Saturday, July 15, 2006

Fighting For Our Lives

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.


Peacechick Mary said...

That you made it throught to one, just one, is a tribute. That little ray of light that hits the mark and opens one up to the possibilities of a real, as opposed to artificial life. Well done, Changeseeker!

iaintlying said...

The fight is very real and thank-you for taking the time and effort to make sure that those that you teach are equipped for whatever our particular fight might be. I learned from you that knowledge is
not only power, but a formidable weapon when grounded in the truth,
truth being, alethea, the actual base at the appearance of what is real. Thanks for making sure that we are locked and loaded with knowledge and truth. Thanks for encouraging us to engage our brain and whatever other resources we have available, to make our quality of life as an individual better and the lives of those around us. Much love for you and may many blessings overtake you.
Fight on!

Mark Prime (tpm/Confession Zero) said...

Teach us something
If you don’t we’ll not know
That this war never ends
That we will be breathing the eternal war of our forbearers
We’ll not know that we exist in the bomb-tripped retaliation
Of hostilities not taught in history books or churches
Not discussed at town hall meetings or in our homes
A history that will be neighbor to our children’s duration
Whose marrow will be dust settling upon their bitter air
Of which their children breathe and envelop its despair

How much more will it take for us to tell the truth,
To teach the truth, to sing the truth, to change our “truth”

We are a rigid-plated contraption
Our engine’s dry of a useful knowledge
We are bred as a warring machine
The blades of our rhetoric based on lies
Bullets in our history stamped “friendly fire”
Arias of aggression harmonized to a drunken two-step
Our feet at birth tap out its refrain
Our hands move in trigger-pull simulation
Minds filled with jingoisms
And fast food and television
And our trees are cut down
To reveal a conjured bogeyman

Teach us something
If you don’t we’ll not know
That this age had a beautiful march for freedom
That our treachery was not the status quo
That the Iraqi people were not monsters
We’ll not know
That the men and women wearing the uniform
Were conned by an amoral group of ruffians
Teach us raw fact
Dismantle our hardened armor
Oil our dry engines with veracity
Let us breed not war
Let us breed peace
Teach us that

changeseeker said...

Thank you, Mary, that's the way I see it, too.

And thanks to you, too, iaintlying. The blessings are gratefully accepted.

And what can I say, Poetryman, about having you set my comments section ablaze. I hear you. I hear you.

Hillary for President said...

What I thing is this: are problems our not as big as the poor Lesbanese who are being killed every day just because they are gay. Israel is full of homophobes and somethink has gots to change. We should take a word form the grate Jock Shiraq when he say if you got a problem wish headballah then take up with headballah not the Lesbanese.

I blog extendedly on this at my site in a post call sacre bleu .

We need focus on that rite now.

RachelsTavern said...

Nice, stories. You must be teaching summer school. I'm with you. I have students who I really take to, and like it not I do have some I make much more of an effort to reach than others.

In my African American sociology class last semester I had only 3 Black men, two of whom are fabulous students both from disadvantaged backgrounds, but manage to compete with the rich (mostly white) kids at the private school I teach at. The other Black male student was a football player and he seemed to have habit of falling asleep in class, which given how lively the rest of the class was. I could figure out what the deal was and I knew he liked the class. He came to me mid-semester because his advisor asked him if he was going to pass the class. I always figure this is my opportunity, when I have them in the office.
First, I asked what was going on. Some student fall asleep because they work midnights, etc, but he had no good excuse. So I laid into him--in a sort of motherly/big sister way. He told me about his mother in the past, so I ended my little tirade with my favorite line, "What would your mother think about this?"

His class room behavior got much better, and I enlisted the help of the class (everyone noticed his sleeping habit) to get him to change. So we reach the end of the semester, he writes this great paper, and has some sort of statement that he makes in the discussion (I can't rememebr.). I said in front of the class, "you know I'm so proud of you. I knew you could do this." Next thing you know the other students are chiming in, giving him support. Then on the last day of class he gave me some kind words, and I reiterated how well he had done, next thing all of the other students are clapping for him. It was sort of surreal, and I said what did for you. He said, 'When you asked me what would my mother think?"

I was like--Maybe I need to keep using that technique. I was hard on him, ut it was one of those, "I would let you continue to act that way and not say anything if I didn't care or see potential moments."

It was also nice to see everybody invested in helping him.

I wonder about these guys, especially young Black men. They hear the dumb jock thing soooooo much, and many faculty members buy into that crap. So many people expect them to just get by.

Mark Prime (tpm/Confession Zero) said...

Thanks, teacher friend! :>)

changeseeker said...

The situation in Lebanon is making me crazy, too, H4P. It's so wrong. And it's so supported by the U.S. government.

Great story, Rachel. After a long time, the stories pile up. Sometimes, they're triumphs. Sometimes, they're not. But you can't take it personally or you'll lose your ability to keep doing it. I held an exam review during office hours today. None of my athletes showed up. Sigh. Hope they didn't need it.

Poetryman, if I thank you for thanking me, we're gonna get into a very weird dance, so I'm just gonna wink and smile. ;-) But it's nice not to be alone with all this...emotion.

changeseeker said...

Gosh, I hate when my smile winds up on a different line. Let's try it again: ;-)

RachelsTavern said...

"None of my athletes showed up. Sigh. Hope they didn't need it."

Yeah, you can extend yourself only so far. I had a student last year who was shot. I tried to get through to him, but I have a feeling it was futile. Hopefully, not.

changeseeker said...

I once spoke on the social construction of race and racism in a 5th grade class in a school that was heavily racially mixed. Two weeks later, I heard that a boy student shot and killed a girl student there. I've always wondered if it was one of the boys in the class and whether I had wakened a sleeping dog without giving him enough to eat. Didn't have the nerve to find out for certain, though.

glenda said...

Hi, well, what can i say? I have 3 kids in college right now. My middle child is studying to be a bi-lingual teacher in a pre-school class with 16 five-year olds from 8 different countries. She says love and listening is the bridge to reaching others from different cultures, even small children who speak no English.

changeseeker said...

Sounds like your daughter has a clue, Glenda. :-D

glenda said...

Oh, she does, she does.
Good luck with your mom.
My mother also had Alzheimer's.
It's a terrible, terrible disease.

Unknown said...

You rise a lot of questions and paint a world that is out of control. As a poet I know how you feel. But sometime (and it may seem like most of the time) there is joy in the world. I belive that it is all in the canon of humankind to be cruel to each other and to be selfishly out to please number one.
To be fair there is some joy to be found in man, we can be both tender toward eachother, this may at times seem rare if you watch and listen to the nightly news. There is joy to be found in us, although it may seem small and far and few. You can not give up hope, but take the good with the bad. Life is short in the big picture and in the end it may seem that it have all been for not. It is up to each of us to bring peace and love into the world. If I sound like a poet who is wearing rose color glasses. I'm not and if you spend some time with my poetry you will see that sometime I take man to task for the way that we treat each other.

changeseeker said...

What I'm really doing here, David, is celebrating the indomitable human spirit (my own and others') in the face of pain and difficulty. I find those spirits beautiful and their triumphs full of joy. But it doesn't make the pain invisible.

And speaking of invisible pain, D., did you realize that you twice used the term "man" to mean "humankind"? I'm not being crabby. Just thought I'd mention it.

Welcome to my house. I'll come visit you soon. :-)

Professor Zero said...

I am always heartened to see it when someone takes the kinds of students we have (at these non-elite schools) seriously. I'm not the I-love-to-teach type, and people who can't read do not tend to pass my courses, but my students are very interesting people and they deserve for us to try. I've got some great student stories and/but I notice that some of my colleagues at more 'selective' schools are horrified--both that I have the kinds of students I have, and that I would admit it. (I think that's a weird attitude they have.) And/but I like these students, they are lively.

Anonymous said...

im a student moving into grad school at a public university. i have only had a 'public' education, even when i was paying out-of-state tuition fees, and i could never imagine studying or working in any other type of environment. my parents always told me it doesn't matter how much you pay for it, it's what you make of it. i don't know if im just fortunate enough to have taken the right classes, but i've had a number of really oustanding and very good instructors (hensley happens to be one of the few that top the list). and i'm so grateful for the variety of people i've met... from such a variety of backgrounds. simply: it's been awesome.

changeseeker said...

Professor: I hadn't even considered that my students were different somehow from private school students. I have some with dazzling capabilities and many who routinely dispatch university level work with casual grace. And I have met enough upper class people in my life to know that most of them would not fall into either group no matter where they got their degree. But I am one of those "love-to-teach" types :-D and I get closer to many of my students than most professors necessarily do. (If the class has fewer than sixty students, for example, I learn most of their names.) I might be totally mistaken, but I suspect that I'd find a representative number of students manifesting life-changing difficulties in more exclusive institutions, as well. Maybe not the same difficulties overall, but childhood molestation (for example) can and does happen in any family and just because a person is rich doesn't mean they've been emotionally supported.

Anyway, this post represents real stories, but over a long period of time, of course. And I didn't focus on the many, many students who have routinely held me for hours after a three-hour class--late into the night sometimes--to discuss, to question, to explore, to learn, to grow.

Enter Anonymous: (More than likely a case in point.) Greetings, Former Student. Glad to know you drop by and feel inclined to join the discussions--still. You're welcome here anytime. And good luck in grad school. I'm delighted to have had an opportunity to be part of your evolution. Pass it on.

changeseeker said...

It occurs to me as well (and here I am commenting on my own post--how lame is that?), that many of the difficulties of my students in public universities and community colleges are set up in one way or the other--or at least exacerbated by--social institutions and social forces over which they may have little, if any, control.

Professor Zero said...

I hadn't even considered that my students were different somehow from private school students. I have some with dazzling capabilities and many who routinely dispatch university level work with casual grace. And I have met enough upper class people in my life to know that most of them would not fall into either group no matter where they got their degree.

Yes, I agree, with one difference: my students are way less spoiled and sheltered than many of the ones I had at private schools. It is such a relief.

...many of the difficulties of my students in public universities and community colleges are set up in one way or the other--or at least exacerbated by--social institutions and social forces over which they may have little, if any, control.

Definitely. I only wish my institution would give them the kind of respect and support that students at private schools get--or that I got as an undergraduate at a large, public R1, for that matter. All too often, I see the institution saying to itself, well, we're giving them a degree, isn't that enough? But no, it isn't, especially if they don't have college-educated parents they can turn to for aid and abettance on issues like future plans.

Now it is summer, and I'm not even teaching, and I claim not to be the I-love-to-teach type, but I've still got office hours for: resume writing, Peace Corps applications, Fulbright applications, grad school advice, and so on. By their own behavior, the professors I had--and I am talking about professors with Guggenheims, MacArthurs, and so on--gave me the distinct impression that this was part of the job. Where I am now, if you don't do this stuff, you end up with students who have degrees but not enough skills, or degrees and skills, but not enough information on what they might do with these. I find this really irresponsible, especially now that college is so expensive no matter where you study.

changeseeker said...

Professor: Yes, yes, and more yes! And I'll be teaching this coming academic year at a small, private, Catholic university where many of the students have come from much more sheltered environments. So check back with me in a few months (and thanks for the heads-up :-D).

Even as an adjunct, I'm often more readily available than many of the full-time folks and they watch the steady stream coming in and out of my office as if I'm giving away free money. Occasionally, I get a comment about how it's nice to have all that time to dedicate to students instead of "having to" focus on research all the time...?! Whatever.

*shakes head sadly*