Archive for the 'teaching' Category

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.

Vocation

amywink April 21st, 2018

I walked into my first classroom when I was twenty-two and into my life’s work as if it were the most natural place in the world for me to be. I had thought I would like it but I had no idea how much I would immediately love being a teacher, nor how immediately good I would be at doing the work but I was, as if I understood “Here is what you are.” I had written in my application to graduate school that I wanted to teach writing and literature and had been granted a Teaching Assistant position from the English Department at Texas A&M. In this case, being a TA meant actually teaching two classes on your own. While we took a two-semester course in Composition and Rhetoric pedagogy the first year we taught, we were in the classroom alone with our students at the same time. It did not take me long to leave the confines of the required syllabus and delve into my own approach to teaching. When I was video-recorded by the Center for Teaching Excellence, they told me immediately “You are really good at this. We have nothing to tell you. The only thing we could suggest is write higher on the chalkboard but you are so short. . . .” and they left it at that.

I spent 10 years teaching at Texas A&M while I earned a Master’s and a PhD. in English, and completed one year as a Post-Doc while scrambling to find another job. I spent another 4 years as an itinerate visiting professor while I moved from position to position and began to lose the love for my work. I struggled with the increasing pressure to teach less well, to care less, and devote more time to research to ensure I could land a job–though ironically, the places I wanted to land a job worried about my research taking too much from my teaching. No one seemed to understand that the teaching fed the research and the research fed the teaching. As I was advised to teach less well, to disassociate from my students, I understood that the profession was asking me to be someone I wasn’t, asking me to stop growing. I stopped teaching in 2001, closed my first life as a teacher and returned to Austin to find some other line of work.

I didn’t. I did publish my first book, and thus “became” a writer (the other thing I am).

I returned to teaching in the fall of 2002, when I started as an adjunct for Austin Community College and was given the chance to remember what I loved. I taught a World Literature class in the fall of 2002 and my faculty observer said “Oh, you are so good at this. You have more teaching experience than most of us” and left it at that. But I was a different teacher at that moment than the first time I entered the classroom. I was not only older but I understood more about the joy I experienced while teaching, what fun it could be to engage students in learning, to help them enjoy the work instead of fear it. I remembered that I loved it and I entered my second life as a teacher.

The next year, I had the chance to teach at Southwestern, my alma mater. I deliberated on what I would do in my classes, what I discerned would make a difference for students. I decided to teach what I wanted to teach, to try something daring and innovative, something I would love to teach and something I hoped students would love. Under the “Writing and Critical Thinking” title, I developed a writing class using autobiography theory and the psychology of writing with the deliberate goal of helping students discover what they might love to do with their lives. While some reacted as if I was forcing them to make “goals”, I gently told them I only wanted to them think about who they were becoming, what would make them happy in their lives, and to figure out a way to get there. It was glorious. I also learned a lot about myself because I did the work as well. I thought about my own Wildly Improbable Dreams. I thought about what I loved. I approached 40 knowing I was beginning again. I remained at ACC while I taught at Southwestern, teaching alternating days at each. While I dreamed that I might land a full time job at SU, what I learned was that I was also no longer suited to the work required of a tenure-track professor.

I did not get a job there.

I did buy a pony. I learned how to drive him. I published another book. I bought a second pony. I learned to drive her lot better. I continued to teach at ACC and I loved it. Though community college students are often demeaned and degraded, I decided to be the teacher I had always wanted in my life, the teacher I had needed and I gave my ACC students what they needed: respect, kindness, encouragement, and attention. I decided to give the students who needed it, who rarely received the best from their teachers, the very best work I could. I decided to teach what they deserved to know. I received so much in return. My life expanded as if those wildly improbable goals I had encouraged my students to write and the ones I had written for myself were answered by a benevolent God, who hoped we would all become who we were meant to be.

All of those things helped me cope when my life began to shrink again with the increased duties of care-giving. I learned not to hate my life even though it was unconventional. Every hard thing I had ever done seemed to help me cope with my father’s declining health and my mother’s increased helplessness and eventual death. Teaching saved my life during those hard days. My students gave back what I had given them and I was grateful.

I have been teaching now for thirty years. I am very good at this work. Everyone who has seen me teach has commented, sometimes with amazement, sometimes with jealousy. This past year, I found a new opportunity for teaching, in an arena I had never considered, when another teacher recognized the teacher in me and asked me to teach at church. I somewhat cavalierly said “oh sure.” But my voice broke that day and I was surprisingly anxious about it until I found my teaching legs again and began to teach something new. I was asked again, and again, and then I volunteered.

I loved it. Deeply, deeply loved it.

I had not realized I was bored until I was suddenly wasn’t.

I did not realize I was empty until I was filled.

And I wrote a third book, a decade after my last one, because what I was learning and what I was teaching fed my writing.

So it came as no surprise that my entire Disciple class said in unison, rather loudly, that I had the Spiritual Gift of Teaching. I did not argue with false modesty. I know what my gifts are and it would be silly to deny that teaching is one of them. I just own the gift, just like I must own the gift of writing. I imagine what they see is exactly what I see when I watch someone doing the work they are clearly meant to do in the world. In many ways, I know am blessed to have such a clear vocation and lucky to understand both the gift and how much I love it.

But I understand that right now, at this moment I am also being asked to grow. I am being asked to expand beyond the boundaries I have understood during my life. And I am being asked to think about what teaching may mean now as I enter my new third life as a teacher.

Lent: March

amywink March 24th, 2018

I will be marching today. Some people will watch from their homes and think “those people should go home” and determine what kind of person I am from their own opinion of people who protest something they do not want understand. Some people will watch and think “that’s not enough” and determine what kind of person I am from their contempt of those who only seem to protest in public. Some people will watch and think “look at the white people only protesting because some white kids got shot” and divide all of us into even tinier pieces. Some people will watch and think “oh sure, show up now” and condemn what they think has been lack of perfect action without knowing what I do daily or have done for the majority of my life.

But for those who know me, and I have friends who have voiced all manner of these things, I hope they will instead begin to think “I know her” and ask “why is she marching?” I hope they will ask themselves “what is the thing I know to be true about this friend of mine?” as I have asked myself very many times while watching tempers rise in polarizing arguments that only fortify division. I hope everyone can think of at least one true thing about me to hold up against the false witnesses that seek only to divide us all in this march toward building our more perfect union.

Should anyone have trouble with my protest, or this protest, I ask that you ask yourself of me.

Do I want my friend to carry a gun?

Do I want my friend to figure out how to block the door of her classroom?

Do I want my friend to have to kill someone?

Do I want my friend to staunch the blood from some student’s body?

Do I want my friend to lose her life shielding someone from a gunman?

Do I want my friend to spend any of her time in fear for her life?

Do I want my friend to stop teaching?

Do I want my friend to harden her heart?

And only then decide whether nothing can be done.

All the Quietly Brave and Brilliant Young Women

amywink October 14th, 2017

At the end of the spring semester of 2014 that I wrote about last week (All the Kind and Thoughtful Young Men), it was a quiet young woman who waited for me at my office, with flowers and a card of thanks, who told me she appreciated how even though I had been going through my own personal troubles, I had always been there for them. She was a young woman I hadn’t been sure had enjoyed the class, though she had always attended and sat in the front row, but I was pleased and thankful she had made the time to thank me for being present, even though I could have easily not been. I was reminded again how important being a feminist teacher is for young women, even now when sexism seems a problem of the distant past, though clearly that was a mistake given the election and the blatant sexism that played out in the election coverage of Hilary Clinton. But still, even in her defeat, Hilary continues to show up and it’s the showing up that maybe most important thing for young women today. To show up and keep showing up even though larger culture continues to ask women to be small, to be quiet, to take less and to quit because it is hard and unfair. and wouldn’t it be easier if you just decided that yes, women were less and didn’t deserve equality?

But Hilary Clinton is a better person in her failure than some people are in victory and it is being a better, stronger person that shows young women the power they can gain from steadily working toward the ownership of their lives. Watching someone do a difficult thing, to survive an unfair system, and stand up after unfair outcome, teaches us to do the difficult thing we want to do, even if it might not work out. Even if we might go down in defeat, we can still try and we can get up afterward and keep working toward what we want as human beings. It is not watching someone who sails through life easily with no care in the world that creates the inner drive and self-determination to become whatever a young woman wants to be, despite what patriarchal culture keeps whispering to her under its paternalistic breath. Japtha’s daughter may have been sacrificed for her father’s victory in battle, but it’s the Hebrew women who celebrate her life every year and no doubt reminded her father of his continued failure and defeat.

As a feminist teacher, I have encountered so many young women who have been told, either overtly or covertly, to be less than they are, to find a small life, to define themselves only by a very narrow measure, and I have listened to so many young women tell me the dangerous moments of their lives, how they were starving, or injured, or assaulted, for just trying to be. In all of my classes, from first year writing, to advanced composition, from sophomore literature surveys, to advanced literary specialties like women’s autobiography, it has been my job as feminist teacher to show these young women the counter-narrative to patriarchal male-washing of literature and history. Here are the stories of women who may have been forgotten but nevertheless existed, here are the alliances formed to create networks between women across class and race, and within class and race, to subvert the dominant narrative of patriarchy, that women have no value aside from what they can give the patriarchy, that women have to compete with each other for the spoils allowed to them, that women must become One Kind of Woman to succeed in the world that only allows one definition. But an unfair system does not have to be right, and unfair system recognized as unfair and arbitrary and thus defeated by constantly hacking away at the pillars that culture rests precariously upon. If a system is unfair, the problem is not personal, but systemic, and the solution is in the personal stories we tell as counter-narrative to the patriarchy so desperately wants young women to believe.

Every narrative that says women deserve food, that women may live to the contrary, that women are allowed, and do not have to choose between being strong, or brilliant, or beautiful, or bold, or independent and must instead choose the smaller thing our culture allows instead of all the great things they might also become. Every narrative I have taught is a story that tells them they get to write their own lives and not just be characters in someone else’s. Of course, the danger is that a feminist teacher must be a kind of Wonder Woman, doing everything and anything perfectly, but I have found that’s not what women students actually want. They don’t want another One Kind of Allowable Woman. They’d prefer to see an authentic person who is living her life, so they in turn can be authentic and live their own.

In the summer of 1999, I moved from Texas to the small town of Emporia, Kansas, where a friend had helped me get a job after being fired from the university where I was asked to teach women’s autobiography and summarily punished for doing so. I was also encouraged to fight the dismissal by many eager to martyr me for their cause and simultaneously discouraged from speaking about it by those who feared I’d never find a position if I got labeled as a “troublemaker”.

Damned if I did, damned if I didn’t.

But my dear friend bravely stepped up and called someone she knew and got me a job and I was able to shake off the dust of that unwelcoming place and

I can’t actually say the job was better, but the people were kinder and the Flint Hills so enormous and the tall grass prairie so vast, that I was able to rest some my experience and remember what I loved about teaching. It was a small college and I had many repeating students in the two years I taught there. I was able to teach a class in Women’s Diaries and take my entire class to the Kansas Museum of History where we toured the frontier exhibit and tried to lift the iron cooking pots of the pioneers–It was clear to one of my students that she’d probably just have died on the way to Oregon because she couldn’t even move the pot. I was really glad to have had that vibrant teaching experience with my small group of young women students. One of those young women, also named Amy, had been in many of my classes, quiet and tentative, but so thoughtful in her writing. She struggled with the image she had been taught, that smart girls were not the pretty girls, that cheerleaders were not the smart girls, that women were allowed only the one thing that identified their being and the choice had better be a wise one because you never knew what might happen to a smart girl, but pretty girls were rarely alone. I remember her face when I discussed how definitions of femininity restrict the choices young women have been able to make in history and I could see the light dawning and the choices spreading out before her in a way she’d never thought about before. I still think of that student, and many others and I am always glad to have stood before them and been present and authentic in my life for them.

I left that position in May of 2001 but I kept in touch with some of the students from my advanced writing class and my women’s diaries class through email. I was not really surprised to see an email from Amy because she had often spoken with me about her life and I had watched her become brave and brilliant in her time at college. What surprised me was what she asked of me. She wrote to say that she was about to get married but that both she and her fiance were having doubts about marrying, but everyone around them kept telling them they were just having cold feet and it would be okay as soon as the wedding was over. And she wanted to ask my advice, she wanted to ask for help. I think she was asking for help to say no. Why else reach out to a teacher no longer in your life and ask about such an important decision? Perhaps, because I had been authentic. I was an unrepentant but happy-go-lucky feminist, a smart woman who lived on her own, and was perfectly happy and capable of doing it.

I wrote her back carefully, explaining that it certainly sounded like she and her fiance were carefully considering their choices and it was important to understand that if both parties were concerned, then the choice was up to them, not everyone around them who might hope otherwise. I wrote that it was up to the both of them to decide but it was important to remember that it was a lot easier to get out of a wedding than it was to get out of a marriage. And I sent my email off wondering if I’d said the right thing.

Several weeks later, she sent a happy reply, explaining they had decided to cancel the wedding, she had gotten a teaching job in a small town in Western Kansas, and was heading there herself with her new Rottweiler puppy, and she thanked me profusely for everything.

I was happy I’d answered wisely, and very grateful to have been that brave young woman’s teacher.

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?”

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