On finals, boot camp, and hindsight (or Course One: a post-mortem)

“I am boned.”

The process of admitting fault comes in waves– the first step consists of realizing you made a mistake in the first place. It can be like a tide slowly rising to sweep a sandcastle back to the ocean; incremental changes are invisible changes, until a switch is flipped. That binary shift from all-good to oh-fuck can come from an evaluation, a passing remark, or a missed phone call. This is a story about two exams causing two shifts.

In another life, I attended and graduated from USMC Officer Candidate School– boot camp for potential Marine Officers. Between junior and senior years of college, I romped around Quantico, VA for ten weeks of summer camp: I shot blanks out of an M16, wore camo face-paint and a boonie hat, got my ass handed to me repeatedly by some very angry Sergeant Instructors, and adapted to the overwhelmingly muggy heat.

I knew I’d walk 12mi through rugged terrain with a 70# pack, run up and over obstacles, or crawl down on my belly under barbed wire. I kept my eye on these sandcastles; I prepped for OCS with runs, hikes, and circuits. I felt confident in my ability to grind and suffer through a workout. You can prepare for what you know, and conversely you do not prepare for what you don’t know.

Throughout OCS, we endured death by powerpoint and sat through many lectures on military history and organization. Incredibly dry material followed up with basic multiple-choice exams to assess comprehension– they set the bar low by scaling the tests to a level of sixth-grade reading comprehension.

Having always done well on standardized tests, I didn’t give this aspect of boot camp much thought. I built a very handsome castle at low-tide, not realizing the shift occurring around me. The stress of Sergeant Instructors barking orders and reprimands every day, the lack of personal space, and especially the accumulated sleep deprivation took its toll on me– I failed several exams in a row and got placed into probation.

“I need to get my life together.”

That Eugene didn’t effectively deal with stress– I had no method or system to deal with the slowly growing anxiety of boot camp. I assumed my academic abilities would suffice to automatically retain the necessary knowledge for the exams… meaning I totally didn’t study. I focused so heavily on the physical aspects of OCS that I set myself up for a big fall on the other aspects. After attaining probation status, I buckled down and made the conscious decision to succeed. Asking some of my peers how and what they studied, many late nights were had, but in the end I pulled my grades out of the red.

Looking back at OCS and Course One of medical school, I can’t help but laugh. It seems that I need to learn this lesson a few times.

Course One, or the first seven weeks of medical school, has been an academic struggle. I spent the first exam skirting by. Second exam slapped me with some tough real talk. I strapped on my seat belt and helmet for exam three, and still barely passed. Writing this, I am a few hours out of the cumulative final exam for Course One and don’t know the results.

I thought my meditation practice would save me the effort of grinding like a professional student; similar to treating my physical abilities as a buffer for my mental stress during OCS. I figured that staying calm and collected would yield good retention of material for the exams. Yes, I can handle stress much more effectively than my past-self, but I still need to hit the books and treat this environment seriously. Finding the Minimal Effective Dose is important, but it must be built upon a strong foundation, not wet sand.

“I need help.”

Asking for assistance is the final wave of admitting fault– it requires acceptance and internalization of an error, and steps taken to avoid it in the future. I’ve been out of school for four years, forgetting many positive study habits and accumulating all sorts of negative ones.

I’ve got to take this student-stuff seriously– I won’t abandon my MED experiment, but I need to question more of my assumptions and alter profound variables, instead of simply tweaking and adjusting. Many of my peers are academic studs– the folks that jacked up the curve for everyone else in undergrad. I’ve been pretty dumb to try and re-invent the wheel on my own.

I have a full week of vacation ahead of me– no classes, just relaxation and decompression. Course Two, covering neurology, begins and the slate is wiped clean like a beach after high tide. I fully intend to build my study habits above the high-water mark this time. Here’s to hoping that I don’t need a third go-around on this particular lesson.

“I wish I did this sooner.”

9 thoughts on “On finals, boot camp, and hindsight (or Course One: a post-mortem)

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