Tag 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.

On Living with Anxiety

My first semester in college, I came back from Thanksgiving break terrified that I would fail my developmental math class. No one called it developmental math back then. But I received no credit for this class, which met in an ivy covered Carnegie library.

I do not remember the value of X for any equation. I do not remember anything we did in that drafty classroom. I do not remember the students who sat around me.

I remember that my professor had a fang. I remember I rarely received a grade higher than a “C” on anything he marked. Sometimes I see and write numbers backward. I found it easier to skip my few required math classes than attend them. I was so afraid.

When I called my mother to tell her that I might get a D in math –– I was hoping for a D –– she told me I could come home if I wanted to. I could live with her and re-evaluate my goals.

I had so much anxiety I could only eat small salads with tofu in my dormitory’s dining hall. I did not sleep more than a few hours a night. I longed for the safety net of my mother’s house, a place where all the pressure I felt would collapse. But I knew going home was not the answer. I knew that if I left my dream school, I’d always regret it. I’d leave other places, jobs, or relationships, when they felt too hard.

I told her I’d stick it out. I studied fanatically for my final exam. I did extra credit. I hoped for a D.

Grades came in the mail back then. And my hands actually shook as I opened the envelope when it arrived. I screamed when I saw a B- next to the course.

I do not know how I earned that grade. My mother always thought it was because I was smart, but underestimated my abilities.

She was probably right.

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I still have performance anxiety. I work in academia, so everyone I know is super smart. But a good number of my colleagues have backgrounds like mine. We have parents who did not go to college, or parents who had associate degrees, or parents who attended state schools. But I still sometimes feel like I don’t belong. Like I’m not smart enough to be here.

This week, the first week of my teaching semester, I’ve had trouble sleeping. Each morning, I woke up wide awake somewhere around 3 a.m. I said the metta prayer. I counted my breaths. I took melatonin. But I couldn’t fall back to sleep.

I thought about my classrooms, about the students who are potentially as afraid as I once was. I worried about their worry, and whether I could get them through.

Like me, they might be the first people in their immediate families to go to college. I know how easy it can be to give up when you can’t see a model of what’s possible or when a family crisis erupts. My mother died toward the end of my junior year of college. To this day, I don’t know how I finished my degree on time. I do know it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

After my parent’s divorce, my mother attended community college. But she had a chronic illness and two babies at home. She failed two classes and didn’t try again for ten more years. She was so afraid.

Today, her associate degree hangs in my office, to the right of my desk. I have three degrees. But my mother’s is the only degree I’ve ever hung for anyone to see.

She never knew me as a college graduate, much less a professor. But I try to carry her sprit with me into all my classrooms. I try to be the person she was for me.

This does not mean I mother my students –– because I don’t. But, if they need it, I want to be the one person who believes they are smarter than they think they are. I want to be the one person who does not underestimate their abilities.

Still, I can’t erase the anxiety they carry. Just as I cannot erase my own.

________

It saddens me that I cannot call my mother at the end of the day to tell her about everything that happened. If I’m worried, I cannot call her. In my entire professional life, I have never been able to call my mother.

My insomnia started the night she died. That was the first night of my life when I did not get a single second of sleep. I lost my safety net. I lost the belief that things would be okay. I’d seen the other side, the worst case scenario that came to fruition.

One of my friends who also struggles with anxiety told me he thinks anxious people have higher degrees of intelligence. We don’t fool ourselves about the world or probability. We look our fears in the face.

To a certain extent, I agree with him. But I also know other factors, such as hormones and genetics, play a large role in my anxiety.

I have accepted anxiety as part of my nature, and I work with it in my meditation practice. When I awaken at 3 a.m., I imagine my anxiety as a version of myself. I bow to her.

What are you here to teach me?  I ask.

I breathe. I remember I am capable and smart. I try to see myself the way my mother once saw me.