Q is for Quixotic

Kids talk to me all day long. To keep myself interested, I filter through the streams of consciousness for bits of dialog I want to remember or write into a different context. Most of what they say flows through me, questions asked and answered, complaints contended with and released, problems solved or postponed.

Yesterday a student said, “I just realized something, Dr. F. Since you started here in December, you’ve been here every day!”

I said, “Well, that’s not exactly true, I was gone one day because I went to DC.”

“Yeah, but you told me you weren’t gonna be here.”

I smiled. “It’s my job to be here, so I’m here.”

“Yeah, but ever since you started, I can get a book whenever I want. I just realized that just now.”

And 36 hours later, I just realized what a nice thing he was trying to say.

 

P is for Power Rangers

Years before Facebook, if I wondered about some of my old middle and high school classmates, I could always check the Illinois Inmate Search. It was a handy tool to keep track of some folks I hadn’t kept up with after leaving home. It couldn’t help me with my eighth grade science partner, who was in federal prison for drug trafficking (although just recently released — apparently the federal government now has a tool, as well, but it’s much less informative and doesn’t have pictures.) But for the state level offenses, I was rather adept at guessing who I’d find.

I’m not surprised. Rockford, IL was in the midst of a drug war in the 1990s. Crack arrived sometime around 1991, and between 1992 and 1995, I was confounded to watch kid after kid I knew from the arcades transform from goofy adolescent middle schooler to crack dealing drop outs. The mother of one of them, a long time alcoholic, began smoking crack herself. She’d never been the mother who’d make sandwiches for visiting kids, but it was shocking nevertheless the first time I realized she’d stolen money from my school bag. I didn’t know moms could do that.

The kid who broke my heart was the goofiest at first. I tried so hard to do something. I spent the equivalent of weeks on the phone with him as his stepfather began the process of cutting his mother out of their lives. I took his stepdad’s side, arguing against my friend’s “he’s not my real father” defenses. Being, you know, fourteen years old myself, I didn’t tell any of the responsible adults in my own life the extent of my distress. Within a year, his stepdad was losing the battle for C. Mr. S. always worked at least two jobs, caring for four children, only two of them his own. No matter how many hours he worked, though, it was never enough.

When we were about fifteen, C’s mother devised this plan for how her son could come live with her. Shortly after that, a mutual friend from his neighborhood called me to tell me C had been arrested. I thought maybe that would be a turning point. It was not. It was only the first stone in the downhill cascade. My heart cracked. I was sixteen by then and able to drive myself to his stepdad’s house after C’d been released into his custody. Looking back now as an adult, I realize C was proud he’d been arrested. No one made fun of him anymore.

One thing never changed, however, in all the years I knew C. Every day, at 4:30, he watched Power Rangers. Before I could drive, we’d be on the phone. I’d be doing my math or Latin homework while he watched Power Rangers. If we went to a playground, he’d want to act out Power Rangers. This didn’t change throughout high school. I felt, for the longest time,  that as long as he maintained his love for Power Rangers, we were still kids. Nothing was over yet. Roles weren’t set. The future could change.

The last time I saw C was after my sophomore year in college. He was on probation, and I’d gotten him a job via my internship with the Hull House. He screwed it up. I went to his apartment to yell at him. We went for lunch, and he promised he’d change. At some point that day I asked him, “Do you still watch Power Rangers?”

“No,” he laughed.

I didn’t say anything, but I never saw him again.

 

O is for Opportunity

You know the expression, “bloom where you’re planted?” I’m certain I never heard it before we moved to the South.

It’s a lovely phrase, for some. I like the idea, as I’ve written, of working with a place to make it the site of your dreams. We can’t all live in Boston, after all.

Yet deployed in a particular way, the phrase can feel like a weapon. Community matters, and if you’re not of the majority, not everywhere will have one for you. It’s simple, if you have an identity that’s common, to assume that an open personality can build community anywhere. That may be true for the minority — if you’re willing to forego or neglect nurturing key parts of your self.

But that doesn’t even begin to address the problem of opportunity. New career opportunities rarely present themselves. I had the first inkling I might not want to stay in academia right after we lost our firstborn son. I searched job listings in Ann Arbor, where we lived, a month or so later. I came upon one listing that looked promising, but I was hoping to try again for a child. Few fields open to me were as flexible and family-friendly as academia. I recommitted myself and didn’t think about changing again for a few years.

Had the market been more open, had the economy not failed, I may have stuck it out. We may have ended up in a place where I could have bloomed.

A younger friend recently asked for advice about graduate school. I don’t like giving advice. He may complete his PhD and find the perfect job in the perfect place waiting for him. Or he might not. He’s not married, but he wants to be some day. He might find a partner who can go almost anywhere, or he might not. He might be able to make his own opportunities, or he might not.

When I applied to graduate school in 2002, it was because after three years out of college, I couldn’t imagine anything I wanted to do more than study history. I’m not that person anymore, but I had no way of knowing then what I know now. I took the opportunities I had at the time, knowing what I knew then.

 

 

 

N is for Narrative

Wise asked me, “Why does Donald Trump have such a grudge against Mexicans?”

Hoot jumped in, “Oh Wi-ise, that’s just how he talks.”

I asked him what he meant.

“I eating my ice cream,” Hoot replied. “I no want to talk about dis.”

I can’t blame him.

I read an article today, about Monica Lewinsky and her anti-bullying efforts. I’m a few years younger than Lewinsky — watching her story unfold, as told by other people, was a definitive part of my political coming of age in the 1990s. It was crushing, in a way that’s still hard to articulate. I’ve never had a desire to be the president of the United States, or to be that close to one. I had thoughts in the late 90s of going to Washington, DC, getting involved in national politics. Not after that.

The President of the United States then of course had no crystal ball; he couldn’t see the future or possibly even anticipate the effects of his words. But I knew, even then, the message of the narrative that echoed from his words through the media and even among my friends.

She didn’t matter.

Perhaps we’re better now. I hope we are.

M is for Melvin, Memories

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I worked for a temp service in Boston for a month or so before finding my first real job after college, and spent two weeks working for the Harvard School of Public Health during their applications season. I helped file and photocopy and other mundane tasks. One afternoon, an older gentleman came into the office to collect the admin to attend a lunch with prospective students.

“What are you doing?” he asked gruffly when I continued my filing as the permanent staff prepared to leave.

“Oh, am I supposed to come too?” I asked.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he replied, or in similar words.

The man kind of terrified me and I wasn’t sure how to interpret his answer. Someone made it clear that was his form of invitation, and we left. I learned as we walked that he was a celebrated emeritus faculty member.

We ate at the Squealing Pig. I worked one more day at the office and then moved on to another project before I found my job at the start-up.

Fast forward through my years in Israel and now I’ve started graduate school in Michigan. I begin dating a guy from St. Louis, Josh.It’s a funny coincidence that he has a Boston connection as well, and we go to visit his grandpa there in the Spring of 2003.

I can’t remember at what point I realized the professor from my temp position was Melvin First, Josh’s grandpa. Mel didn’t remember me from that day, but he confirmed they often took prospective students to the Squealing Pig, so my memory was correct.

I grew to love Mel. We’re coming up on the fifth anniversary of his death, but especially since my grandfathers died before I was born, I’m so grateful he was in my life for almost 9 years. Our first meeting entirely fit his personality. He wasn’t always the easiest man to get along with, but of course he’d include a random temp in a lunch invitation. As gruff but accomplished as he was, no one was invisible to him.

Hoot’s middle name is Melvin, and more than once I’ve thought they share more than a name. Wise thinks he remembers Great Grandpa, but his memories are more than likely based on his imagination from this picture, which we called, “Great-Grandpa and Wise Discuss What to do With Your Life.” It’s okay — almost all the elements for a correct memorial of Mel are in this shot if you examine closely.

Great-Grandpa Tells Samuel What to do with his Life

The second grade hosted a “Living Museum of Inventors” this spring, and Wise was crazy proud to dress up as Mel, even though filters and laboratories aren’t as immediately interesting as light bulbs and chocolate chip cookies.

M is for Melvin

I wrote a tribute to Mel when he passed away, and it’s still one of my favorite memories. You can read it over on my old blog. It’s a great story.

L is for Listening

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I wasn’t sure Wise enjoyed the book signing we attended last night. He sat quietly throughout the event, paging through his copy of William Joyce‘s Ollie’s Odyssey.

But the first thing he’d said to me when I picked him up from school was, “Mama, an author came to school today. He’s going to be signing books at Laurelwood tonight. He has books for kids my age and Hoot’s age.”

So we went. The seats were nearly full, mostly with adults. Hoot and Josh went off to play in the kids’ area. A couple offered Wise a chair, but he wouldn’t sit. He seemed terrified. Finally I got him to sit, and he didn’t say another word. When Joyce finished, Wise jumped into line to get his book signed.

Afterwards, we asked him, “Did you enjoy it?”

“Yes.”

“Were you listening to what Mr. Joyce said?”

“Yes.”

Wise is not a one-word guy. I thought maybe he’d been bored and didn’t want to tell us since we’d thrown off our evening for this. Wise doesn’t like to disappoint people.

We left for school this morning and were a block away when he said, “Do you think I was the only kid from my class there last night?”

It wasn’t that crowded, but apparently Wise hadn’t noticed anyone around him.

“I think you might have been,” I told him. “And Daddy saw Mrs. Payne, your teacher.”

“Yes. Daddy told me that. I can’t believe I was the only kid from my class who got a book signed.”

“Do you like the book?”

A look of horror spread over his face. “I forgot to bring the book today!”

“Oh, well, you can bring it tomorrow.”

He began to cry. We rushed home to get it.

And thus began the monologue on William Joyce’s life.

“Isn’t it amazing he started out as a kid who drew crazy things but now people like his pictures? You know how William Joyce is an author and he makes movies? He gets to be two things! I want to be three things. When I grow up I want to make books, movies, and comics.”

I told him I’d checked out Joyce’s Twitter page and he was asking for pictures of people’s beloved stuffed animals.

“Take a picture of Big Monkey for him. Big Monkey can wear his bow tie, but don’t make him put that vest back on. He says it’s itchy and makes him hot.”

Apparently Wise needed twelve hours to process the experience.

As for me, Joyce’s relationship with his school librarian stood out. I don’t want to steal the thunder of his story if any of my three readers have the chance to see him. But the story captured for me the reasons I’m so glad I have my job. Librarians obviously have to follow school rules, but freed from the strict disciplinary functions of the principal and the need to hand out grades like the teachers, we can feed dreams.

Wise has a school librarian who does that. She’s understood him since kindergarten and while I’ve loved his teachers, Mrs. S has been a consistent presence for him for three years now, setting aside books and encouraging his annoying…I mean, charming, obsession with early American history.*

Wouldn’t it be great if such people were available for everyone, for our entire lives?

* I may have a PhD in the field, but I never wanted to groom a history buff.

 

K is for Kids?

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I taught on traditional university campuses as a graduate student between 2003 and 2009 and as a professor from 2009-2012. In Sept 2012 I made the transition to adjuncting at a regional campus. People often assume my disenchantment happened because I was an adjunct and exploited, but really teaching part-time was part of my plan to transition out.

The university paid its adjuncts comparatively well. If I’d taught two courses per term, I’d have had insurance.  Earning over $4,500 for teaching a three-hour course with no other responsibilities isn’t a bad deal if you’ve had the course planned for years.

I think it’s important to be frank about compensation and choices.

When I complained about my job, it wasn’t about my experience. I also struggled to communicate that to people. I was on the receiving end of so much advice about teaching, but I think I was a good teacher.

Really I was frustrated on behalf of my students. Frustrated because they had a professor who had no consistent place to meet with them. Frustrated because they hadn’t been prepared to read and write at a college level. Frustrated because they had bought into a promise of advancement through education that I wasn’t sure I believed in myself.

They weren’t entitled brats (even when they annoyed me, as all students will do). I was teaching courses where at least half the participants were above thirty years old. Most had children and jobs and so many responsibilities. Quite a few had seen combat in our nation of perpetual war.

I didn’t necessarily like or relate to my students — we often had strong and apparent disagreements about faith and politics. We had very different experiences and world views. But I aimed to give them course work and reading concise enough to compete with everything else happening in their life while still providing a legitimate college experience.

I’ve heard college administrators and faculty described as in loco parentis, a phrase I first heard from my dad, a public school teacher. We imagine lush, resort like campuses. My campus was behind a Family Dollar and had one coffee shop at the top of a stairwell.

A few years ago I had a conflict with a former professor of mine, on Facebook of course. I was a bit in the wrong, in as much as I posted about it. I was confused because a student asked, “Do we have class on Thursday?” the Thursday before Easter.

College professors know how breaks work. On the other side of the academic year, Thanksgiving is a Thursday. In Michigan, we still had class on Wednesday, but very few students came. In Ohio, we didn’t have class on Wednesday, so very few students came on Tuesday. In Mississippi, we had the full Thanksgiving week off, so many students were absent on the Friday before. Clearly you need to be where you’re going when vacation starts, not use of a day of it for travel. 

So, I made the mistake of saying something like “Apparently we now need a day to travel for Good Friday.” Being you know, Jewish, I was happy I’d looked at the calendar and at least guessed that her request had something to do with Easter.I’d done my footwork, I thought.

My past professor commented about how hard it was to be Christian on a campus, and how she’d never questioned a student who would be gone for Yom Kippur.  The student never mentioned Maundy Thursday, but someone in my Facebook feed did. I didn’t know it was a holiday. By simply stating “Thursday,” the student assumed I knew what she was talking about — and so did the professor who chastised me.

The entire post, essentially, revealed Christian hegemony but being conflict averse, I never stated that. (Also I’m not sure it’s legitimately hard to be Christian anywhere in Mississippi, but my mind is open to others’ experiences.)

Another portion of the conflict has stayed with me. Somewhere in there, several academics described how we’re responsible for so much more than history education as faculty. We’re helping “kids” learn how to live in the world.

The student who asked me was at least 40 years old. Sure, I could “teach” her something about diversity through history teaching itself. But as a professor teaching unquestionably adult students, I did not consider myself in loco parentis. 

I have made the best, and longest lasting connections with students who were by no means childrenIf I had spoken to that student about the content of her request (which I now wish I had done) I wouldn’t have been doing so as an older mentor, I’d have been doing so as a younger teacher.

I never felt entitled to teach those students about life. They had lived as much if not more so than I had. I shared with them, considerably, the struggles of having a family and working, of trying to figure out next steps when the old path wasn’t working, of having come from places where opportunities most certainly did not abound. But wisdom about making it in this world? I was earning $9,000 a year and even more lost than many of them about my next steps. Commiserate with them about life? I surely did that, but teach them? Only in as much as they also taught me.