Fair warning: this post is like, hella sentimental. >.>
I’ve been thinking about a teacher of mine, Cora (not her real name). She is an English professor by trade. These days she is tenure-track at a big university. She teaches courses about things like visual culture, urbanism, and media representations of Blackness. Don’t swoon just yet, stay with me.
Cora was my TA for only one semester, freshman year of college. She was one of three TAs for a massive lecture course, filled mostly by freshman and sophomores who barely understood the title of the course, let alone any of its content. I was lucky enough to be in her Discussion section– we met once a week, and let’s face it, I skipped a lot. Actually, I skipped her class the least of all my classes that first year. She was challenging, clearly brilliant at the level of intimidating, but at the same time she listened to us, gave the impression of respecting rather than tolerating us. I rarely had the impression, freshman year or any year thereafter, that my teachers listened to us students, much less respected us. In general, college was about being told How Things Are; we were not there to contribute– unless the contribution was agreement, or a question eliciting more How Things Are statements.
Unlike the vast majority of other teachers I had in undergrad, Cora gave me feedback. She didn’t put up with my bullshit, and she knew when I was bullshitting because she actually read our shit. Although I was embarrassed, I was also amused when she wrote something to the effect of “You didn’t fucking read this” on a Faulkner paper that I failed. Well, I thought with surprise, They do read this shit. Kudos to any prof who does, because it really, really is shit. But without feedback, students’ work never get better. Cora went one step past feedback, though. She critiqued our minds, our worldviews, not just our papers. She critiqued them through lenses that, to my small [town] mind, had previously never existed. Realizing how out of my depth I was, I didn’t do the thing I usually do when I feel intimidated or overwhelmed (give up)– rather, I redoubled my efforts. I wanted to impress Cora, and I wanted her to like me, and I wanted to be like her.
Once, on one of my critical papers where [I thought] I was being obscenely clever and incisive, Cora wrote: “‘Question everything.’ – René Decartes.” She chose not to rip the paper apart for the piece of garbage it was. Yes, she gave critical feedback, but she also gave encouragement. She didn’t roll her eyes at my pretend-scholarly attack on some literary work that I didn’t like: she encouraged subversion. I didn’t have to be told twice.
After that class, I didn’t see Cora again until chance put me in her path four years later. I was elated to see her randomly in a coffee shop. She seemed glad to see me, too, and we caught up with each other about where we were and where we were going. I have not seen her since, although I have tried to keep up with where her career has gone (she is a badass professor at a good school and teaches awesome-sounding classes, now).
Shortly thereafter, I joined Peace Corps and moved to Cambodia. Cora completed her PhD and moved forward with her academic career. We fell out of touch again.
Some more years passed; I found myself parting from Peace Corps under dubious and humiliating circumstances. For whatever reason, I chose to write Cora. I guess I trusted her not to judge me– she’d had so many opportunities to judge me when I was her student, and I am sure that I frustrated her to no end, but she’d always responded with compassion. I wrote her and related what had happened to me at the end of my Peace Corps service, how I was struggling to get by and at the same time happy that I stayed in Cambodia. I don’t know what kind of response I expected– maybe surprised, scolding disappointment, like my mom’s reaction, or disillusioned lack of surprise, like my best friend Eileen.
She wrote back with this: “Listen to me: You have no reason to be ashamed. You have a rare gift–the inability to accept what you know is not right, not just, not fair, not pure.” Having read that, I started crying. I felt small, unworthy, relieved, validated, protected. But I quickly sobered up. She continued:
Now I am going to tell you something: This is your life. This being on the margins, always fighting, this is your life. Have you thought of what it will be like to live a life on the margins (as bell hooks terms it)? Are you prepared to go against the grain for the rest of your life and accept the consequences, some of which you are feeling right now? Think about that and get back to me. It doesn’t get easier, Liz. It gets lonelier and harder. Are you O.K. with that? I need for you to really think about this and answer honestly. To some students I would say, “What are you going to do with your life?” But to you, I have to say, “Who are you going to be for the rest of your life?”
Like a ten-year-old, I switched from humiliated, fearful self-doubt to look-on-the-bright-side, foot-sure self-confidence, and wrote back:
For whatever fortunate and unfortunate reason, I guess this is where I am: on the margins. But I suppose it’s all about perspective. Some day my thoughts, ideas, hopes, and such might not be “fringe” concepts, but that time is not now. I struggled most of my young adult life to fit in and not go against the grain, but failed at every turn. You’re right: that’s just not me. But I’m finally starting to accept that this is not a bad thing!
. . .
2011 Me: It’s hard, but everything’s gonna be okay! Let’s just keep fighting the good fight!
2017 Me: stfu.
Some of the shit I wrote that Cora read, I look back on it now and I am beet-red with embarrassment. Some of it is the most gag-worthy whitestream feminist blather you’ve ever laid eyes on. Like, saying it was written ‘out of ignorance’ is a bit too kind, maybe. The residue of my privileged, white, small town upbringing (various oppressive circumstances notwithstanding) clings like smelly lakeweed too long out of the water. For a tasting sample, scroll back in time on this blog (or, for everyone’s sake, please don’t…).
To me, Cora embodies the empathic feminist ethos I wish I could achieve in my day-to-day, as well as my teaching, friendly conversations, class discussions, confrontations… Sometimes I wish she had called me out with anger and scorn, used the words ‘white supremacy’ or ‘epistemic ignorance.’ These tactics can be effective, too– I know from personal experience (here’s looking at you, Dee [not her real name]). Some Crunk Feminist Collective-style, Black feminist smackdown. But I think Cora, more savvy than Morpheus, probably recognized that 2004 Liz, and even 2011 Liz, wasn’t ready for the Red Pill. Maybe she saw that my fragile ego would collapse from too much truth-telling. Maybe she was thinking, I don’t need you to spend years in self-pitying recovery, wallowing in ‘white guilt’– I need you to get over white supremacy now and do your part to tear it down. Maybe she thought I needed to figure this shit out on my own, that she couldn’t be my teacher forever; at some point, we all need to take responsibility for our own learning, using the toolbox passed on to us by our teachers. Maybe it was a combination of logics, or maybe I’m overthinking it.
Cora was right: it doesn’t get easier, it gets lonelier and harder. I wonder about how her life has been. I imagine she has struggled and fought and confronted and been forced to pick and choose which hills she wanted to die on. I imagine friends and allies were few and far between at times, but the ones who stuck around are still with her today. I imagine she has fist-pumped after victories over racist, misogynist, and especially misogynoir colleagues, classmates, and coworkers. I imagine she has cried from frustration and laughed in the safety of like-minded friends. I imagine a lot of things, and probably romanticize a lot because that’s what I tend to do with people I admire, especially teachers.
The thing that I am certain she knew at the time she wrote those words to me, and the thing I have come to realize, is that even in the depths of loneliness and failure; even in times when we are constantly losing, or feel like we are living in a hell we deserve because of self-loathing brought on by internalized misogyny or queerphobia or whatever else; there is hope and compassion to be found in fellowship and community with others. My ego got the better of me for a very long time: no one knows what I’m going through, no one sees or understands. Well that is self-isolating rubbish. It feels very true and real at times, but I’ve struck on a rare moment of optimism where I feel that I can see Cora’s next, yet unwritten letter: she’s going to tell me that although it gets lonelier and harder, we find people who share our struggles; though we feel lonely, we’re not alone. Maybe we haven’t encountered these people yet, or maybe they resurface from the long-ago, or maybe they revisit us in dreams or memories. These aren’t just consolation prizes, they are reasons to keep pushing on The Wall (as Sara Ahmed describes it).
It is safe to say that I would not have done a masters in Women’s and Gender Studies; would not be attending #NoDAPL rallies; would not be fundraising for disadvantaged students; would not be writing this blog; and would not be a member of a union without the wisdom of certain people in my life. Some of them I only cross paths with once in a great while, like Cora; some I know only by Twitter handle; some are constants, like my mom, Eileen, Erin, my sister, Karlie, Preston, Matt, and many others who have continuously listened, engaged, challenged, and prompted me, and of course continue to teach me about what’s important.