Archive for the 'memory' Category

What I Learned from Mr. Rogers

amywink July 19th, 2018

When I was in college, my summer job was day care. Aside from the excruciating tension headaches I also experienced with the job, I loved it because I enjoy playing with the children. I just liked them, partly because they can be a lot of fun, but also because they are often ready to be present in a way that adults don’t often allow themselves to be. Children just like you to be who you are and I like being with people like that, even if they are new people.

When I was in graduate school, I had a second job working at a church nursery where another friend worked. In the middle of the rigorous intellectual pursuit of my PhD, I got to play with babies and toddlers. It was great, very grounding, except on the days when more than one child was Not Happy and Not Going to Have Any of This, though really, I could always sympathize. Who has not felt like screaming their head off some days? There were really amazing moments too, like the time I watched a two-year old just work on figuring out how to put the nesting animals in the right order so they all fit back inside the cow. It took him a while but I was watching his brain grow and it was amazing. Watching someone learn is fascinating if you understand what you are watching. I now know so much more about brain development and the neuroscience of learning and as that child put those pieces together, his brain was forming new pathways, making neurons fire, creating insight and understanding, growing his brain. Every “ah-hah” moment we have as humans is actually a neuron firing and making a new pathway of understanding. Brains are really cool. And children are always learning and I love learning with them. I’ve joked with friends that I am very popular with the three-year old set and it has always been very grounding when I hang out with children.

Going back to church has brought children back into my life and reminded me of the fun I used to have at the church nursery during graduate school. It’s fun to hang out with the future. Watching the recent documentary about Mr. Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, also served to remind me how I learned to present with children, and what a challenge when they ask really hard questions, like “are you ever afraid of the dark?” or “why do people get sick?” Sometimes, if you really listen, they remind you of things that are so deeply human, your heart will break wide open.

I’ve been thinking of one of those moments recently, given the news these days. I don’t shut off the memory because it’s the memory of how I learned, yet again, to be present, as a person, as a teacher, as a human being. There was one child (there’s always one) at the church nursery who was a handful, frustrated, and prone to episodes of anger. She was two when I started working there and was somewhat infamous. But she liked me and I liked her so we got along, though not like the two children for whom I eventually became the favorite baby-sitter. When Bethany finally learned to talk, it became clear that her frustration had simply stemmed from not being able to explain what she was thinking, which was quite a lot. Once she was talking, she was fascinating, engaging, and not nearly as difficult to deal with. Once she knew how to speak her feelings, she enjoyed life a lot more (and we are all so glad!) She was also delightfully bossy and assertive, acting much more mature than she actually was. It was endearing. But she could still throw a tantrum if she needed too and her emotions were still very close to the surface. Her bold air also made people forget she was still new and working out her way in the world.

One evening, I was engaged to babysit my regulars and Bethany was added to the evening, which was entirely manageable. Except, when she and her family arrived, it was obvious no one had told her she’d be staying behind, and I could see the betrayal on her face, the fear, and then the anger at the betrayal. I am, and was then, a person sensitive to the emotions and feelings of others, and I knew what I was watching and I was also becoming angry, as I always do, when I see people ignore the feelings of another, or, worse, intentionally hurt the feelings of another person. And when that person is a child, I am both shredded and outraged. It is the double-edged sword of my compassion. I’m not much of a gatekeeper but if you want righteous anger on your behalf, I’m right there. Some friends have accidentally hit that button and some friends have gotten exactly what I have to give in moments when they needed it.

But Bethany was just four and an outraged adult is not what any four-year-old needs in her face at the moment when she is overwhelmed by her own anger and fear. As she raged at the door her parents exited, I sat with Emily and Alex, the other two children, who were also trying their best to figure out how to react to the episode. Emily, who was quite mature and sophisticated at 5, looked at me and assessed the situation before she pronounced, “She’s just being a baby.” It was a test, for her, for me. I responded, “No, she’s very angry. I think she has to be angry for a little while.” And I left it at that while we settled into our evening together.

Nothing major happened. Bethany eventually calmed down. We all watched a movie and the night got later and later. I put Emily and Alex to bed but there wasn’t any bed for Bethany, so we sat on the couch together and started talking, like friends do late into the night. I cannot recall what we talked about exactly, probably the movie, but I remember how present we were, how close to each other. Then, we got to the heart of the matter and in our quiet conversation together, Bethany said “Sometimes when my mommy goes away, I get really scared.” I responded like a friend should, “I know. It’s really scary when that happens.” It was the right answer. She paused then she crawled onto my lap, draped her arms around my neck, sank her body into mine and held on for a long time, until she fell asleep. I held on too as my heart broke wide open to hold her.

The Question

amywink July 1st, 2018

On the floor
with this beautiful child
of my old friend,
I am so much in love
with her entire being,
in joy of her existence,
when she lifts her finger
to tap my arm and asks
“Are you white?”
and I am shot through
by the difference she
already knows is somehow
important, too much so
for her small being,
who at three, is figuring out
the world in which she lives.
I do not want to answer,
but I must answer
carefully, and in my answer
shift the question, expand
the differences so she
might see something
wider, something broader
something larger than the
either or she has already
noticed because of
her own difference
and I say “well, beige really”
and I show her the colors
of my skin on which her
finger continues to rest
as she ponders while
I breathe, hoping my
answer is a good one
for the time being,
knowing that it
also may not last,
thinking I must
make it last.

Failure in Translation

amywink June 14th, 2018

A friend I knew in graduate school used to tell the story of how her friendship with the cluster of Italian graduate students began at a museum in Italy, where she, speaking Italian, had constructed her sentence in the language she was still learning and instead saying “I have made a mistake” she had, in her usage, said “I am a mistake.” To which the kind Italian stranger standing beside her had responded effusively, “Oh, you are not a mistake!!” and had helped her understand the difference in translation so that she would not longer announce that she was some kind of “mistake of the Universe” and had only, like humans do, made a small mistake.

Our American cultural narrative of success provides no such nuance and moving home at 36 means only one thing: failure, as in “you are failure.” Our belief that if we work hard, do the “correct” things, follow the conventional path, we will be rewarded for our efforts has no room for what happens when a person does all those things and still cannot find the job. The external cultural narrative exerts a great deal of force on the understanding of experience, even if the knowledge of what has happened complicates the prevailing idea. Add to that the popular misconception of work in higher education as some kind of easy life in the ‘Ivory Tower’ completely divorced from reality (and therefore the target of a fair amount of cultural hostility) from which no one can ever be fired. Let me just say, I have never encountered this utopian vision of academe and when people talk about the “liberal” slant of higher education and the feminist paradise that exists there, I laugh (but that is another essay for another time.)

I had not lived at home since the summer of 1987, when I left Austin to pursue my graduate degrees at Texas A&M, after completing 4 years of undergraduate school at Southwestern, also not living at home. I had not lived at home for a long time, for good reason. Our cultural narrative of “moving home” implies that home is a safe place; that one is returning to the nest seeking the comfort of a welcoming family. The cultural narrative has no room for the problematic return to an environment complicated by mental illness. When I knew that the only path before me was the road home, I was afraid. Afraid because it seemed right and afraid because I knew what I was heading into, except I didn’t really know that what I was about to encounter was worse than I had expected. Yet, failed and afraid, I came home in May of 2001. My parents did welcome me and were also afraid.

It would be unfair of me to claim that they did not want me home or thought I was a failure just as it would be unfair to claim that I was not relieved I had a net at the bottom of my fall from grace. They both worried, about what this meant for them, what it meant for me, what it meant for us, and a lot about how would we all afford this. My mother was a retired teacher, my Dad also, though he was working at Home Depot. Our home, the house we had moved into in 1974, was not large, 1300 square feet. I moved most of my things into storage and tried to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, since my conventional plan had not worked at all. I was about to have a book, I had a lengthy vita, I had years of successful teaching experience. This was the thing I was made to do. I had a gift that no one wanted, a calling that culture refused to answer.

It was a hard place to be.

When people say “embarrassment won’t kill you,” I have often responded “No, it’s worse because you have to live through it.” The same goes for failure, you have to live through it. I understood, on most days, that I was not failure, that the system was the problem. While academic and popular culture might push the narrative that I was a failure because of my own fault–something I hadn’t done, some step I hadn’t taken, something wrong with me– I understood that the story people might be telling themselves was a story for their own comfort, whistling past the graveyard of failure themselves, holding onto their ideas of rewarded merit. I had tried to follow convention and it had not worked at all.

I had fallen. I was flat on my back. I was no longer looking down at the frightening fall. I had to look up. I also looked around. My parents were in serious trouble. My mother’s bi-polar disorder was poorly treated. My father, though we did not know this at the time, was beginning to feel the effects of Parkinson’s disease (which would be diagnosed in 2005). The house was in disrepair with half-finished renovations my Dad could no longer manage and also filled with things my mother refused to part with (yes, it was a hoard). I knew I could not live like that. I knew they could not live like that.

I had come home hoping to leave as fast as I could and suddenly I understood I could not leave.

“I cannot leave.” I told Stacey, who said she always remembered the moment when I said that. And it didn’t matter what culture said about failure. What mattered was not abandoning my parents in their difficulty even if that is not what I wanted.

It did not look like my calling, and yet, here was what I was being asked to do: care.

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A Landscape of Indifference

amywink June 12th, 2018

As much as I would like to say that my escape from my first academic job lead directly into happiness, my second academic job at a small university in Kansas, came with troubles of its own. My friend Sheryl had indeed saved me by contacting her friend, the department chair, and he hired me to replace an outgoing faculty member so in the summer of 1999, I made my way, with the help of my BFF Kristi, into the heartland and out of Texas.

And it was beautiful. I left behind the tall pines of East Texas, my garden, and my darling house, and moved to Emporia, in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, 45 miles south of Topeka. The town was picturesque, a postcard for Midwestern Americana. It looked like home.

And yet, I had a terrible time finding a house to rent that wasn’t in such a terrible state of repair as to be dangerous. I did eventually find a house with a fenced yard (I had dogs) and I set about to make it habitable–though I never was able to keep the birds from falling out of the furnace in the basement and suddenly flying into the house and the hole in the ceiling was never patched. The young faculty helped paint the interior before my furniture arrived (3 weeks later), and I pulled up the shag carpet with the permission of the landlord (as God is my witness, I will never have carpet again) and made the place mine. I tried again to bloom where I was planted but I also knew that I was not going to be able to move again and again. My roots did not like being disturbed. I knew it was going to be was this place or no place. I held on to hope for this place but something had gone out of me and I was more reserved and wary.

That fall, the silver maple in the front yard turned such a miraculous color of golden yellow that it illuminated the entire interior of my house, which I had also painted yellow. It felt like peace.

The department chair encouraged me to teach my academic specialties, asked if I wanted to teach another women’s autobiography class, engaged me in the department. I sent my book manuscript off to the press, where it was accepted for publication. All seemed to be going “according to plan” and I continued to do all the “right things”: attend conferences, publish, teach.

Everyone said I was “on my way” to a good tenure-track position. And it did look like that because that is what everyone said was the right way to go about getting an academic job. This was the plan. This is how it happens. And yet that was no longer the way because there were far too few jobs and the old “right way” to get one had not kept up with the times. Still, everyone clung to the idea of the right way because what would it mean if that was no longer the right way?

I had no interviews that year at MLA (where everyone in Literature and Languages interviews), which was in Chicago, where I visited Stacey, and we watched 1999 turn to Y2K as Tom Brokaw kept saying “Nothing continued to happen.” Truer words were never spoken. Nothing continued to happen.

I tried to love where I was anyway. I loved the Kansas prairie. I spent a lot of time antiquing and learning the history of the area. I was very close to the route of the Overland Trail to Oregon and could go see the ruts worn there by all those who traveled West. I visited Lawrence occassionally, which was gorgeous. I tried to garden because I could suddenly plant things that would never survive in Texas. I liked the students, who were genuine and kind as one might expect in Kansas, and who found me quite exotic (just as my East Texas students had done). My classes filled and I was happy enough. I taught an Advanced Composition class focused on personal narrative and had an amazing time with the students. Two of them had essays published in the college wide publication of Best Essays, and faculty commented that personal essays usually never did get in.

I taught a wonderful class in Women’s Diaries the first summer and it was perfect, a dream class in which I was able to do the things I wanted to do with the 6 students in the seminar. I took them as a class to the Kansas Museum of History, where we toured the exhibit and had a more visceral experience of the diaries we’d read of the Overland trail–one student tried to lift the iron kettle and nearly fell over. We all understood that she’d have died on the trip. I took them all out to dinner. It was a beautiful teaching experience and one I will always cherish because I got to be the teacher I always wanted to be.

And then the department chair left for a position at another college at the end of my first year and in the midst of that change, all the welcoming faculty retreated to their offices. I became invisible.

Active hate is one thing to experience but indifference may be worse. At least with active hate, you can see your enemy clearly. It’s easy to know you exist, even as some kind of ill-conceived representative of an idea. Indifference makes a person invisible. People stopped talking with me. If they did talk with me, mostly it was to assure themselves that not thinking of me was perfectly reasonable. I heard more than once “Oh, you’ll be fine. You have a book.”

And yet, nothing continued to happen. The new chair perkily told me, standing in the door of my office, that there wouldn’t be a position for me the next year. She wasn’t sure she could even offer me summer teaching. And I was at an end. Nothing I had done made any difference and yet this was the thing I was entirely meant to do. This was the soul-work of my life and I was very good at it, gifted. I had the vita to prove my worth. And there was no help for what to do next except cursory suggestions that I “could do a lot of things” or, the fall back for everyone who can think of nothing “There’s always technical or business writing. You’ll be fine.” And they walked away.

That winter, my golden tree did not last a week as winter blew in with snow. My house did not glow with the light as the entire landscape turned grey and icy. It was an apt reflection of my internal darkness as the vision of my future faded. At Christmas, I had to wait for the temperature to rise to zero before I headed south to Austin.

I did apply for a number of other academic administration jobs, etc, and nothing continued to happen. My future went entirely black and my own light almost went out.

Only one way opened, returning home to Austin, to live with my parents for what I hoped would be as short a time as possible. I had no idea what I was walking into or what I would be doing or anything else. I just knew I had to go. And so I came home a failure in May 2001 because “home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I was 36.

The Memory of My Martyrdom

amywink June 8th, 2018

This week, I received the evaluations from my Spring semester of my thirtieth year of teaching. A student, who had actually signed her name, wrote “You were FREAKING AMAZING” and thanked me for my help during her difficult time that semester. It was a beautiful thing to see and wonderful to know I had been help for her, as I hope I am always help for my students. But I also thought of the student who wrote “Dr. Wink Rocks” for the first time on my teaching evaluations for a Women’s Autobiography class I taught twenty years ago, and how I got fired because I was good.

This is not a beautiful story. I can’t make it beautiful. I can and have made it meaningful but the experience is one that can still rise out of my memory and assault whatever good and lovely thing I may be feeling and it can rise in the most unexpected ways at times when I have thought it was no longer powerful enough to do any damage, and yet . . . and yet. . . . there it is.

Lately it has been rising, despite my attempts to quash it, to move away from its power, to pile success-on-success to suture the damage. Perhaps it has been rising because I have begun to take more risks, which I had learned not to take. Perhaps it is because I have begun to tell stories about the experience, which I was counseled not to tell about at the time because I would make be labeled a troublemaker and likely never find a job (I never talked about it publicly and also never found a job). It is an experience that should not hold so much power and yet. . . .and yet.

As a writer and teacher of autobiographical narrative, I know in practice and in theory that the telling of a story, the sharing of a story, changes the way we think about our experience. I know we change the story we have been telling ourselves about our experience in our narrating of it as we create the meaning we want to keep. I know that there is power in taking my narrative into my own hands and telling it and I know that we can recover the self we lost by the telling of the story. But I also know we have to get to the place where we can safely tell the story. I have never felt safe enough to telling this story in public and I may never feel safe enough but I do feel now that I have to tell the story if for no other reason that to purge the memory of my martyrdom and turn the tables on the power the story has shake me.

In 1997, I got my first academic job, at the last minute in the summer (as if often the case) and I moved from Texas A&M, where I had just completed a one year “Post-Doc” appointment after completing my PhD in 1996. It sounds posh but it was just teaching 4/4 after teaching 2/2 and making some more money, about 19k that year, which seemed a huge increase my tiny graduate student stipend (here is the moment we can all joke about going into education because of the hundreds of dollars we could make). I was desperate and also lucky to have had an interview and gotten the job in the middle of the summer before the position started in the fall. So I moved east, behind the Pine Curtain, and I was happy to start. I found a charming rental house with wood floors and lovely windows and a new kitchen, and plenty of room for an amazing flower garden, which I set out to design. I was very happy to be starting on my career. I was ready to bloom where I was planted.

I had no idea of the snake pit I had entered and no one warned me. In fact, the chair was very encouraging and happily suggested I propose a Women’s Autobiography class for the spring. And I happily did: It was totally my thing and I was getting a change to do it! I also got to teach literature that fall, which I hadn’t been able to much of as a graduate student or a post-doc (when I was assigned Technical Writing instead of literature). My students wrote lovely evaluations on Rate-My-Professor about how I was teaching novels and they loved the class. One student thanked me for teaching Shelley’s Frankenstein because it helped him, a science major, love literature.

Then I learned that another professor who regularly taught that class had gone to the chair to complain and demand to know why I was allowed to teach novels in that class? Another professor came into my office, came around my desk to tower over me as he asked ‘Why don’t you like men?” I began to keep my door closed.

I made friends with a new professor, an young African-American woman teaching Children’s literature (she now holds a named Endowed Chair at a Research 1 institution) and a Basic Writing professor who had been there a while who took me under her wing and warned me of the character of the department. She had seen many young faculty drummed out for various reasons. Sheryl was also often in hiding. I was lucky to have found her. I called her Mulder and she called me Scully because we were in an X-files department and we could trust no one. It wasn’t exactly a joke.

By the end of that first fall semester, the chair who had hired me had been removed from her position and another chair would be taking over. Apparently, my proposal for a Women’s Autobiography class had shaken some kind of cultural foundation and was the End of Western Civilization as We Know It. Before she left her position, however, she told me she had approved my Women’s Autobiography class “because it was the right thing to do” and I suddenly standing on a ledge alone, a target.

And I taught the class. I remember my students even now. One young woman recovering from anorexia who was so brilliant and troubled but could not yet eat in public, who I wrote to for a while after she graduated to let her know the world was a better place with her in it as she pursued her career as a counselor for young women suffering from eating disorders. One young woman was recovering from a brain injury who invited me to her graduation party and gave me two lovely books I still have, as well as the lovely colored pencil drawing of a garden inspired by the work of Emily Dickinson. Another young woman made a small quilt as her project and I still have that–though she gave it to a male professor who then gave it to me when he left. I remember the young African-American woman who was so brilliant and did not yet know, until my class, who Zora Neale Hurston was or Alice Walker or Toni Morrison. I remember the young man who took the class “because it sounded interesting” and was unphased by being the only male student in the class. And I remember the woman who managed one of the hotels in town and who helped me get a free room the night I moved out of my house. I remember hosting them all at my house for an autobiographical food party and hearing the story of one young woman who brought pizza because her mother worked and would leave money on the counter for her and her sister to buy pizza for dinner. I have their photograph still. And I have a t-shirt with “Dr Wink Rocks” on it, copied from the evaluation my student wrote for the class. I did rock. I was really great. And people hated me for that.

I don’t wish I hadn’t taught the class because I loved teaching it and I doubt cancelling the class would have made any difference to what the rest of the faculty had decided was true about me, even though they never asked. I represented something they wanted to hate. I don’t really think their hostility was completely personal (since they’d done similar things to other people before I came and after I left) but it did feel personal and their hostility was palpable nonetheless. I quietly went into hiding and hoped I would get a job that helped me escape the worst (I did not). I worked on my book proposal, went to conferences, earned a grant to help with photographs I intended to use in a second book project. I applied for jobs. I tried to be quiet. I was quiet.

But when students like you as a professor, when they know you enjoy them, and they write reviews online that everyone can see, and they tell their friends your classes are really great, it is impossible to hide as well as I would have liked. When you earn a grant from an historical society housed at the university, word spreads and there was nothing I could do, except if I had done nothing, which was not the right thing either. I certainly did not intend to make the students hate me so I could be less of a target, but I did see some professors do just that. I, however, am not a chameleon. By the next spring, 1999, when I had to reapply to keep my Visiting Professorship, I was well-known in a way I didn’t know, one might say I was “infamous” though I kept to myself and kept my door closed. To my face, in my “interview” the faculty asked the right questions, seemed interested, reminded me of my successful grant, and asked about my publications. I wasn’t sure but it seemed professional. I had no other job lined up. I needed this one to continue. It seemed like it might.

But when I returned home after a weekend away, I had a message on my answering machine cheerfully telling me that they had not renewed my position, essentially that I was fired. It was May 4, my birthday. The semester ended in less than a week. A friend told me “they said it’s because you’re feminist. And the Women’s Autobiography class was the problem. Teaching the women’s diaries.” I was fired for teaching women’s diaries. On my birthday. I was 34.

Everyone suggested I fight the firing, bring in a lawyer, question the logic, talk to the Dean. And I did see the Dean, who quietly listened and as I talked with him I thought “He’s not going to do anything at all for me” and he didn’t. I did ask a lawyer: “Texas is an at-will employment state.” Fight said everyone who thought I had money, time, and a willingness to throw myself into a fire or onto a sword. Be silent said everyone who was already tenured. Don’t make it about feminism. Don’t ask questions. Don’t tell.

In between those voices, something said “this means you get to leave” and I was free. Free and horribly damaged. Sheryl leapt to my rescue and called her friend at a small university in Kansas and got me a job; my other young colleagues helped me send my vita as they tried to deal with their own horror; they took care of me in my shock, fed me even though I could barely eat. I will never forget them. When I drove out of town the summer, I felt like throwing my shoes out the window, as if to wipe the dust of that town off my feet, but that would have been littering. None of the people I knew then remained at that university.

I didn’t fully understand the damage that experience had done to my sense of self-worth, the problematic lesson I learned about being very good, which academics are taught to do, and being summarily punished for that. But that is what I learned and also that I was threatening in a way that I could do nothing about and that the only way to be less threatening was to be less visible, to be less, to diminish who I am. It was as if, without even knowing I was doing it, I sent my self into exile. I am trying to recover that self by telling this story, reminding myself that I was good and threatening and that was not a problem with me, but a problem with them. But there are moments, even twenty years later, when this memory can make me shake.

I have told my students I don’t look at Rate-My-Professor and the story of being fired for being good. They are appalled and uncomprehending. I am always slightly unnerved by knowing there are good reviews out there about my teaching. But I tell myself this is different. Now is different because I have held this job for fifteen years. I occasionally explain to people who are not academics how I was not rewarded for my hard work and excellence because the system does not reward everyone the same and is threatened by some who brings change. What I work at telling myself is that I was good and I was there for my students who needed me–and I think of all of those students in the Women’s Autobiography class and other classes– and I was there for my friend Sheryl who learned to take action on behalf of someone she loved and do something to make a change in an unfair situation.

Most days, that is enough to remember. Some days, it isn’t.

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