Tag Archives: Community Colleges

Three Words for a New Semester

Believe

I struggled my first semester teaching. Frat boys sat in the back, whispered to each other while I spoke. They didn’t have the decency to hide what they were doing by passing notes or texting. One of these boys would walk into my office with a cell-phone pressed to his ear. His high school English teacher was on the other end of the line, refuting something I’d said in class. I’ve forgotten all the boys’ names but his.

One day a female student approached while I was writing something boring on the board.

“I’ve got my period,” she whispered. “I’ve got to go.”

She backed out the door and disappeared down a hallway. I never saw her again. I thought I’d done something to drive her away. I never suspected the boys in the back, who looked strange when she left –– too giggly. Had they done something while my back was turned?

Back then, I knew so little about teaching. I let her go. I blamed myself. Now I think about her all the time. I think about each student who leaves.

I did the same as a first-generation university student, dropping a class the moment it challenged me. After I graduated, I’d said “no” to a stellar graduate program in creative writing. At 23, I rationalized my choice: I wanted to work in a genre not offered by the program.

I made a list of reasons why I shouldn’t say “yes,” starting with the suspicion that I’d never feel entirely at home in the country where I’d lived, and where I’d have to return to complete the degree. I was homesick; I missed my sister. I hadn’t mourned my mother.

These challenges were not untrue. They were also not unworkable.

The larger truth was harder to face: I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t believe I had anything worth saying. If I could go back to the scared girl I was, I’d say: Believe.

Believe.

Believe the voice that calls you toward your dreams. This voice is inner truth, wisdom, consciousness. It’s your heart speaking. This voice will tell you to do things you think you can’t do. Do them. It’s the only way forward.

Stay

Don’t leave the minute a professor asks you to do something you don’t want to do. Like writing a thesis statement or brainstorming ideas for an assignment. Getting started is the hardest part. It’s the moment when it’s easiest to check Snapchat or text or go to the bathroom just because.

Stay in your chair, in the room, in your mind, in your body.

Whatever your professor has asked you to do is something you can do. It probably won’t take more then ten minutes. If you have a professor like me, she’ll want to help you. She’ll want to see you do what you didn’t think you could do. That’s why she’s here. Raise your hand. Ask for what you need.

Each time you leave a classroom or yourself, you miss an opportunity. You miss the chance to grow.

Stay. Stay even if you’re scared or doubting or consumed by the desire to run.

You belong here. Be present to your longing. Claim an education.

 Wonder 

Do you remember being a kid? Were you the kind of kid who wished on falling stars, believed in magic, your ability to fly? I bet you felt disappointed when you discovered those things weren’t “real.” No matter how loud you clapped during “Peter Pan,” Tinker Bell wouldn’t appear in your living room.  Maybe a sense of wonder left you. What was the point of believing in something you couldn’t see?

But what if magic is real in the way all true, unseen things are real? Love. Hope. Power.  What if you believed in your own ability to be transformed? What if you embraced the wonder of being in charge of who you become?

We can’t control everything. Other people will not see us the way we see ourselves. For example, I’ll always have to deal with men who ask, “Where’s the professor?” when they see me standing outside a classroom door.

I’ll wonder “What’s up with that?” each time, and that’s good. That’s a question I want all my students to ask.

What’s up with that?

 Don’t accept prejudice or platitudes or status quo. Suspect everything. Verify facts, evidence. Question your own beliefs. Where do they come from? Why do you hold them? Who would you be if you didn’t cling so hard?

Wonder. Wonder. Wonder.

Be curious and confused. Open to a thousand possibilities you never saw coming.

At the end of the semester you’ll be the same person who started and you’ll be different. Transformed by what you’ve learned and done. Maybe no one but you will see what’s changed. That’s true magic. Beautiful and sparkling as any falling star.

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.