I’m not sure what I expected to feel, but this isn’t it.
At first I thought I would be elated. Then I thought I would be sad. Perhaps I would even need to grieve. Yet so far I haven’t experienced any of those feelings. Instead I just feel ready to move on.
I have been a teacher for 31 years. I teach writing and women and gender studies. This spring, quite suddenly, I had an overwhelming desire to walk away. The feeling was visceral, yet it didn’t necessarily spring from a horrible experience (although I did catch two students blatantly plagiarizing this semester, and I had to have a heart to heart with one senior who did his best to game the system in order to barely pass so he could graduate—he came up short). And I don’t think it was Covid related either, since I have been teaching online since 2016. No, it was much more practical than that. I work multiple jobs. I always have, because teaching does not pay enough. I simply realized I can’t power through the equivalent of 2 ½ full time jobs anymore, so I decided to leave the one that requires the most work and pays the least.
During my first year of undergraduate study at JMU, the trajectory of my life changed the day that my favorite professor, Helen Poindexter, asked me why I wasn’t an English major (see page 16 of the linked article). I told her it was because I didn’t want to teach. The next day, I changed my major from Sociology to English. My dad asked me what on earth I was going to do with an English degree. “NOT TEACH!” was my reply. After graduation, I floundered for a couple of years, working a number of lousy non-teaching jobs. I worked for the Department of Treasury (until I was told I wouldn’t be promoted unless I slept with my boss), a travel agency (which did get me a discounted trip to the Cayman Islands), and a couple of Civil Engineering firms (where I took the incomprehensible writing of white male engineers who made a boatload of money and made it palatable in order to make them look good). Grad school became more attractive, as did the idea of teaching. In 1989, I stepped into my first classroom at San Diego State as a TA. I was assigned two sections of college composition. I walked in that first day with eleven pages of handwritten notes. I don’t have any recollection of what happened, although I do remember I put down the notes because my hands were shaking so badly. 31 years later, my classes are all taught asynchronously online. I don’t remember the last time I touched a piece of paper.
There were good semesters and atrocious ones—good classes and atrocious ones—good students and atrocious ones. And then there were the magical moments that kept me going back each semester, hoping that the stars would align just one more time. All of the occasions that took my breath away had one thing in common—the sharing of personal truths. One of those moments occurred early in my career, when I picked up a summer gig right after grad school. I team taught a writing course for California Conservation Corps members who were working on campus that summer. They were mostly young students of color from lower socio-economic backgrounds. In the beginning, I was terrified that they would reject whatever a young, skinny, white woman had to say. Quite a few of them did. Yet somewhere along the way, when we started peeling away our layers of difference, we began to truly see one another. We developed trust, curiosity, and empathy. We wanted to hear each other’s stories. At the end of the class, the students created a book of their own artwork and writing. I still have my copy. The student who drew the artwork I have included here composed the following personal experience narrative:
I remember when I was in the fourth grade. I was the best artist in the classroom. I used to draw pictures for my friends and family. When I was younger, on holidays I would make greeting cards. I would win art contests in school. My teachers and especially my parents were proud of me. My school was starting an art program, and sending students who were good artists to another school by bus. Out of 30 children I was the only Hispanic child there. A couple of weeks went by. I felt out of place, but I did very well in that class. All was fine until there was a sketch pad missing when the teacher counted them. She kept asking me where it was at. I told her I did not know. You see, I thought I was there for a chance to learn something, to learn more about art. Little did I know I was being accused of being a thief. That’s right, she blamed me for stealing that sketch pad, and so did every other student in the classroom. So now I was known as a thief at my school. I was expelled from my school with a bad record. After this I never took school or my talent serious anymore.
As I sit here now, exactly thirty years later, I wonder where this young man ended up. I also admire the courage it took to share this story. And I appreciate his take on the ‘opportunity’ he was given to join the CCC. In fact, it is heartbreaking. Take a look at his artwork that I have included here: “San Diego CCC: Hard work, low pay, that’s the way we like to play. Nature’s Little Helpers.” One final note: there were numerous wildfires in San Diego that summer, and the Corps members often spent long hours and even multiple days fighting the flames. Included in the book they put together at the end of our course is this note from the computer tutor who was attached to our class (remember it was 1991—we were all learning how to use computers): “Hello CCCers. As always, it’s been something great to work with all of you on the computers. Some of our time has been short because I understand you’ve been putting out fires. Well, let me give you my heartfelt thanks for putting out the fires, and coming on in to work with us at the literacy spike.” The students chose to include this note—as it was likely the only time their hard work was acknowledged.
Flash forward to 2010. It was my sixth year teaching at the University of Colorado, Boulder. My dad was dying of cancer, and I had been working through my own grief surrounding our complicated and challenging relationship. Most of that work involved reading other women’s writing—women who had all experienced trauma (or who had at least had significant obstacles to overcome)—and who had the courage to write about their struggles. I started with Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1790s, and just kept going right on up to present day writers. Because I had gone to college in the eighties, most of the writers I had studied were dead white men. While I certainly encountered more women writers in grad school, it wasn’t until my thirties that I began to stumble across all of the women whose truths would help me figure out my own so that I could begin to heal. I had started to write a book, but since I was raising two kids and working two jobs, I knew that project would take significant time I didn’t currently have. Instead, I created a new course, and I have been lucky enough to teach it for the last eleven years. The class can be painful—to teach and to take. Everyone who has stuck it out has done so with an open heart and open mind. After reading about these women writers’ lives and experiencing their works, students have made connections and shared their own truths—the ugly and the beautiful, the heart wrenching and the life affirming. Many students gave me permission to use their words, which I did when I finally got that book done. Here is an excerpt from my student Hannah, written after we had been studying the impact of an absent or abusive father on the lives of women writers:
When I was eleven years old, my father committed suicide, leaving my mom, my brother, and me by ourselves. Although my father was an excellent dad and my best friend, he was also addicted to alcohol and drugs. After awhile he could no longer handle the repercussions of the disease and how it was ruining his family, so he decided to leave. Since my mom had to work a lot to support us, we were constantly in day care and were left to care for each other. I had to grow up extremely fast to help my mom around the house and with my brother. In this situation, I never really dealt with death or the fact that my dad left me. Although I had my mom and brother, I was in the midst of being abandoned by my dad’s family, who blamed my mother for my father’s death. Not only was I dealing with death, but I was dealing with the loss of family support. Instead of facing it and accepting it, I suppressed it and hid it from everyone who was in my life. Over time, I gradually became more depressed and angry at my father. I could not understand why someone would tell me he loved me and then just leave me. To suppress these feelings, I would constantly drink myself into depression. I relentlessly drank and did drugs to escape the reality of my situation. I relied on those substances to relieve the pain and break out of the depression. But the more I drank, the more I became upset about the situation, and the angrier I was. After years of built up anger and sadness, I finally broke down my freshman year of college and decided to get the help I needed.
Reading about how women with absent fathers have been able to cope and heal also helped Hannah realize that she was not alone, and that others before her had survived this loss, had healed, and had gone on to live full lives:
I have learned key tools for facing adverse situations and having healthy coping mechanisms. This class, along with the women we studied, has been a blessing because I have been able to relate to women whose lives span through hundreds of years. I believe that one of the most important things I have learned is the fact that by telling my story, I can affect other women’s lives. My story can be one that younger girls after me relate to and I hope I can offer advice on how to fight through it. Not only has this class taught me about other women, but it has taught me a lot about myself and opened my eyes to the life I am living and the one I want to lead.
Writing Women’s Lives has undoubtedly been my favorite class to teach.
For a few years, I also taught a course that examined the media’s portrayal of gender and sexuality. In this class we spent the first part of the semester analyzing how gender and sexuality have been represented in the media. Then I asked students to create their own new media depicting gender and sexuality as they would like to see these concepts portrayed. The films and slam poetry and artwork that resulted blew me away time and again. Yet there is one presentation that will remain with me forever. I was sitting alone in my office one day, as was usually the case during office hours, when there was a soft knock on the door. I looked up to see a student from this particular class. She asked if she could talk to me about her final project. I said sure and invited her to take a seat. She closed the door behind her, sat down, and promptly removed her flowing black hair. She then broke down sobbing. It turns out she suffered from trichotillomania. According to the TLC Foundation, trichotillomania, “also known as hair pulling disorder, is characterized by the repetitive pulling out of one’s hair. Trichotillomania is one of a group of behaviors known as body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs), self-grooming behaviors in which individuals pull, pick, scrape, or bite their hair, skin, or nails, resulting in damage to the body” (bfrb.org). She decided to shave her head to prevent herself from pulling her hair. Her condition remained a secret on campus. In her final project, she wanted to call out society’s beauty ideal, which includes long, flowing hair. She had my full support. When she went home for spring break, she had her boyfriend film her video. It included an emotional portrayal of a day in her life, and ended with all of her friends getting ready to go out dancing at a club. Each young woman primped and prepped her long, flowing hair, checking her look in the mirror before leaving the house. The student in my course was the last to do so. She paused as she looked in the mirror, and then pulled off her wig, tossing it aside before exiting the house—bald and beautiful. In addition to the video, she composed a second informational video on the condition and her own journey, and she also created a bald is beautiful blog. On the day of the final presentation, she met me outside of the classroom. She was panicking, and didn’t know if she could go through with her plan to remove her wig in front of our class. I told her she didn’t have to do anything she wasn’t ready to do. We stood there for a long time. We did some 4-7-8 breathing. Her eyes met mine and she said she was ready. There wasn’t a dry eye in that classroom when she was done. She emailed me a year later to tell me she had never put the wig on again.
I taught writing and women and gender studies. But here’s the thing. I taught in order to experience those magical moments of truth telling. I taught for the painful moments of growth and self-awareness. I taught for the opportunity to experience collective empathy and understanding. I taught the lesson of forgiveness—of ourselves and others. And while I spent years of my life (literally) on tasks I couldn’t stand—grading and class prep and dealing with difficult classroom issues—those times that took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes made it all worthwhile—even the grading. I am incredibly grateful for the thousands of students I was lucky enough to get to know over the last 31 years, because I learned far more from them than they did from me.
And I’m not done yet. I still work with students in higher ed—just not in the classroom. I can’t imagine not having that connection. And the magic? Yep, that still happens. How lucky am I?