Category Archives: teaching

What We Carry

“Behind the story I tell is the one I don’t. Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear.” — Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure

For years, I taught Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” My veteran students sat up straighter when we read from this story. Their voices rang out more sharply in class discussion.  These students understood the to-the-bone uncertainty of war. They knew how a pleasantry once taken for granted could become a refuge. They understood how love conflates with hope, and how both feed our will to survive. They knew grief as a burden we never set down, no matter what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has written.

I loved teaching O’Brien’s story. I loved seeing how people who did not think of themselves as readers dove deep into a text and met themselves for the first time, saw their yet untold stories shimmering back at them through art. I don’t believe in healing as an aspiration. I don’t believe in closure or happily ever after. I believe in integration. I believe sorrow has something important to say. I believe we wear our losses the same way we wear our scars. Sometimes out in the open. Sometimes hidden. Sometimes the burden of what we carry is only visible to us. Sometimes we need to hear: I see you. You are not alone.

 O’Brien’s writing acknowledges life altering experiences so many learn to hide in order to fit in, to keep the peace, to pass. He tells stories we learn not to tell. Stories about grief, shame, vulnerability, and failure. If I only do one thing right in my job, it is to affirm people who believe they do not have a story worth telling. It is to help them find words to tell that story, to say I see you. You are not alone.

The first book that ever said, “I see you. You are no alone,” to me is Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, which my first MFA mentor assigned during my first semester in a non-traditional MFA program. I entered that program unsure I had a story worth telling, only sure I did not want to be a traditional academic. I had recently completed an M.A. in literature program that felt toxic to me, particularly in how male academics related to power, related to women, related to anyone whose ideas threatened their sense of power.

My MFA mentor founded a women’s studies program at a state university. She left her traditional academic path to build her life as an artist. She gave me Allison’s writing, which told me “I am not here to make anyone happy. What I am here for is to claim my life, my mama’s death, our losses and our triumphs, to name them for myself.” Before I encountered those words, I actually thought no one would care about the story I wanted to tell, a story about a mother and a daughter, a story about what love looks like before and after loss, a story about what happens after the worst thing happens.

I am still writing that story. Today that story looks closer to a book than it has ever looked. It will become a book, and I hope you’ll read it! Lately, my book is being shaped by new ideas about how trauma and loss influence who we become, how we relate to ourselves, to others. I have been thinking of Allison’s words, “two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that if we are not beautiful to each other, we cannot know beauty in any form.” I am beyond fortunate to have found beauty in so many unexpected places. I work at a community college where people are so frequently beautiful to each other that I am daily moved to tears.

Recently, a colleague in another department shared Adverse Childhood Experiences research and articles with me. I read them at night, before I fall asleep. This might not be the best practice, because I find myself waking more frequently in the middle of the night, and going back to the research, which does not help my sleep. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this research, but I know it is feeding something nascent in me right now. I am hungering for what my students hungered for when they read O’Brien. Perhaps I want to understand my own experience against the experiences of others. I want to know if there’s more to thriving than simple luck.

My ACE scores are high. So too are my resilience scores. Even so, I have been diagnosed with PTSD, and my responses to perceived threats are probably similar to those of my veteran students. In traditional academia, I experienced profound silencing of people (and particularly women) who survived abuse. I experienced a culture that privileges thinking over feeling, a culture of negativity and hyper criticism and perfectionism. Now, I have learned how to recognize how beauty coexists with toxicity, how two or three opposing things can be true at the same time.

I have learned how to set boundaries, how to say no, and how to resist pressures to carry what is not mine to carry. And yet, I am still learning how to hold on, how to let go, how to find beauty in the grasping and the release.

Mother’s Day 2017

Every English doctoral program I applied to rejected me. This is not because I’m incapable of succeeding in a PhD program. I had the necessary GPA, GRE scores, writing samples, and recommendations. I had multiple publications in my discipline, well beyond what most M.A. student achieve. I did not have the right connections. I did not have the right pedigree, and these barriers were reinforced to me throughout my program discernment process.

I remember visiting Fordham University in August 2009.  That summer, my husband spent two weeks driving across the country with me, so that I could meet with faculty and students at PhD programs that caught my interest. Carl has more class privilege than I do. He knew exactly how the system worked, and he did for me what many parents do for their children. He became the champion of my college visits.

Fordham University was our last stop. There, I met a female graduate whose first question was, “Where did you go to school?”

This might seem like an innocent question, but in academia few questions of this nature are truly innocent. Unlike her, I had no Ivy League schools on my CV. I suspected her question had more to do with scoping out my pedigree than genuine interest. I’ve had so many experiences like this one in academia that I’ve stopped being generous in how I read another person’s interest in my “background.” In my head, I say the metta prayer before I respond. (May you be happy. May you be well.)

Another professor at Fordham refused to meet with me altogether. Actually, no faculty at the institution agreed to meet with me. I’m not sure why I persisted on visiting this university when it was so obviously a poor fit.

My mother was the first person who taught me I deserved to pursue my ambitions, no matter how far out they seemed. Perhaps I went to satisfy her. Perhaps I went because I have never been one to give up on myself.

The Ivy League grad student eventually determined she liked me enough to invite me to lunch at McDonalds, but I declined. The highlight of my visit was my husband showing up with donuts, then driving us out of the Bronx.

The following winter I began receiving rejection letters. The trail followed me into spring. I cried each morning when I woke up and before I went to sleep. I cried in the shower. I cried in the back room of the Writing Center where I worked. I cried on the phone to my friend Caleb, as I burned my dinner.

By May, I was so disillusioned by academia that I didn’t attend my M.A. graduation. I never received my hood. A few months later, Carl and I moved to Maryland and I found an adjunct job at a community college.

This job restored my faith in higher education. This job reconnected me to myself and to my mother. This job saved me.

***

I don’t like to think about who I would be now if I’d been accepted by even one of those PhD programs. I don’t want to think of myself as a person who actually cares about where another person has gone to school. I don’t want to be a person who confuses so-called pedigree with talent. I don’t want to be a person who confuses class privilege with ability.

I know I would not have an exceptionally rewarding teaching career in higher education had I pursued a PhD. This is because the PhD would have prepared me for a career at institutions that do not operate out of the same foundational mission of community colleges.

Community colleges offer open access to higher education for everyone. They educate people like me, people like my mother, people who have disabilities, chronic illnesses, and real financial struggles. Community colleges eliminate barriers, whereas my experience with four-year institutions has been the opposite.

A former English professor I once knew liked to talk about gatekeeping in academia. In other words, he pressured faculty to weed out students they perceived as not belonging in college.

My mother would have been one of those students who was weeded out. Her juvenile diabetes impacted her cognitive development. She was hospitalized during formative times in her secondary education. She never attended a four-year institution, and she was conditioned to believe that she was not smart enough for one.

Let me be the first person to tell you that my mother was the smartest person I have ever known. She’s been dead for 15 years, and I am still living off her wisdom. Through me, my students are still living off her wisdom too. But I’ll get to that later.

My mother attended community college after separating from my father. She failed multiple courses. She was leaving a bad marriage. She had a chronic illness and two babies at home. She had zero support. Failure, unfortunately, was the inevitable conclusion of her semester.

I am afraid she equated her failure to a lack of intelligence, not a lack of resources. I am afraid she believed she deserved to fail.

It took her ten years to go back. At this point, she was disabled from juvenile diabetes and awaiting an organ transplant. But she completed her degree. At this point, my sister and I were watching. She knew she couldn’t fail.

We didn’t attend her graduation. I don’t know if it was because she was too sick or ashamed. She certainly did not brag about attending community college, even though this decision radically transformed her life and mine.

Hers is the only degree I will ever hang in my office.

***

My teaching semester ended on Thursday. I hate goodbyes. I cried every day last week. A few times, I caught myself tearing up on the way into class and I’d have to take a sip of water to keep from losing it altogether. These were happy tears. These were exhausted tears, sad tears.

This week is always the hardest one in my professional life. It’s the week where my mother’s birthday and Mother’s Day collide. It’s the week when I have zero energy left and am running on pure adrenaline. It’s the week when an academic year reaches its natural conclusion, and goodbyes cannot be avoided.

In my creative writing class, we had readings this week. I listened to each of my students read from short stories, poems or essays they’d spent an entire semester crafting. At the end of each class, I read from my work.

I always worry about sharing my writing with students. My work is deeply vulnerable. My work reveals me as flawed, imperfect. The woman I am on the page is the woman I am in life –– and she is different.

The woman I am on the page dreams about eating her mother’s ashes. She ignores the pleas of a hungry animal because she cannot bear to be needed by anyone. She runs away from her family, her mother’s home. She runs toward her own life.

By revealing my own imperfection or vulnerability, I hope I give others permission to do the same. When I read about my mother, I bring her into my classroom in a way that’s visible. Her presence, while profound in my teaching, is often invisible to my students, the people who benefit most from the way she mothered me. In my classrooms, there are no weeds. Only flowers. My mother taught me how to see them.

***

This morning, my sixteenth Mother’s Day without my mother, I’ve awakened to streams of social media posts that I initially feared.

There are lists that begin with questions like, “How long has it been since you last called your mother?” (More than 15 years … can’t remember the sound of her voice.)

There are the mother-daughter pics. There are the mother-baby pics. There are young mother pics. There are old mother pics. I’ve yet to see a dying mother pic.

The dying mother, the dead mother, the absent mother are not celebrated on this day. Nor are the childless women, the motherless women.

Yesterday, a fellow motherless daughter announced that she’d take a break from social media today. I wish I could, but I am by nature an observer. Even as I am in pain, I am also curious about the source of that pain. I am curious about who I am as a result of this pain.

Just as I know I’d be a different person if I’d gotten into one of those doctoral programs, I know I’d be a different person if my mother hadn’t been sick, hadn’t died. I suspect I’d be a shallow person, the kind of person who might care about pedigree. I think I’d be a person the woman I am now would not like. I might be a person who is afraid of vulnerability, who sees it as a weakness.

I am glad I am a different person. I will never be glad my mother died.

This blog, which today is exactly one-year-old (happy birthday!) began on Mother’s Day 2016. It began as a place for me to document pain, to document what it means for a young woman to live without a mother, what it meant to live with a sick and disabled mother, and the thousand ways in which my dead mother has never truly left my life.

The thing about grief is that our dead stick around. They are with us even when we cannot see them, even when we wish them away. My mother is not an angel or a ghost. But she inhabits me like breath, like blood. This blog began as a way to free her and keep her close.

Thank you for reading.

Mom & Me