Sometimes, I feel as if we're all headed for hell in a handbasket. Sometimes, I don't see the point of trying anymore. I look around at the pain and the confusion and the alienation and I start to wonder if life on earth is just going to become impossible at some point, given those who seem to have the power to define and the fact that the rest of us don't act as if we have the foggiest clue what to do about it.
I read the news and I feel like crawling under the bed. I look at the lives of the people I know and I wonder if any of them are ever--really--happy. I watch a woman hitting a child across the car seat from her, not once, or in one flurry of slaps, but over and over and over and over--sequence after sequence--as she steers her car around the corner in heavy traffic, oblivious that her violence is being observed by a total stranger in the car creeping along behind her. And I wonder what will become of that child and how it will someday use what it is learning. I think about my mother struggling with Alzheimer's. And all the folks who used to make good money, but now can't find a job. And I think about the old folks and mentally ill who can't afford the medication they need to live a decent life--or even live at all.
Even when I teach--and maybe especially when I teach--I'm increasingly, incredibly aware of the human condition. I walk into a classroom and look at thirty or fifty or one hundred and fifty expressionless faces, at the ready, and wonder if one of them is the one who will shoot me (as an anonymous student once threatened to do on the telephone in the middle of the night) or try to cause me some kind of trouble because they don't like what I say or they don't want to know it. I wonder if one of them will kill themselves on my watch--without ever telling me that they're considering it. I wonder how many are struggling with drugs or just found out they're pregnant or will learn tomorrow that they've acquired a disease for which there is no known cure. I wonder which of the women got beaten up by her "boyfriend" last night, which of the men is working two jobs on top of going to school in an attempt to keep his father and mother from hitting the wall now that they're both ill. I wonder which of them will lose their scholarship this semester and be relegated back to the ranks of those who will not earn enough to survive. I wonder which of them live their every moment in gut-gripping anxiety because if they don't get all A's (no matter what), they'll incur the rage of a father who holds not only the purse-strings, but their sense of self-worth, in his authoritarian hands. I've long since learned that every one of them has a story. Every one of them, no matter what they look like, have things going on in their lives--or have had or will shortly--that will mark them as humans in a difficult world.
Sometimes, they wait to see me one after the other outside my office. Sometimes, they approach me after class (starting on the first day of the semester), saying, "You seem like someone I can talk to." Sometimes they call me so I can't see their face. Sometimes, they don't even want to admit what the problem is, so they'll approach me with another problem or situation or concern.
"I'm not sure I can pass your class," he might say, looking worried. "I'm used to teachers going through the book page by page, talking about it. I don't know if I'm taking the right notes." But in truth, it may be that he doesn't read well. Or write well. And he has to pass the class to play his sport at the school to which he wants to go. Which is--to his mind--the only way he's going to get out of the abject poverty in which he was raised. And he's six foot four and a man and he can't just admit how weak his skills are off the court or how frightened he is that he's going to be stuck in the ghetto. And I can't ask because it might not be true or he might not tell me, but if it is true and he won't tell me (for fear I'll rat him out), then the game is over before it's begun. And he'll disappear mid-semester and I'll have lost him. Forever.
I look at the woman who's come back to school, who's shaking in her boots because she's twenty or even thirty years older than the others, embarrassed at her fear, embarrassed at not having done it already, unsure she can do it, caught in a new employment market that is going to push her out if she doesn't have the credential. I look at the kid with the dream and no food money. I look at the one who's taken the class three times already in an attempt to make the A that's necessary to get him into the course of study he's longed to enter since he was fifteen. I look at the one who's translating everything I say into some other language in her head, determined to make it because her degree from somewhere else isn't meaningful here, even with years of experience.
I listen to a woman tell me off because she isn't doing well in the course and it's months before she admits that her emotions are really about her fear on a new and more professional job and her attempts to be a good mommy while her husband does his year in jail. I look at the couple who's breaking up because she's already successfully made the shift to the university and he's still struggling with D's at the community college, not wanting to face that both his college career and his relationship are probably hopeless. And I watch the bright, but odd ones, collecting the giggles of their classmates, pretending not to notice and not able, in any case, to be any different than they are.
Needless to say, with my rather focused interest in and understanding of racial issues, I'm especially sensitive to the struggles of my students of color. The other day, for example, I looked out over my classroom at a group I had only seen four times so far, and I was suddenly hyper-conscious that fully six or so out of the 28 students were African-American males taking a summer sociology course and on their way to another school in the fall to play a sport. At the college level, at least at community colleges and state schools (the only ones with which I'm familiar), there are always a few athletes--male or female--in the class. At one point, I spent four years teaching at FSU where you knew the male athletes because, no matter what their sport, they filled the doorway. But to have half dozen in more or less the same circumstance suddenly reminded me (once more) of why I do what I do in the way that I do it.
Almost instantly, in spite of the fact that my lecture of the day was on research methods (not one of my spicier offerings), I started finding ways to reach out to them. You can't be sure you'll ever see a student again (regardless of where you are in the semester). In fact, I often operate when I speak, in school or otherwise, out of the idea that, if I never see these people again, what would I have wanted to say to them? And I started fighting for their very lives.
The fact is that I don't even remember now what all I managed to work into the lecture. And it was appropo to all of the students anyway--more or less. And I worked hard not to look overly at the young men in question when pouring out my heart, telling what I know about life, using how sociological research captures causal chains to offer them tools for better understanding that many of their problems are not so much personal as social. Encouraging and empowering them to go another step, to hang in there, to recognize that the strength that brought them this far can take them all the way, I was terribly aware of what I was doing. But you rarely get a signal from them--not when it's going on.
Then, on the way out of the class, one of the young men to whom I'd been particularly speaking walked past me casually, handing me a folded piece of paper and proceeding out the door. I knew what it was. I've gotten many such notes through the years.
"I really enjoy this course," it read, "and I wanted you to know that the way you teach highly encourages me to be here. You kinda got me thinking of switching my major to becoming a sociologist. Thanks for being a great instructor. You are very appreciated. Real talk, you're the best I ever had."
And then I knew I had been heard. Again.
See, it's not about me. It's about them. All the ones who need to know it's possible, who need to believe there's hope. They can take that little speech, those words of truth, and parlay them into a leap to the sun. I've seen it happen over and over. It amazes me every time. That I get to participate in their process. That I get to show them how to stretch their bow. That I get to give them sustenance, sometimes before they even know they're hungry.
European-American youth who may have always known they're going to do this and be that and have those things that make them what they've always known they'd be--they have problems, too. And I work with them one on one endlessly, when they need me, but they often have other support mechanisms, as well. Not always, but often. And they have the social benefits of their racial privilege. Still, even they have the capacity to surprise me.
Yesterday, as I mulled over the note I had received the day before, I got an email from a former student, a young European-American man who was raised in a fine home in a particularly beautiful and wealthy setting, the son of a powerful father, with basically nowhere to go but up. Very bright, he spoke almost not at all, but he came within three points of earning all the possible points in the course, and then asked me politely at the end if he might contact me by email sometime. I assured him that he could. And here it finally was.
"I just wanted you to know," he wrote,"that what I learned from you touched me deeply, and you may have taken me one step closer to finding out what I want to do with my life. I'm not sure, but I think I may want to write or somehow communicate on as large a scale as possible--always on my subject of choice: institutional injustice, that of our country in particular...After one of your classes when you were lecturing about the state of affairs in this country...I went down to my car, started processing that information with my life experiences and cried. I wasn't even really sure why...I have always had to do what I have to do and have rarely done what I wanted to do. I have just put my philosophies and creativity on hold...[Y]our class brought a piece of me out and I thank you..."
So, there it is--Black or White. I am socially reproducing myself as a conscious European-American. I am--to the extent I am capable--being a bridge of hope across which people of color can walk to their next destination. And when the world is too much with me, I am, always, saved by the students I'm trying to save. And that's the way it works, I guess, because, in the end, maybe we're all just fighting for our lives.