met him. More than that, he was an idiot because now he’s majoring in business at Ohio State and that his name is Cory Hawkins! What a moron.”
“No you didn’t!”
“Yes I did.” I paused, thinking. “Oh! That’s where ‘snarky’ comes from, I think.” I laughed along with my dad as I strolled down College Avenue.
“Hey, am I entertaining you?” I asked.
My dad snorted, I don’t think I had ever heard him do that before, “Oh, yes.”
“That’s great, because this is going to be an amazing TV show one day. Who would you like to play you? I’m thinking the dad from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. You guys look really similar, although he’s probably a little bit older.”
“You guys have the same hair; like a Jew-fro.”
“...and I’m not even Jewish.” he finished my sentence.
“Yes you are! We converted you in your sleep!”
My father laughed before admitting, “Hey, I’ve gotta go. I’ll talk to you later though, bye.”
As soon as I got back to my dorm, I went to work. I bought a journal to take notes in, and I began stockpiling all the crazy college stories that I could find. My mother being dumped with a post-it note and cheated on by her roommate had potential, but my favorite image is that of my mother returning home from her birthright trip to Israel and immediately dumping sand from her suitcase to pack for her move to college the next day. Like her, I have also had my fill of crazy college interactions after only two semesters. Such as getting trapped on the elevator during my first shift at Eisenhower Auditorium or being called a MILF by an outrageously drunk student at ten in the morning.
Hopefully, a career in television will allow me to incorporate all of these stories and more. Not just to entertain an audience but to give much needed advice to students around the world who are going or have gone through some of the same struggles that my family, friends, and I, have all gone through. The fear of changing majors, disappointing family, letting go of dreams, discovering a mental illness, and just getting involved, are issues that millions of college students deal with every day. I would be honored to be given the opportunity to help educate students and families about how these are normal issues that college students face, and that it is okay to struggle. And one day, as they watch ‘Snarky and Judgmental’ my new dramedy, I may just be able to help others to find their fit, too.
I’d love to be able to write that I found my perfect job in New York or Los Angeles, or D.C., but my story is my life and my life is a work in progress. Stay tuned and look for the next episode: Out of State, Out of Money, Out of Mind.