DTS: An Expected End

       I walked briskly past Kevin’s home office toward my office, noticing his head down on the desk. The ceiling light blared loudly, bouncing rays off his green striped polo. His head is usually upright, eyes focused intently on his computer as he works. I paused in worry but continued to finish what I was doing. I thought to myself, “Maybe he is just tired.” These last few weeks had scraped painfully by, filled with financial stress, 40-50 hour work weeks for both of us, and heavy discussions on emotional situations in both of our lives. My husband and I were both worn out, and then on top of all of that, his dissertation loomed dark and scary in the background of our minds. His love for the ancient Greek language and its grammar was born in high school and fleshed out in college. He pursued education to the next level, earning accolades along the way. He tacked on Masters degrees to his growing academic resume, finishing with a Master’s of Divinity. In 2011, he was accepted into Southern Baptist Seminary and Dallas Theological Seminary. After weighing both exceptional options, he made the decision to move us to Dallas, Texas to begin stage one of the Ph. D program in New Testament Studies. We were both 21 years old.

       As I made my way to the kitchen to start dinner, I noticed Kevin’s head was still down, tucked between the crook of his elbow. Its abnormality struck me enough to approach. The computer screen displayed the familiar background of his email account and I saw the Dallas Theological Seminary logo immediately on a personal email from the Department Head.

“Dear Kevin Patton, 
I am sorry to hear that you have chosen to withdraw from the program. I recommend that you apply for a Leave of Absence to step away from the dissertation before you consider withdrawing completely.”

        The pit in my stomach swelled and I put my hand on his shoulder. After months of agonizing over the decision to continue with the dissertation or not, I wondered if this was really over or not. I thought back to the days in Dallas where he sat in the library from 9-5pm every single day typing up his research, painfully cramping his hands. I was spending my days working full-time, dealing with angry retirees whose investments didn’t pan out in their IRA accounts. They took it out on me over the phone. I would arrive home from work and our unpleasant dinner conversations were riddled with my complaints and then his complicated explanation of whatever Greek infinitives he had diagrammed, labeled and scrutinized that day. He had his thousands of Greek works to categorize and I listened with expectancy that one day his work would be published. Unfortunately, his health had taken a turn for the worst when he experienced memory loss on a regular basis, followed by a grand mal seizure in the middle of the night on November 7, 2013. His memory came back in bits and pieces and we had hope that he could continue with his studies. Kevin then later finished his classes, passed his agonizing written and oral exams, and was on the “home stretch”. The dissertation. He just had to hunker down and focus on this massive project. A 300 page document that proved to the highly esteemed professors that another fine scholar for their field was in their midst. Kevin worked for over a full year on that dissertation alone, even after the preliminary research he had done throughout his studies . Thousands of hours. And in the fall of 2015, his panel of advisors rejected the first two chapters. Kevin was devastated.

       We had already packed up and moved to Florida, needing a separation from my stressful job and the mental exhaustion he felt after focusing so intently on his doctoral work. Soon after moving to Florida, he was having trouble remembering anything he studied back in Dallas from his four years in the program. His short-term memory capacity was somewhat normal, but complications arose as he retraced his memory from his years in Dallas. Facts, concepts and modern arguments from his courses fell away from a high cliff and were left irretrievable. And with the panel’s denial of his first two chapters, he painfully set it all aside to begin his first full-time job as a twenty-four year old. He wondered if maybe this Ph. D wasn’t what he wanted anymore. Maybe this field of scholarship, this obligation to contribute to the field of biblical studies wasn’t something Kevin felt the need to be a part of.

       I looked at the computer screen. This short email had delivered such a disappointing stamp of finality, something we both weren’t ready for. Why? My protective instincts kicked in. Why is he being forced to make this impossible decision? He worked too hard on a mammoth task, toiling for hours over ancient Greek verbs and now it is to be discarded? And he would be deemed a quitter? This wasn’t him. My anger burned for the professors who turned down his first two chapters, claiming that the research was “masters’ level.” I wanted to cry in a fit of defiance, standing up for my husband whose brain has been eaten away by a form of epilepsy. Whose passion for academic study has been waned only by the onset of a physical illness. My husband, whose seizure medication makes him prone to feeling the draining, dark thoughts of depression. And like a child, I responded aloud. “This isn’t fair.” He had put in the work on nights and weekends for months to re-vamp his first two chapters again to be acceptable to his advisors. But every time he worked on it, his jaw set harder and he shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t do this. I don’t know anything anymore. I hate working on it and there is no way I can finish, even if they do accept these two chapters again.” I watched him work for months, knowing it was torture. I selfishly and secretly wished for it all just to be over. We had moved on. We bought our first house and settled into new jobs. Dallas was beginning to fade into photos in a scrapbook. This dissertation though, it clung to the ends of our clothes like a nagging animal that refused to let go. As much as we wanted it to go away, we knew he would either need to put in more hours of work or withdraw. We didn’t ever want it to come to this.

       The next day Kevin showed me a form with that DTS logo in the corner. Withdrawal Request. In the lines beneath contact info, the form asked for the Reason for Withdrawal.

       What was the reason? Was it the program itself, the demand for excellence and the unwavering academic “Powers that be” that shook their head at his work? The program that Kevin signed up for so long ago, not knowing the full intensity that it would demand from him? Was it health alone- the fact that his brain attacked every bit of knowledge and memory input over the years as if he hadn’t worked so hard to store it up? Was it the money that we would be expected to pay in tuition each semester until he finished the entire dissertation, even if he wasn’t actively working on it or was under a Leave of Absence? Was it the misunderstanding of expectations, that scholarship wasn’t really the Kevin Patton that we knew him to be? That he didn’t want to write books and articles and argue about linguistics and biblical exegesis? Reasons. There are reasons that cannot be articulated in the five skinny lines that lay there. But Kevin explained his situation as best as he could, as respectfully as he could. I held the form, fighting the urge to rip it up. The thin piece of paper invoked such emotion. Confusion. Pain. Anger. Pain of feeling robbed of something that Kevin had earned. Pain from the heartbreaking truth that his work didn’t meet the doctoral standards. Confusion because we are not ones to back down from what we set out to accomplish. Anger that it seems like Kevin’s hard work didn’t pay off. That I spent years working to get him through school for nothing. And who is to blame? No one and everyone, all at the same time. Decisions are not always black and white. Sometimes it is impossible to know which way to turn because either decision feels like a slap in the face to our character.

       I looked up to see the sad look on his face. The slow turn of his lips in surrender, the defeat that emitted from his gentle eyes. Again, I tell him that it’s not fair. He knows. But he knows there is nothing else to be done. It is over. He wasn’t meant to be a doctor. As much as he loves learning, studying and growing in his knowledge of the scriptures, a doctoral degree isn’t a requirement. He doesn’t need a Ph. D to be the Kevin Patton we all know and love. We can nitpick and blame, complaining about how the system failed us. Or even how God seemingly led us astray. But it’s not true. Our time at DTS provided education and preparation for the rest of our lives.

       I could elaborate on and on about all the benefits that we received from Dallas Theological Seminary. The classes, the relationships, the vigor in which Kevin studied and learned deep truths about scripture and the original languages. We don’t regret our time there for a second. We are grateful that after five years of study, they are granting him the degree of STM: Masters of Sacred Theology. This degree could have been attained earlier in his doctoral studies if he didn’t pursue dissertation. So 90% of this degree was earned within twelve months of starting the program. It is a sort of consolation prize, but a prize nonetheless. He spent four years in a seminary that has been known for training an astounding number of Christian leaders, pastors and missionaries. He sat in classrooms with some of the greatest minds, feasting on their words and teachings that dripped heavily with wisdom.

       I wish I could give Kevin the world. I wish I could convince DTS that he is more than that certificate says he is. I wish there was a happier ending. But hanging up the cream-colored piece of paper in his office gives me pride. Pride that he did the best he could. Pride that he is not letting this setback ruin him. And pride that I can look at that certificate and know the hidden meaning behind those printed words. From acceptance letter to STM certificate, I consider it an honor to have been a part of the journey. 

Related Post: Remember: Kevin's Medical History


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