Month: September 2015

Out of sight, out of mind

you forgot me

My brother, who is some years older, once said, “When I don’t see you, I don’t think about you.” This meanness nearly felled me, but it was just one of an infinity of cruelties for which he had become known.

Now, memories of these sadisms live in me as if they were another body with a separate respiration, and I continue my lived life in the other vessel, the more fragile of the two, which nevertheless still sustains me.

I have been thinking, though, that my brother simply gave voice to what many of us could never be honest enough to admit but to what is likely true for most human beings: we really don’t think about others—not deeply, not at length, and not over the long haul—in part because we are consumed by our own often desperate needs, which, when you really think about it, are born out of this wish we have not to die.

Here I am, for instance, feeling terribly sorry for a sweet student who tells me her boyfriend has just passed away; then, a few days later, forgetting all about what seemed in me a genuine compassion, I am irritated that she has not come to class and that she has not handed in several assignments.

Or this: a friend is ill, with a ravaging and protracted treatment ahead of her, and I am solicitous and well-wishing at the start. I even offer assistance and seem to mean it. Ask me a week on about how she is doing, though, and, if I am honest with you and with myself, I will have to confess that I have not thought of her once since I made my offer. It seems, instead, that I have been busy worrying about bills. And about a man.

With my friend, whom I really quite love, It is as though the offering is nearly the same thing as the doing, and I can convince myself I am a pretty terrific person by conveniently mistaking the former for the latter.

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Happy birthday to me ♫

birthday-hat-with-flowers

Today, September 17, I received birthday emails from my dentist, my eye doctor, my everyday doctor, and my bank. In the past, I have sneered at these types of marketing ploys and have inwardly labeled them as ungenuine and self-serving.

On this day, though, and in part because these emails were the only birthday wishes I had so far received (with the exception of a text from my daughter), I noticed the sneer was nearly gone. I attribute this softening in part to my age (which is older than it used to be) and to my slowly growing acceptance, it seems, that the world—including its marketing arm—is what it is.

While showering, I also noticed I was thinking about the word “grit.” It is one that is bandied about these days in education circles, and it has to do with a recognition that students not only need academic skills to succeed but also need “noncognitive competencies” to have a successful launch. Those who possess grit, then, have developed the inner resources that enable them to persevere even in the face of significant suffering. One of the many reasons I prefer working with community college students to working with students at four-year institutions is that so many of them have had to overcome great hardship to get to college, and they show their “grit” in all that they say and do.

I can relate well to the many struggles of the students I have known. When I look back on my years, I see that I, too, had learned to rely on my inner strength and on my sense of purpose when it seemed there was no one else to support and help me.

From childhood, mine has not been an easy life: Broken home. Broken marriages. Broken heart. But, I have more than survived the many difficulties, and I am still here, on September 17, to wish myself a happy birthday and to be grateful I have been given the possibility of one more year.

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“Well anyway

rose-petals

the dead

are dead”

hushed but

busted wide

with want

that Jim

still begging

for one

last go

and Francie

so starved

she’s throwing

down fries

just minutes

before closing

those eyes

of hers

and the

dog’s ball

was buried

last fall

but what

a shedder

she was

that pup

this one

time gobbling

up chocolates

with franks

poor girl

nearly died

then but

didn’t so

look

the sun

it’s white

the wind

it’s up

the bits

of straw

skitter across

granite and

grass these

rose petals

dying, yes,

but still

so fragrant

nonetheless

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Academic freedom, my ahem

impostor

Academic freedom is the right of teachers and students to express their ideas in the classroom or in writing, free from political, religious, or institutional restrictions, even if these ideas are unpopular. (Source)

Some 20 years ago I began teaching at a community college in northern California, where I made up for in enthusiasm what I lacked in experience and skill. At the time, I taught several writing courses, with their state-mandated emphasis on “critical thinking,” and I accepted the challenge of opening a mind or two with whatever latchkey I could find in my bag of teacher tricks. It delighted me, I confess, to lob a juicy controversy into the middle of a classroom and to see how students would react—though always my goal was to encourage new, and perhaps more expanded, ways of thinking and feeling about a thing.

During those early teaching years, the only challenge to academic freedom that I experienced came as a result of a short-lived edict from college officials demanding that we turn in any student we suspected of being an illegal immigrant. I remember saying to myself, and to anyone else who would listen, that I would go to prison before I participated in such a betrayal.

Some years later, I was teaching at a northern Virginia university, where, because of 9/11, there existed on campus a burgeoning paranoia that apparently frightened the administration. As a result, we were told to keep our noses clean and our political opinions to ourselves. Although I have never been one to express my political views to students, this silencing did not sit well with me, but I did as I was told since I was an adjunct faculty member without the job security tenure confers.

After a hiatus of several years, I have recently gone back to teaching writing part time at a community college, and I am faced with another insidious challenge to academic freedom, one that is “undirected and driven largely by students” and that aims “to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense” (Source).

Now, it seems, one can be called to the dean’s office for using a word like “violate” in the classroom (even if in the context of teaching about the law) because it might “cause student distress.” And one cannot ask another where he or she was born for fear that such a question might somehow suggest this person “is not a real American.” And one might think twice about asking students to read classic works of literature like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby because the former “describes racial violence” while the latter “portrays misogyny and physical abuse,” which “might ‘trigger’ a recurrence of past trauma” in “students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence” (Source).

While this backlash against teachers has received more recent press at four-year universities and colleges, those of us who teach at community colleges will no doubt soon need to begin fearing how an errant remark or a misguided reading assignment might affect the long-term emotional well-being of our students. A few days ago, I sent my students home with an assignment to read an article about why ISIS has been successful in recruiting westerners (our theme for the semester is “identity and belonging”). Now I find I am wondering about when I will need to proceed at my own risk should I again wish to assign a reading like this.

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