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Imagining life without my front teeth

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When I was in 4th grade, I was in a bicycle accident with my friend Erica. My jaw broke in several places, and a few of my front teeth came out, roots and all. The oral surgeon tried to save the teeth, but one did not make it.

I’m continuing to deal with the ramifications of that accident over three decades later, which is slightly sucky, but today at the dentist’s office, I kept thinking how lucky I am.

so much novocaine that even my eyes felt numb
so much novocaine that even my eyes felt numb

Okay, the truth is, I was kinda miserable at the start of today’s appointment. I was having my front bridge replaced for the second time, and it is not a pretty sight or a pretty process. Being injected with novocaine hurts, and I needed a lot of it today. But worse for me was the way I felt when my bridge was out.

I felt ugly.

I look like a jack-o'-lantern here, still all full of novocaine
I look like a jack-o’-lantern here, still all full of novocaine

Now all of us can feel ugly at some points, so it’s not like I haven’t felt ugly before. But missing-your-front-teeth ugly is a very particular kind of ugly. It’s the kind of ugly that would affect my everyday interactions if it were a permanent condition. Without my front teeth, I would likely face negative judgments, disrespect, avoidance, devaluation. Seriously: I can picture the scenes, almost as if I were George Bailey, except instead of seeing an alternate universe without me in it, I see an alternate universe without my front teeth in it.

I’m in line at the grocery store and a toddler is looking at me from the cart in front of me, so I begin playing peek-a-boo. The parent looks at me and smiles, so I smile back, showing that I’m not a weirdo but just someone who enjoys begin silly with kids. The parent’s smile fades slightly. Thirty seconds later, the child in the cart is pushed ahead of the parent, and I wonder if it’s because of how I look. How many times will this happen before I stop goofing around with little kids?

 

I’m at an academic conference. I’m in line at a Starbucks / on an elevator / looking for a seat at a crowded panel. I always make small talk. Sometimes I initiate it and sometimes other people do. But what do I do now? Do I initiate? Or do I work on keeping my mouth closed as much as I possibly can to maintain my professional appearance?

 

I’m meeting with my children’s teachers. I have always gotten along well with teachers. But this time, I feel like they don’t take me seriously. They say my children are doing well and don’t answer my concerns. I try to press: Is the math challenging enough? Are there ways the writing prompts could be answered outside the 5-paragraph theme? My questions are deflected. I’m hurried out of the room.

 

I’m at a bar ordering drinks. People see me, see my lack of teeth, and turn away. I love bars. I love the light, stupid banter that makes me laugh and feel connected with people. I don’t know how to connect with people through light, stupid banter now that my teeth are gone. I have jokes to make, but they aren’t funny when no one is listening.

I could go on. It would suck.

So, sure, I felt lucky that I could have my bridge replaced and not go through life without my front teeth. But, more importantly, I felt lucky that I was reminded of what we all already know.

I am still the same person whether I have front teeth or not, and that person is worthy of respect. That person should be valued and listened to. Yet the me-without-front-teeth may have a lot of negative encounters and thus may not be as open or as positive or as ready to banter as some of us.

My temporary bridge in...still puffy from novocaine...
My temporary bridge in…still puffy from novocaine…& a smudge of blood on my cheek

You see what I’m getting at? I’m not lucky just because I have a bridge to cover up my gaps. And not just because people usually treat me in warm and respectful ways. And not just because thinking it through helps me feel grateful.

I’m also lucky because I was reminded to examine my own biases. To think about the times I turn away. To consider how I may show disrespect—almost instinctively—based on signs that are culturally interpreted as “less than,” “not worthy,” “not good enough.”

And to realize that people who have been disrespected for a good percentage of the time are probably going to behave in different ways than people who have been shown respect, so I gotta be careful with my tendency to judge behavior as well.

It may not always be missing front teeth. It may be an outfit, a hairstyle, an odor. It may be lots of things.

And I guess these thoughts are some of the more positive ramifications of that bike accident from way back when I was 10…and not at all what I was expecting when I was heading to the dentist’s office this morning.

At home writing, with novocaine almost warn off, temporary bridge in.
At home writing, with novocaine almost warn off, temporary bridge in.

P.S. If you want to see the ugliest pic of me from today, scroll way down. It includes some bloody gauze, so my daughter didn’t want to see it, but I feel like part of my point is to expose how I look when I’m not at my best, so I want to include it for the brave….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 teeth were extracted, others were drilled down for the new bridge, & I had bone grafting done. A little blood happened, and I did not look pretty! :)
2 teeth were extracted, others were drilled down for the new bridge, & I had bone grafting done. A little blood happened, and I did not look pretty! :)

7 lessons tae kwon do has reinforced about teaching writing

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I started tae kwon do classes a couple months ago, and I am not a natural. As I struggle and learn, I think again and again of how helpful it is for me to engage in an activity that is difficult for me. After all, many of the students in my first year writing classes have difficulty with writing, and it’s helpful for me to teach with some understanding of their perspective.

Each week, I’ve been thinking of those students—the ones who struggle—and here are some of the important reminders I’ve received. The tae kwon do instructor, Brent, is a great teacher, so he has helped me think about my own teaching.

1. Repetition is crucial.

I’ve always been a good student, but I often cannot remember how to do a move, even if I’ve just seen Brent demonstrate it clearly. Somehow, when I try, the move doesn’t translate the way I’d like it to.

I also often don’t remember what we learned from one week to the next. It’s not that I didn’t pay attention. It’s just that a lot is new to me, so it’s tough to retain it.

Being told something or shown something once is not enough. Repetition is key. Eventually, I pick it up. But it’s rarely a one-and-done teaching & learning approach.

I shouldn’t expect my students to know something simply because I’ve said it or they’ve read it.

2. Ongoing feedback is vital.

Each time Brent shows us something, we immediately put it into practice. He then visits each pair or group and offers praise as well as corrections and reminders.

Some of these reminders and adjustments are specific to me:  “Turn your shoulders more when doing the roundhouse, Laurie. It will help add force.”

Some feedback is directed to the whole class. Brent will interrupt practice if he notices that he has to give similar advice to several people: “I notice many of you are stepping, but that’s going to throw your balance off. Keep your feet planted. This move should rely on your upper body exclusively.”

The most useful feedback is given as students write and practice—not when their writing is being graded.

3. Praise helps.

It’s embarrassing to learn. The class I participate in is a mixed-level class, so there are people at advanced levels, and I feel incompetent as I get things wrong or use poor form. Of course, I know that failing is part of learning, but it is still difficult to struggle in front of other people.

Brent praises what each of us does right. He also praises us for sticking with it and making the effort to learn: “You are actually picking this up quickly. This isn’t easy. People take a lot of time when the material is new to them.”

I need to explicitly recognize the gifts students bring to their writing—whether creativity, strong organization, or habits of mind that will lead to success. 

4. It helps to both practice what we should do and understand why we do it.

While much of the class involves being shown a technique and then practicing it, Brent also explains why we step in a certain way, or he has us explore the difference between moving our legs in one way versus another way. Learning happens more quickly when the directives are clearly meaningful rather than willy-nilly.

Also, the rationales behind the techniques help me to remember and apply the lessons. It helps me feel like I’m part of tae kwon do as I understand the principles behind the movements.

I should connect any discussions of writing and rhetoric with actual writing the students do. And, often, I can ask students to think through why certain conventions are expected for particular genres so they become part of a discourse community of writers.

5. The learning process sometimes looks messed-up.

Often, Brent will give me advice that I will try to apply. In the process, I am very self-conscious, and I am very focused on a  precise change—perhaps moving my feet to face in a specific direction. In the meantime, other parts of my form go haywire and become unnatural. I often lose my balance while I’m trying to improve a technique, and as I correct one part of my form, other parts of my form go out of sync for a time.

That is all normal when learning something new. It is not a sign of laziness or lack of care. I need to be patient with myself when learning.

I need to be patient with students when teaching, and I need to help students learn patience with themselves. What appears to be regression is often simply a sign that new growth is occurring.

6. It’s smart to break things down into small steps and recognize patterns.

When something is tricky or has many parts, it makes a huge difference to practice one step at a time, with each new part incorporating the earlier part.

It’s also useful for me as a learner to notice patterns, like my tendency to struggle with a particular movement. Brent also regularly points out patterns: “For this sequence, always step with the same hand you use to block.”

It is helpful to have students break their writing down into steps—not necessarily discreet steps of the writing process, but perhaps using a series of assignments that lead to a full research project.

It also helps to notice patterns of writing within particular genres or rhetorical situations; to notice patterns across genres; and I also try to focus on patterns of error at the sentence level when helping students proofread and edit.

7. Using consistent & vivid terms helps.

We practice wrist locks, and Brent calls one movement that is used in several sequences “slingshotting the hand up.” That term helps me remember the move because it’s metaphorical, and I can easily transfer it to new sequences when appropriate. This technique fits with point 1—it contributes to a helpful repetition.

love writing analogies, and I love when students create their own analogies for writing. I can be even more conscious of reusing certain phrases that will hopefully help students remember and apply writing techniques that will make their writing more effective.

***

I’m sure there are more things I’ve learned, but these have been the reminders that have most clearly crystallized so far.

I also need to point out that I’m learning tae kwon do classes because I choose to do so. The same is often not true for my writing students. There’s thus a whole other level of work I do when teaching writing that is meant to help motivate students and help them recognize that writing is a gift that we can appreciate and enjoy.

I may also share this post with students so that they know that I’m willing to be vulnerable and take risks so that I can learn something new. I hope they will have enough confidence and willpower to do the same.

And if they don’t quite believe me, maybe I’ll show them a couple of my moves….

flag protests & counter-protests

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A recent  Inside Higher Ed article described a) two small campus protests “denouncing the mistreatment of black Americans” that involved walking on the American flag and b) huge counter-protests on behalf of the flag. The article resonated with me because just last semester, a similar controversy took place on my own campus.

Although my discussion could go in a gzillion or so directions, I’m going to focus. I’m interested in the way the #blacklivesmatter protests on all three campuses (the 2 from the article and my own) have received less support than the counter-protests defending the flag. I’m curious about the oppositional rhetoric and the divisiveness, and I can’t help but wonder:

Is there a way beyond the seeming opposition of these two groups?

I’m interested in this question for several reasons. One is because I’ve never defaced the flag or even been involved in a huge protest, but I support the #blacklivesmatters protests. I also support veterans on my campus, and my husband is an air force veteran. I sometimes feel like I straddle two worlds, but the worlds don’t feel (like they should be) oppositional.

Second, I saw students on both sides of the issue speak to one another with good will in an on-campus forum arranged by the amazing professionals who work in Student Life at my university. I liked that students were speaking and listening to one another, but I wondered if the original protest about #blacklivesmatter was pushed to the side more than it should have been.

I’m also interested because a friend from high school posted something about kicking asses of flag defacers when I Facebook-shared the Inside Higher Ed article. I removed his comment and my friend asked why, pointing out that he wasn’t being racist. The exchange made me think.

Finally, more on flag controversy seems to be happening, with people joining both the “Eric Sheppard challenge”  to stomp on flags to make a statement and counter movements to overwhelm flag protests with pro-U.S.A. social media posts.

My initial response to the basic controversy

If I’m faced with the choice—do I feel more concern for lives or for a flag?—I’m going to choose lives every time. The flag is a piece of cloth. It’s great for bringing people together, but flags are also ways of pulling people apart and creating conflict. On a very basic level, flags don’t mean very much to me. And they never mean more to me than actual people.

So, my bigger challenge is to figure out why people stand up on behalf of flags so quickly and vehemently. Here are my best conjectures.

Flag-loving deconstructed

While I see the flag as a symbol with little meaning in and of itself, many many people view the flag as the ultimate symbol of the U.S. Thus, anyone who defaces the flag or otherwise disrespects the flag is explicitly defacing and disrespecting the actual country, as well as U.S. values of justice, freedom, and liberty.

Furthermore, the flag is often viewed as “belonging” to those serving in the military more so than to civilians. Veterans are viewed as having a greater stake in the flag and the country it represents because they put their lives on the line to protect it. Because of the popular association between the flag and the military, any defacement and disrespect of the former is viewed as defacement and disrespect of veterans themselves.

As the flag is conflated with

  • the country as a whole;
  • abstract values of justice, freedom, & liberty; and
  • military personnel and veterans in particular,

it is not surprising that many become enraged when protesters deface the flag. It is viewed as a hostile action to the country, as if the flag protester is committing treason as an outsider rather than protesting as a citizen within the system.

Furthermore, many people are staunchly defensive of the military. I think this is partly a response to the poor treatment of American military veterans who served in Vietnam, as chronicled in movies as vastly different as First Blood and Forrest Gump. Of course, sometimes the military and the people who serve there do things wrong. There have been plenty of controversies in recent years, with torture in Abu Ghraib coming most readily to mind, not to mention the sexual assault chronicled in the award-winning movie The Invisible War.

However, despite evidence that the military is (or people in the military are) not always heroic or brave or good, in the popular imagination, military personnel and veterans are afforded the benefit of the doubt. They are regularly heralded as heroic and brave and good. No matter what. It’s just the default. Evidence of complexity and wrongdoing is tucked to the side because it feels good to love our country and the people who have risked their lives to defend it. In the process of praising the people who are actually heroic, we end up praising people who have not risked their lives at all, and we end up praising people who have done terrible things, and we end up feeling called to defend the military (and thus the flag) from any threat.

Even when the threat may not be a threat at all but instead a challenge for the country and the flag that represents it to be worthy of the best the military has to offer.

Why use the flag in protests?

If defacing the flag is likely to be interpreted as an attack on the country and, more specifically, those who have served in the military, it doesn’t make sense for protesters to deface it.

After all, #blacklivesmatters is about changing the way we value black lives as a country, both systemically (e.g., the problems of mass incarceration) and individually (e.g., the habit of assuming that a black person is more likely to be a criminal). Displaying disrespect towards veterans isn’t really a good means to that ends.

But what if the intention behind defacing the flag is not disrespect at all but instead a challenge to Americans to live the values the flag represents?

I believe there is a fundamental miscommunication in perceptions of the flag. While people offended by defacement of the flag perceive protesters as outsiders, the protesters see themselves as insiders who care enough about this country and the injustices experienced here to stand up, to make themselves (even more) vulnerable (than they already are), to find ways to get the attention of people who may not experience everyday microaggressions (never mind structural/institutional racism).

Defacement of the flag is a way of saying, “America, you are not delivering on your promises of justice, freedom, and liberty. America, we demand more. America, it is time for you to be worthy of the best the military has to offer.”

Part of the reason why flag protesters are not heard correctly is because they are perceived as outsiders. And part of the reason why they are perceived as outsiders is because the protesters in the #blacklivesmatter movement are assumed guilty. That is, the protesters are perceived in the exact opposite way that the military is perceived, even though both groups (or people in both groups) clearly have displayed a mix of heroism (standing on the side of justice & freedom), neutral action (not necessarily bad or good), and criminal action.

Even though I’m describing a huge (and unfair) divide in perceptions, my description doesn’t answer the question,

“Why use flags in #blacklivesmatter protests?”

After all, the divide I’m describing not only renders the flag protests ineffectual but also increases a divide that already exists. To the degree that protesters are perceived as against the (overly-idealized) military and against values of justice and freedom associated with the flag, the protesters are viewed as more guilty and criminal—and less worthy of appropriate treatment—than they had been before.

Let me pause for a moment to be clear:

  • African American protesters (rather than white protesters) are likely to be viewed as already-guilty outsiders who reify their guilt and demonstrate their inability to appreciate American liberty as they deface the flag.
  • White flag protesters are likely to be viewed as clueless liberal enablers who don’t value the military and who do not take pride in their country.
  • Neither would be considered a “real” American, but the black person would be the one more likely to be viewed as “criminal.”

Changing the question

Have you noticed that I still haven’t answered the question? There’s a good reason for that.

I don’t think there’s a good answer. Without an extreme measure—defacement of the flag or destruction of property or violence—the #blacklivesmatter protest on my own campus, on other campuses, and in big cities like Baltimore hasn’t been given attention.

If I have to choose between a) speaking and not being heard or b) speaking in ways that will express my anger and frustration—even if that anger and frustration is misunderstood—what is the right choice?

The answer is that there is no right choice.

The answer is that it’s not up to the protesters to find a “correct” way to be heard. When the default perception is that the protesters are guilty and wrong, there’s no good way to be heard.

The answer is that those who have a problem with the flag being defaced better do a better job of listening and speaking up and intervening so that extreme action isn’t needed.

The answer is that the media can do a better job giving voice to the people who don’t usually have a voice. If you think it can’t be done or that it isn’t profitable or that people don’t pay attention, then you should spend some time looking at the work of Humans of New York.

The answer is that the question isn’t, “Why deface the flag in a protest?” but rather,

“Why do we find one reason after another to deflect the concerns of so many Americans?”

and

“How can we do better?”

#blacklivesmatter

at least 2 truths

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Today is Wednesday, January 7, 2015, and I’m in my car in Dallas, Pennsylvania while my three sisters, two brothers, and parents are at the hospital in Beverly, Massachusetts.

I wrote that a week ago, on the night my Aunt Margie died. I felt upset that Aunt Margie was dying, and I felt upset that I wasn’t there, with her and with the rest of my family.

I wrote more, both that night in the car while waiting for my daughter’s field hockey practice to end, and afterwards, while coming to grips with the fact that Margie is gone. But I wasn’t ready to post anything I wrote about my Aunt Margie because a) I thought it kept becoming about me instead of about Margie and b) I felt like I was side-stepping the fact that I have not been there for Margie for most of my adult life—that I was presenting her life in my terms, with my memories, and was thus omitting the last 25 years of her life.

And those may be the only two truths I have to offer, and they’re not pretty: That I’m ultimately wrapped in my own perspective and that I wasn’t there for Margie.

But I hope there’s more.
***

the Cunningham family house where Margie lived
the Cunningham family house where Margie lived

As a kid, I didn’t know that the acidic smell when we entered the house was actually the smell of cats. I didn’t know the stereotype of crazy ladies living with cats. I didn’t know what an “apparatus” might be a euphemism for. I didn’t even know the word “euphemism.”

What I did know was what life was like when we visited Aunt Margie’s house. It was full of sweets and games and loud laughter. We didn’t have a lot of rules and we didn’t need a lot of rules. Janet and Diane and I would stay for a weekend or a week, and maybe we fought and squabbled the way we always did, but I don’t have any memories of that. Instead, I remember that Janet loved to dust at Aunt Margie’s house, and I loved to sweep. I don’t know what chore Diane enjoyed, but I’m sure she did something to earn money to shop.

And shop we did. We’d walk to Bearskin Neck, often stopping at the swings for a few minutes on the way. We’d pass a sign held up by a post that looked like a linked chain; it caught my attention every single time.

The cool sign post that looks like iron links.
The cool sign post that looks like iron links.

And we’d always stop and watch the taffy being stretched or wrapped or boxed in what seemed like magical procedures in the window of Tuck’s. I’m horrible with directions and remembering where things are, but the pattern of landmarks on the way to Bearskin Neck somehow entertained me, nearly as much as the shops themselves.

The taffy machine at Tuck's looks a lot like this. (Tuck's candy is amazing, by the way!)
The taffy machine at Tuck’s looks a lot like this. (Tuck’s candy is amazing, by the way!)

As a kid, I didn’t know my mom’s hometown was a tourist town. I didn’t know that it’s amazing to live where you can walk to a tourist center of shops where hardly any cars drive. I didn’t know that it’s a big deal to live a five-minute walk from the beach. I didn’t know I was lucky to have an Aunt Margie who lived near Motif No. 1, the most painted building in the U.S. I take that back; I did know I was lucky to have Aunt Margie.

Motif #1 in Rockport, the most-painted building in the U.S.
Motif #1 in Rockport, the most-painted building in the U.S.

We stopped in shops with names that are on the tip of my tongue…one that had jewelry (was it Krames?), where I’m sure I bought at least one ring with my birthstone. Either that shop or another offered fluorescent coral and sea shells, the kind that were polished and beautiful and that didn’t seem even remotely connected to the purplish sandy clam shells or smelly snails I would collect from the beach.

I looked at miniature doll house figures and furniture in a store whose name I can’t recall (though “Mrs. Something” is dancing in my head; Mrs. Twigg’s? is that possible?), and I probably bought something small and cheap there at one time or another. We always visited The Happy Whale. I regularly spent my chore money on invisible ink books, which are awesome.

invisible ink books are awesome
invisible ink books are awesome

Our Bearskin Neck excursions always included a quick look at the lobsters at the Roy Moore Lobster Company. They both fascinated and disgusted me; I could never imagine eating one back then.

10067814
the Roy Moore Lobster Company

But don’t worry; we did not starve. We always stopped at the Country Store where we would each pick out penny candy to take home in a little brown bag. Did it actually cost a penny? I have no idea anymore. But even if it was 3 cents apiece, it was worth it. I chose root beer barrels, circus peanuts (one of the oddest foods ever but somehow delicious), those colored dots on paper (why? I can’t answer that), tiny wax bottles with sweet liquid inside (so cool! you could bite the top right off in order to access the liquid), fireballs (because I was daring! lol), and mint jellies shaped like leaves and coated with sugar.

The Country Store had a player piano. That has nothing to do with the candy. It’s just that my memory is firing as I write, pulling me back to the moments that were not moments at all but instead were patterns, played out again and again during visit after visit.

the Country Store in Bearskin Neck
the Country Store in Bearskin Neck

I never asked why Margie didn’t work. I never wondered if she enjoyed visiting the same shops time after time, with each stop centered on the interests of her young nieces. She had friends who visited her house, and she smoked cigarettes, and she laughed with us. She seemed happy.

When we were in the house, we played Yahtzee and Mille Bornes and other games. Margie prepared tea for herself every afternoon, and the four of us would have tea parties. Janet and I drank hot tea with sugar and milk, and Diane would drink milk and pretend it was tea. All of us had alter egos at the tea parties. Janet was Lulu Luscious. I was Katerina Kaulpepper. And Diane was Deanna DanderFleet. We called Margie “Mrs. Glick” sometimes because we thought she had a crush on her psychiatrist, Dr. Glick. Or sometimes we would call her “Meg,” a nickname for Margaret that seemed so much softer than “Margie” (though we all had Boston accents, so you must imagine it correctly, as “Mahh-jee,” which is sorta soft in its own way).

Janet and I would sometimes pretend to smoke cigarettes to be like Margie. I still remember the faint taste on my lips even though I’ve never actually smoked a regular cigarette. They were Newports. The packages were teal. I wasn’t bothered by the smell of the cigarettes anymore than I was bothered by the smell of cat urine.

Sometimes in the summer, gold sticky strips were hung from the kitchen light to catch flies. They were disgusting. But they didn’t bother me either.

Yes, these are gold sticky strips to catch flies. Disgusting!
Yes, these are gold sticky strips to catch flies. Disgusting!

One time during a tea party, for some reason, Janet ran up the stairs carrying her cup of tea, and she farted on every. single. step. as she ran. Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft! She made it all the way to the top, laughing the whole time, without spilling a single drop. During every tea party, we recalled that bizarre incident. We left out the reason why she ran up the stairs with her cup of tea and we left out what happened after, but we held onto the important parts. Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft! all the way to the top, without spilling a single drop.

Do you want to know the dark part? The part that explains “the apparatus”? That explains why Margie didn’t work? That tells you about her medicine and her overdoses and her days spent in her bathrobe and her very long toenails that I found impressive as a kid but that were probably a sign that she wasn’t paying enough attention to her personal grooming?

I don’t know very much, actually. I know that Margie had a permanent catheter. I actually didn’t even remember that word, “catheter,” or apply it to Margie until this morning. She would disappear to the bathroom for a time saying she needed to take care of her “apparatus,” and I didn’t think twice about it.

Every visit included not just a visit to Bearskin Neck but also a day spent at O’Garden Beach. Janet, Diane, and I would wear clothes over our bathing suits and carry a beach towel. We’d walk part of the way on a dirt road Margie dubbed “The Bunny Trail,” making it seem like an adventure. Sometimes my cousins David and Pipes would come, too; they were often our playmates when we were in Rockport.

No matter the weather, Margie wore slacks with an elastic band at the waist, not shorts. She would take off her shoes at the beach, and she’d sit on a beach towel or on a rock and smoke cigarettes while watching us play and laughing with us. We swam and ran back and forth with the breakers; we made sand castles (that looked more like mountains of dirt, though sometimes pails or Dixie cups helped the piles fit our imaginations a bit better), we dug holes to China, we climbed on a landscape of boulders that stretched over a huge part of the beach.

I know that Margie struggled with depression. When I was in high school and learned some basic facts about psychological struggles, Margie asked for copies of the diagrams I shared with her. That was what rang true for her.

She was smart, and she seemed as able to me as the other adults in my life. When I was in college and heard about her tricking the pharmacist into giving her extra pills, I was angry and wrote her a letter I never sent. I knew how much she had to give. I thought she should volunteer at a daycare, work with children, help out at an animal shelter because she loved cats. I was mad that she didn’t see the value in her life because it was so clear to me.

Sometimes on our visits, Margie would take out big scrapbooks and we’d look through them together. She’d show us the cards and pictures our older siblings had made when she was in the hospital. It was funny for us to think of Carole and Stephen and Michael being the ages of me and Janet and Diane, making cards on folded construction paper. Each picture seemed like a souvenir from a time long past. I didn’t think too much about why Margie had been in the hospital.

Margie had a washer but no dryer. We would help her hang clothes on the line outside or on the indoor folding rack of wooden dowels. She made meatloaf for us with bacon on top. She would take us to the grocery store with Uncle George (her brother), where we could pick out junk food to eat while visiting her.

I never wondered why she didn’t drive. Why didn’t she drive? I still don’t know. Is it bizarre that I accepted so much? Was it a good thing? or not so much? It’s weird to be so much older, with a new perspective, and still to be so damn clueless.

As we grew older, becoming teens and then adults, I saw her less often. But on holidays she was still herself. “Oh, my god, you’re so beautiful—I can’t stand it! You should be a model!” She said it all the time, to each of us. And she always meant it.

She also meant every loud laugh that came out of her mouth.

Sometimes she was difficult to talk to, especially when she was in a nursing home and I would visit. She’d tell me her life was terrible and ask me how I would feel if I were her, trapped, with nothing to live for. I couldn’t respond in any way that made the situation better; I know, because I tried. She would express anger and bitterness no matter what I said.

My husband would come in the room, and she’d laugh and joke with him.

I say that as if I visited Margie regularly, but I didn’t. She spent countless days and hours with me throughout my childhood, days spent doing things that would be enjoyable for me, days spent creating a pattern of memories that are so important to who I am that I have told my kids about them, have relived them with my kids, dragging them from shop to shop in Bearskin Neck, encouraging them to climb on rocks at O’Garden Beach. I’m pretty sure Janet and Diane have done the same with their kids.

Yet I didn’t visit Margie very much in the last 25 years. She added so many good memories to my childhood that I can’t capture them all. And I did nothing in return beyond an annual Christmas card and an occasional 45-minute visit.

Sorry, Margie. You deserved better—from me, and from life.

***
That’s where I stopped writing several days ago. Even though I didn’t want to write about me, I’m afraid that’s where I keep ending up: My good memories. My appreciation of the time and energy Margie gave to make my childhood better. My guilt that I wasn’t there for her—not just on the night she died, but for the last 25 years.

I think about how I’d respond to a friend feeling what I’m feeling (which is a trick I regularly use: How would I talk to myself if I were a friend? and which an actual friend studying to be a counselor told me is a good strategy, even if it does make me sound crazy).

I’d say:

I bet your Aunt Margie loved spending time with you and your brothers and sisters. I bet you all brought her a lot of joy without even trying to. Isn’t that how you tend to feel when you spend time with kids who delight in small pleasures like invisible ink books and penny candy?

 

I bet there were people who were there for Margie in the years when you weren’t, just like you’ve been there for people over the years who are not necessarily in your own family. Maybe that’s how human relations are supposed to work; maybe we all need to be kind to the people who are right in front of us because it’s impossible to always be there for every person we care about.

 

I bet your Aunt Margie understood that you were wrapped up in your own family, not because you’re selfish but because it takes time and energy to build a family and to build a career.

 

Didn’t your siblings and your parents tell you that you should be in Pennsylvania the night that Margie died because you couldn’t do anything? You have a role to play, but it is often not the starring role. Often, your role is to send a holiday card that will make people smile, to be there for your daughter while she is at field hockey practice, to pick up the phone when your sister calls to say Margie is gone. These are not starring roles, but sometimes, those are the roles you’re meant to play.

And, just like that, I’m thinking about Margie and what it means for a life to matter.

Margie mattered. She mattered to so many of us. She may not have felt like she had a starring role in many people’s lives because she didn’t lead a conventional life: She never married and never had children and never had a career; she spent many years of her life being cared for by others. The truth is, Margie and I were only minimally in one another’s life for a really long time, and it’s not appropriate to suggest otherwise. The truth is, I feel bad that I did not make more of an effort to see her when I travelled to New England over these last years.

But, let’s be clear: Margie starred in a lot of our stories—in a lot of my stories. She struggled and was not well in many ways, for most of her life. But that did not stop her from bringing joy to others in ways that have left permanent imprints on many lives, including mine. She did not have to star in every stage of my life in order to make the years count when she did.

So there are more truths I have come to, truths I of course already knew. Truths Margie has taught me.

So I end, not simply by telling Margie sorry but also, more importantly, by remembering times that were not simply good or bad but instead were full of everyday joys in the midst of all kinds of everyday difficulties.

I end by saying to Margie, thank you.

Facebooking with students

Posted on

Back in November 2014, the “Shit Academics Say” FB page posted

To be or not to be that academic who accepts student friend requests on Facebook.

lot of academics wrote “not to be,” often in much stronger language. A lot wrote yes with contingencies: former students, alums, select students are okay; current students, not so much. I fall in the camp of accepting friend requests from students, but not initiating them.

facebook_like_logo_1

I began spending time on Facebook in the early days, spring of 2006, and I did so with student encouragement. It all began during a class break in a Business & Technical Writing course, which met in a computer lab. The students told me about their own experiences with Facebook, and they introduced me to the Facebook wall and private messaging and “poking” (which was not considered a dirty or flirty thing in our class!). Over the next year or two, students formed groups that I joined which have since disappeared. I believe one of them might’ve been “English majors are funnier, smarter, and better-looking than other majors.” In those early days, if I hadn’t accepted student friend requests, I wouldn’t have had any FB friends at all; hardly anyone besides students used the site.

Obviously, things changed. But even though Facebook is now a place to connect with family / friends / colleagues / and more, I still accept friend requests from students. While I think it’s typical for different professors to have different boundaries with their students and I am not interested in a one-size-fits-all policy, here are some reasons why I’ve been happy with my policy to accept Facebook friend requests from students. In case you’re wondering!

1. It helps me remember that anything posted on social media is potentially visible to anyone in the world, no matter what my privacy settings are.

Occasionally in my 8(!) years on FB, I’ve posted slightly inappropriate things. Especially in the year that my New Year’s resolution was to aim for mediocrity and prioritize happy hour. But mostly I try to present myself on FB with an awareness of all the potential audiences, and that means that I try to avoid being a jerk, at the very least.

2. Students see that I’m more than my role as a professor, and I see students more fully.

Professors are people, too! (photo by Megan McDonnell, a student & photographer)
Professors are people, too! (photo by Megan McDonnell, a student & photographer)

3. Students send me fun and interesting things that connect to our class content.

Sometimes it’s a blog post about a feminist issue. Sometimes it’s a book review or a film review. Sometimes it’s a cultural analysis. Sometimes it’s a grammar post.

Thank you, Students! That makes my day!

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4. Students see the kinds of things that I post that connect to our class content.

Sometimes when I teach American Short Fiction, I post a quote from the work that I just love.

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!

Or I may be teaching a writing class and I’m excited about the way revision is explained in a text we’re reading or the way procrastination is presented as a normal part of the writing process. So I quote!

And the students in my classes see that I’m not reading just to read; I’m reading in order to take stuff out and make it a part of who I am and what I do. The students may be more likely to read for themselves if they see me reading that way.

Yeah, this is what class time looks like on occasion....
Yeah, this is what class time looks like on occasion….

5. Students see that I love my work.

The truth is, I do not always love my work. But I vent privately, not publicly. Clearly, those professors who vent about students online should not be FB friends with students.

When I do share about my work, I share about my love for my colleagues or students. I’m lucky enough to have lots of awesome moments in the classroom and beyond. We also do a lot of goofy jokester kinds of things in my workplace, and it’s good to share that kind of thing online.

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An early photo of the English Department Mascot
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Posing after we performed the Charlie Brown “Book Report” song during a campus Faculty Follies event.

I also write about my own joys and difficulties with research and writing. I share this sort of thing in classes as well, but it makes a difference for students to see that I’m sharing it with a wider public on FB.

research joy
research joy

6. Sometimes students message me quick questions about an assignment.

I know that some professors might not like this, but in my experience, these have never been inappropriate or lazy questions. It’s more the kind of thing that a student might ask when passing by me on campus that clarifies in a way that helps the student out and takes little time or effort on my part.

7. I’ve been able to stay in better touch with alumni.

I see alumni getting new jobs, accomplishing things, blogging, etc. Yay, alumni! I can even invite these alums back to campus for Career Day with current students. Or I can ask them about internship possibilities for current students. I know LinkedIn serves this purpose as well. But I do not really enjoy that site for some reason; I don’t browse there the way I browse my FB newsfeed.

Recently, I hooked up a student who who is thinking about teaching English in Japan with 2 students who are doing that exact thing right now. I messaged all 3 so they could communicate with each other. I actually need to ask the 2 students in Japan if I can take their answers to create a blog post for the English Department blog. That’s how great their info was.

8. I get to see lots of baby pictures and wedding pics. I always “like” these because I enjoy a newsfeed that’s full of babies and celebrations. Alums are just more likely to be at this stage of life than the other folks I’m connected with on FB.

9. I blog and have a YouTube channel, so students check out the way I’m using social media. I get to be a role model without forcing students to read/view my work.

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And I have some students doing cool stuff with new media who end up being role models for me!

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10. I can invite students to events once they’re my FB friends, whether it’s a local poetry reading, an on-campus event, an English Club social.

Everyone likes to be reminded of the campus Flapjack Fest!

 

I’m sure there are more good things! But I’ll just stop and sum it all up. Facebook is one way of creating communities and connections. I’m glad to have students who are interested to be part of my community, seeing that I have siblings, reading about my crazy days, knowing that I love the ocean, and recognizing that who I am in the classroom is part of a bigger picture. And I’m also glad to be part of their communities, seeing students’ unbelievable struggles and celebrating their impressive accomplishments.

I know there are probably a lot of pitfalls that could happen when my students are also my Facebook friends. But on a regular basis, I experience the positive effects instead of the pitfalls.

Look! Laurie was once a child!
Look! Laurie was once a child!

2014 in review

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,600 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 27 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

“What do I do with these protests?”–the Addendum

Posted on Updated on

This post will not make sense unless you read my earlier post (here). When I published that post, I felt like I had journeyed really far into someone else’s mind. But I also knew that the post didn’t represent my actual journey: From the very start, I was putting on a persona, and by the end of the post I was almost writing as myself, but not quite.

I’ve felt odd ever since I clicked on “Publish.” I’m concerned that people will not recognize the difference between the persona and my actual (evolving) views. So this Addendum is a clarification of

  • why I was motivated to write that post
  • what I learned
  • what I hope it might do for readers
  • my actual views, and reasons why they don’t fully match with the views of the persona

Why I wrote a blog post pretending I’m against #BlackLivesMatter protests

At some point in the last month, I read an article telling readers that it was okay to defriend or hide Facebook friends who espoused political views that made us cringe and feel yucky. It’s smart to surround ourselves with people who don’t make us anxious and crazy, not least because research shows engaging with people who think differently won’t actually change anyone’s mind.

“Yay!” I thought. “I don’t need to feel obligated to read things that make me uncomfortable or that challenge me to speak up. Life will be so much more pleasant!”

But next thing you know, I was reading blog postings that challenged white allies to be the ones to reach out to white anti-protesters. Spectra writes

the outrage you feel can in no way match my own and therefore you have way more emotional capacity than I do to talk some sense into the “other side.”

and

I need you to step up in a major way, and leverage the connections you DO have to address ignorance with conversation and interrogate white privilege with compassion.

“Damn!” I thought. “Damn.”

So when a Facebook friend from my high school days, “J,” wrote about Mike Brown and Eric Garner not being heroes and their deaths not being connected to race, I felt like I should write something, interjecting another perspective in the litany of comments that affirmed J’s perspective. J’s post was not extremist in that he acknowledged that excessive police force may have been used, and J showed open-mindedness by “liking” my comment that mildly pointed out how overwhelming racism is. No one else acknowledged that I had an alternate perspective, and that was that.

A few days later, another high school friend (“G”) posted something similar to J’s ideas, except she focused on the intentions of police officers (who do not go on shift with the intent to kill) and the intentions of Mike Brown and Eric Garner (who, she said, left their homes with the intent to commit crimes).

I couldn’t comment. Sorry, Spectra; I just couldn’t.

Part of the reason was because a Facebook comment is too short, and it’s not the place to tease out complexities.

And part of the reason was because I felt like I had no common ground to stand on. I kept thinking in oppositional ways to these Facebook friends—not just J and G, but many more, with many people being far more extreme and disrespectful in their statements. I didn’t know where to begin expressing the way I felt. I didn’t know how to talk with people whose world view seemed so different from mine.

That’s when I decided to write from the perspective of people I respected yet disagreed with—people like J and G. And that was the difficult part: putting my own perspective aside in order to move forward.

What I learned

But I learned something I didn’t know before, and that was the compassion I needed to afford the police officers who are caught in this racist culture, with a history of racial profiling and “stop and frisk” rules and lots more mechanisms for addressing poor urban crime than for addressing corporate crime.

I’m going to say a bit more about police officers below, but that is a start.

I hope my earlier post might help people understand others’ viewpoints

Honestly, I wrote it hoping to show people who don’t appreciate the #BlackLivesMatter protests the issues that are behind the protests. When I read the posts by J and G, I kept wondering, “What are they reading? Who are they talking to? How do they not know that life for African-Americans is different than life for white Americans? Do they have any African-American friends?”

That’s why the whole middle part of my post was sharing some sources that open a window onto black experiences in the U.S. I should be far more educated than I am, but I seem to have at least some awareness that is missing from a whole lot of white people.

Most of the people who responded to my post were liberal friends who support the protests. I hope that a) they don’t misread me as anti-protest and b) I helped them see anti-protest folks in a more open way. I think some kind of understanding is necessary to make things better.

My actual views

I don’t think Mike Brown and Eric Garner need to be perfect human beings—or even people who committed no crime—in order for their deaths to

  • be wrong
  • be part of a larger and ongoing pattern of racism
  • be part of a larger and ongoing pattern of excessive force from police officers

In my original post, I wrote about belonging to a circle of white friends in college who committed small crimes but never worried about arrest. I think small crimes should be addressed, but arrests should never put lives in danger.

Furthermore, the entire prison system is a mess in the U.S., and it is definitely racist, and it will take a good bit of legislation and change to make things better. Adam Gopnik writes:

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.

In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.

I believe the issue is more about racism than about excessive force from police officers, perhaps because I’m married to a retired state trooper and I know a lot about his former work. Of course, police are not the same everywhere, and I may be wrong.

I do believe in appreciating and celebrating police officers, the same way I believe in appreciating and celebrating teachers and firefighters and other people who have chosen careers because they want to make the world a better place. But that doesn’t mean mistakes and wrongdoing should not be addressed. In the cases of both Brown and Garner, the lack of indictments by the grand juries is unfathomable to me. There were too many questions and unknowns for these officers to avoid indictment. I don’t care what crimes Brown and Garner committed; unarmed people should not be killed by police officers, and when it happens, it deserves serious investigation. To do anything less dishonors not only the victims but also police officers themselves and the criminal justice system as a whole.

Why do I seem to privilege Brown and Garner and #BlackLivesMatter? Why don’t I first and foremost defend police officers and recognize their good intentions despite the mistakes that may have been made?

Because at the end of the day, I see the statistics and the patterns, and I know the odds are stacked against African-Americans. The odds are not stacked against police officers in the same way. Yes, police officers may be hurt or killed while on the job, and that is a serious risk. But that risk is part of the choice of being in law enforcement; it is part of the reason why I appreciate and celebrate police officers.

When black lives are at stake, it is not just about death but also about poverty and lack of education and employment dead ends. When black lives are at stake, it is usually not related to a career or a vocation or a noble calling. It is usually not a choice at all but rather a lack of choices.

People are protesting because serious change is needed. I have not protested, but I, too, know that serious change is needed. And I know we need to listen to all the messages that say as much. If loving the police is stopping us from listening, then we will continue to be in trouble. The divide will continue to grow.

Kate Sheppard / The Huffington Post
Kate Sheppard / The Huffington Post: Justice for All protest, D.C. 13 Dec 2014
jarchine / Instagram
jarchine / Instagram: Justice for All protest, D.C. 13 Dec 2014