Monday, May 20, 2013
Theodora J. Kalikow
Once upon a time, many years ago (really, the late '60s or early '70s), I gave back a bunch of papers written by students in my Problems of Philosophy class.
The papers had all kinds of red marks all over them. I told you, it was a long time ago, long before I had any idea of teaching writing as a discipline with its own best practices. I was just doing things the way they'd been done to me not so many years before when I was a student.
This incident occurred about mid-way through the semester, long enough so that the students and I had bonded and they knew what to expect -- or so I thought.
Much to my surprise and horror, one of the students stood up and started yelling at me about how I was unfair and prejudiced against -- well, everybody, especially her -- and I had graded too hard and I was an incompetent teacher and a whole bunch of other stuff, really screaming and carrying on.
My reasoning with her only brought more insults. I ran out of coping strategies and lost it. Right in the middle of class, I fled to the ladies' room and spent some time howling in private and wondering what in heaven's name to do next. I had to go back in there -- but what should I do?
In stomped a couple of the young women from the class. "OK," they said, patting me awkwardly, "you can come back in now." I went with them. The student stood up -- again -- and said, "I'm sorry, Professor, I was out of line. I apologize." Beyond surprise, I accepted her apology. Then -- because how do you go on from that? -- it was time to dismiss the class.
I went back to my office surrounded by a protective phalanx of class members.
"We fixed her. We told her she shouldn't have done that."
"We told her you were supposed to be teaching us, and this was your job, and when was she going to get it?"
"She should be grateful she was even in college here, what did she think, that she knew it all already?"
"So why wasn't she teaching the class if she was so smart? Was that any way to treat anyone? She better apologize. Now."
I still remember this after 40 years. It was a formative experience. And here's the lesson I took from it. People will help you if you let them. Gifts show up when you least expect them.
This is a wonderful thing about humans. People will help you if you let them. This is not the whole truth, and sometimes it's not the most important truth. But it is a truth. It is a precious thing to be part of all the networks that make up our lives -- parent, child, teacher, student, staff member, alumna, veteran, sports fan, political party supporter, member of a profession, town resident, and on it goes.
It even works if the relationship is pretty tenuous, or exists in some symbolic way. A lot of us are primed to give each other gifts and help each other throughout many different networks.
And here's another lesson that I am musing about these days. I am a lot more than just a taxpayer. I'm a citizen, embedded in a whole network of obligations and privileges that define American life.
I am proud to vote, proud to take part in civic life, proud to pledge allegiance to the flag, and even proud to pay my taxes. I am also proud to think the required accompanying unprintable thoughts about what those bozos are doing with all that money. It's all part of the deal.
Enough with the politics of resentment and single focus that underlie so much of what passes these days for national leadership from any party. We all get and we all give. It's all connected, we're all connected, and those connections will last a lot longer than we will ourselves.
So, what networks are we building? What kind of a country do we want to have? What responsible fiscal and political decisions do we need to make now? How can we maintain a social fabric to support every citizen and further our true national interests?
I'm grateful to that angry young woman from my class so long ago. And I am even more grateful to my rescuers, who taught me a key lesson about life.
Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org