Archive for October 6th, 2017

All The Kind and Thoughtful Young Men

amywink October 6th, 2017

When I went to graduate school in 1987, I had only an inkling of the hazardous world I was entering and I had less of an idea how my unrepentant feminism might make that a very different kind of adventure than I expected. But off I went unaware of how strongly held perceptions of feminism might affect how people perceived me and how I might be threatening to an idea that creates the order of someone’s world (I was young). I just wanted to study women writers and in doing that, value women equally. When I asked one of my undergraduate professors about women’s studies, I did not completely understand, though I felt it, the demeaning tone of his response “Isn’t that passé?” Later, after I had earned my PhD and had my first position, a large male colleague came around my desk to stand over me and ask “why don’t you like men?” It was basically the same question I had been asked as an undergraduate. My answer to the first incident was internal “so what if it is?” My answer to the 2nd was verbal and disarming, “I like men just fine. They just get all the attention.” By that time, I had learned some navigational skills. I had learned to use the weight of my enemies against them, to turn their expectation of the f-word against them, like the card I used to have that offered “happy-go-lucky feminist” as definition of oxymoron. I learned those skills bastion of patriarchy that is (was) Texas A&M University. That I had to learn those skills is a problem for another essay and neither did those skills prevent me from being fired.

But unrepentant feminism does not mean man-hating, no matter what the cultural perception is regarding the f-word is and as a feminist teacher, I did not have the luxury (or even the desire) to select students based on their agreement with me. As a feminist teacher, I became interested in the research regarding gender bias in the classroom. We think that gender bias only applies to girls but it applies equally to boys. Add in any element of race or class to those biases and what ultimately happens is that students are divided from each other and alienated from learning. As a teacher of everyone, I had to understand what alienated students from learning, what prevented learning. It is not particularly difficult to be a feminist teacher for women–though one does falling into the sexist trap that women must give to everything to their students, as if their students were their children (a variant of women must to give up everything for their children). But when you are standing there as their only female college professor (even as a grad student), everything you do is role modeling even if you don’t really want to be a role-model. That’s just how being public works. People watch. They see what they want to see.

Being a feminist teacher for young men is different but to value women equally means also means to value men equally, to value students equally. It means removing the hierarchy of gendered worth. It means changing the classroom so that men learn what women are required to learn and that women learn what men are encouraged to learn. The horrifying truth that challenged me to be a better feminist teacher for men was that male students are far more likely to be told they are stupid, to be criticized for thoughtfulness, even though male students generally receive many more perks in the classroom than girls (and girls are also often told they are stupid). Add Black to that description, or brown, or poor and the weight of decreased expectation is difficult to bear. The definitions of masculinity are rigid and the boundaries dangerous to cross. But, in the words of Maya Angelou, the reward is great.

But I have now been in the classroom 30 years and I have seen the changes and the reward has been great and I was richly rewarded for my work during one of my most difficult semesters, the spring of 2014, when my father’s Parkinson’s disease was progressing and poorly treated chronic infections took their toll on his ability to function. In January 2014, my father entered the hospital with an infection that mimicked severe dementia and my mother, brother and I struggled hard to get the correct care for him. Then my mother became very ill as well. When I started my classes that semester, I could not help by be honest with my students. I told them all “If you think “Wow, Dr. Wink seems tired and distracted” it is because Dr. Wink is tired and distracted” and I told them all about my current state of giving care to my extremely ill father and something beautiful began to be born.

That semester, I seemed to have an unusual number of young men in my classes, many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and entering school on the new GI Bill as they began to make the next steps toward their next life. I have learned to appreciate veterans in my class for deep and shallow reasons. Veterans of military service understand how to follow instructions and I never have to explain things 400 times or even twice. One young man, a former Marine who stayed after class many times to talk to me said aghast “HOW DO YOU remain calm when they keep asking questions you JUST ANSWERED?!? I liked him very much. The deep reason: they have made an enormous sacrifice, risked everything, and are coming back to start again with a complete understanding of the value of their lives and their community. It is an amazing thing to have in the classroom.

That semester there were also a number of other young men who made themselves endearing, perhaps because I was caring for my father, and they respected that effort and kept checking on me in kind and thoughtful ways. I remember all of their names. I talked to all of them about their research, their children and often ended up talking to them about the next steps in their lives. The former Marine who I mentioned above stayed after class to ask me about what he should do with his life, what career might be good for him. We had several discussions about who he was, what kind of life he hoped to have and I told him I thought he’d enjoy being a Physical Therapist, which is what he eventually decided to pursue. Another Marine asked about entering the Police Academy but in our discussions, I learned he really wanted to pursue a career in music management (even though I though he had the perfect name for a detective). I suggested he follow that because at least no one would be shooting at him. Another veteran was working on his welding program and struggling to learn with a brain injury. Another wrote the longest essay I have ever received as he thoroughly and exhaustively investigate the correct personal firearm to purchase. Another with extensive tattoos came in with fruit to share with the class and offered a cheerful presence humorous presence every day.

While I struggled with my personal life, these young men and the young women who were in my classes that semester made teaching so fulfilling. I could leave behind the stresses as I entered the classroom and worked with each one of them. It is a rare and wonderful thing when work relieves unrelenting stress of caregiving and in those classes filled with kind and thoughtful young men, I felt incredible hope for the future even as I felt incredible dread for what I was facing so close to home. Disaster after disaster at home was met with kindness after kindness at school.

Except for the one young man who struggled with how to be an adult, how to be a man, how to understand kindness and responsibility as masculinity and who sat in the back of the classroom with a giant chip on his shoulder. This young man slacked. He bucked against the classes’ requirements (which are easy). He whined and was often absent. In fact, he accrued 8 absences that semester and in a normal semester, I’d have dropped him but I was tired and distracted and I allowed him to stay. I even offered him, and everyone, a considerable extra credit assignment to make up for any missed classes. It involved watching the LBJ School of Public Affairs video coverage on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and explaining the importance of the Act on their personal lives (I myself was able earn my PhD at Texas A&M because of the work of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Baines Johnson and the accidental inclusion of women in the reach of the law). It would have been interesting and a good lesson for him but he was irritated, angry, and belligerent and holding on fiercely to a grudge. That is what made him make a terrible mistake.

One morning, he sat in the back of the classroom, complaining mightily about how boring the extra credit was, how uninteresting and unimportant. Students rarely realize that I am often handing them all the rope they need to rise . . . or fall. That the choice is entirely up to them. I listened to his whining and complaining, as did the other students, and let him continue because it seemed relatively pointless as he was loudly and publicly choosing to fall despite the entire line of rope I handed him. When another student approached and asked me, breathlessly about his absences, and I began to explain the options available to him, and my complainer made what I am sure he felt was tactically satisfying but was instead a horrible strategic mistake. He began to yell loudly that I was being unfair, offering one student something I had not offered him. My Marines lowered their heads, one whispered “Dude, shut up.” because they knew what was coming, probably more than I did.

I slammed my hand to the table and fiercely, forcefully, loudly, said “You have 8 absences. You have been given every opportunity to make up those absences and all you can do is whine about how hard they are and how boring. Those are your choices. I cannot make you choose to do the work but you have to live with the consequences.” In that moment, my student had mistaken kindness for weakness and he had also refused to accept kindness because he viewed it as weakness. The repercussions of his mistake were suddenly quite clear. Kindness is anything but weakness. He was choosing to fall, publically and loudly and no one was with him. They were just watching him go. My Marines knew that the truth had been fiercely spoken, like their drill sergeants who sternly and rigorously demand accountability out of ferocious kindness: they do not want their charges dead.

Then there was silence because what can come after that? I had no idea really. I looked at the student beside me and told him to come to the office later. I released the class and they filled quietly out. I apologized to one student for the yelling but he said “no, that was entirely deserved.” After the class was cleared, the young man who regular stayed behind, looked at me amazed from his desk and said “You scared me, you should be a Marine! Oh, My God!”

Students started coming in for the next class and I heard one whisper “She yelled at someone.” The rapid grassfire of student talk spread out in front of me and the next student came in saying “I heard she yelled at someone! I bet her eyes blazed!” So much for keeping it in the classroom. I did not know what the consequences would be but I would face them. I later met the student who had been caught in the crossfire who anxiously said “That was so terrible. I am so sorry.” To which I told him that what other students did was not his responsibility and he shouldn’t feel bad about. I doubted I would ever see the complaining student again. I worried that all those young men might beat the crap out of him but I decided that was their choice too and I could do nothing about it.

But then, later that day, I received his apology, a well-written email apologizing for his behavior, clearly stating his wrong doing and asking for forgiveness. I never expected he would apologize because it is an extremely hard thing to do. Suddenly that boy was a grown man. I accepted his apology and asked him to come see me in person, to talk about what he could do about his writing. He did. We had a good conversation. He did his extra credit; He did his actual credit. He explained that he was holding a grudge against his previous professor because that professor had never explained how to write better, had given poor grades and then left the university, never responding to his requests for help (I mentally cursed that professor, even though I knew it was likely he felt had good enough reasons not to care) and told my student I was sorry that had happened to him, that it wasn’t right and I was sorry. Apologies work both ways.

I have seen all of those young men in the years since that class and I greet them warmly. I have had other kind and thoughtful young men enter my classroom too. I know it is the future arriving. I still hope that this is the future arriving, that this is the beautiful thing being born to all of us out of our hard experiences. A year later, I was driving and a van kept swerving near me, the driver waving. I did not recognize him for a little bit. He was one of my students from that semester, one I had talked with about his children who had been sick during that time–who the ER docs had helpfully frightened by describing horrible genetic diseases until the 2nd child got sick and so oh well, it as just a virus– at the stoplight, he hopped out of his truck behind me and ran to my window waving. The first thing he said was “How is your Dad?”