The only official reason I went to my field’s main conference in San Francisco last week was to present the best dissertation of the year award to a deserving doctoral student. My friend Sherry, the head of this organization, asked me to do this job, and I realize that she must have known that without an official duty, I would be tempted to lay low, to skip the conference in order to avoid making myself feel vulnerable. But with an official duty, I had no choice but to chair the committee, put my new name on the program, and (most importantly) stand up in front of a ballroom filled with my colleagues and present the award.
After I wrote the initial award notes, which had to fit within 2 minutes, I worked with my voice team back home in order to tighten the wording to allow me to go slower than my George voice, and I practiced over and over, not because I thought I’d mis-read anything, but because I wanted my voice to match my new body and new look.
The awards ceremony arrived on Friday afternoon, which gave me a couple of days of attending sessions and meeting old friends. The ballroom was pretty full, probably 200 attendees, and I sat in the front row of the audience with the other presenters and recipients, all of us facing the raised dais and podium at the front of the big room. As the ceremony began, I tried to listen to the words of others, and got most of what they said, but I kept picturing myself falling down as I walked the 5o feet from my chair up the steps to the podium, alone, the whole ballroom waiting and watching. I imagined my hair getting caught on something and flying off. I imagined my voice breaking or someone yelling from the back, “Is that a guy in a dress?” followed by widespread laughter.
I recognized these fears as those formless anxieties we all get, and I allowed them to be played out and then banished from my brain.
They called me. I walked. I did not trip going up the stairs. I looked around the room. I laid out my notes deliberately, pausing a second so that I could get my bearings. I read slowly and with emotion, looking up and catching eye contact from different parts of the room. I don’t think I blundered. When I called my recipient up to get the award, I finally lost myself in the moment, and my self-consciousness faded and I just stood there smiling as I listened to his words. It wasn’t about me, although I had been worried it would be about me — it was about him and about his dissertation and about our academic field, and when my self-consciousness and my fears were vanquished, that was what allowed it to be about those things. I didn’t even think about falling or wig-exploding or name-calling as we walked down the stairs and took our seats.
In fact, after this moment, a lot of my concerns about embodying Joyce evaporated. I had faced a large professional hurdle and had passed the test. I met new people at the reception, chatted with old friends, and felt as if it was probably going to be possible for me to continue being a professor in this field.