Sunday, January 10, 2010

Save Me From What I Want

(With thanks to St. Vincent and her awesome album "Actor")

I vividly remember the second to last class of my fall at Marquette, just over a month ago now. We did a show, as we started doing the class before, of final pictures selected by the students, on slide at the museum on campus. The year before, the very eager students invited family, friends, professors, and the place was packed to the hilt the whole time. This reception was smaller and quieter - very few family members, no other instructors, just a smattering of friends.

In the very beginning of the 1.5 hour reception, I discovered that a friend of mine who is also a Marquette student (who, due to her being a year too old, had been unable to take my class at Marquette, came all the way to Madison to take it with me full price with adult students) was "working" the reception that night, making sure everything was going fine. She and I began to talk and quickly fell deeply into profound discussion - talking about a Psychology of Death class she was loving, how Miksang has affected her life (and that of her mother, who also took the class with her) and all kinds of deep and fascinating issues around Buddhist philosophy.

I'd have to literally come up for air and realize where I was, and connect with the students a bit, my "actual" students, only to find they had little to say to me and didn't wish to join in on my banter with this friend/student.

I didn't feel as connected to the students this semester as I have the other two, it's true. I tried hard to find ways to make the personal connection stronger, as I believe very much that this is how one's actual experience of contemplation - as a person-to-person transmission - is really made strong. Of course there's a part of me, and it is not little, that also likes to be liked. But this went further than that - I feel committed to ensure that the actual teachings are transmitted, and if there is no connection - positive or negative or neutral - between me and them, that limits what can pass through me (note: not from me, through me) to them. Doesn't stop it, but limits it.

So I finally, this afternoon, got back to my emails to find my reviews posted from the students. I took a deep breath and opened them. Mostly, a bit to my surprise I have to say, as the students didn't seem very enthusiastic about the class often, I got on average a 5-5.5 out of 6. But when the specifics rose up, students said all kinds of things - mostly helpful feedback ("wrote on chalkboard more than necessary," "spent too much time lecturing and not enough time in discussion.") Some I can do (face them more and my writing less) and some I can't (uh, teach yoga, too?!). Then of course I could tell just by tone those students who, though they weren't in love with the class, really dug it and respected me "Professor (sic) Hall is unconventional, but so is the topic," "She kept us interested an explained everything really well."

Then there was this one, all the way at the bottom. I know who it is, and in his distance the whole class I tried not to read judgment, though I suspected it was there. His ending statement confirmed my suspicions. His completely dismissive tone surprised me, though:

She was kind of crazy. She wrote on the chalkboard far more than was necessary. However, her presence helped the members of the class bond further as none of us could relate to her, but all of us could relate to each other.

Really? Surely that kind of zing is "far more than necessary"? I suppose this tells me more about that student than about me. Still. Was there really some kind of on-going thing against me the whole class? Did everyone see me that way? No, of that I am certain.

But being called "kind of crazy" triggers all kinds of things deep in me - especially as I am writing memoir pieces about my strange socialization during my childhood and teen years. It's good to say that out loud, as it helps me to realize these feelings are old, and beyond the reach even of this student, who enjoyed himself despite himself (and apparently despite me). Despite is not the same as "in spite of." He could care less. At some level, so could I. In fact, it was probably more my trying-too-hard efforts to "fit in" and "be liked" or "connect" that revealed a sense of craziness to this students (and any other of the students). Isn't that ironic.

And yet, when I told Dylan about it, I realized part of what I still want out there is to somehow blend in (that's right, laugh all you want, because I am laughing pretty hard about it now, which is a relief). Uh. Blend in. Airplane conversations with me are awkward to say the least (not because I can't speak clearly but because I never know how to tell someone I teach "Buddhist Art - not art with Buddhas in it, but art based on Buddhism"). I have an unconventional marriage which gets less conventional by the day. I am unabashedly queer and always have been. I proudly wore clashing plaid shirts and Indian print batik skirts to school when I was 12 and still don't bat an eye at wearing all black ("sophisticated pajamas," I call them) in the middle of a summer day.

Oh someone please save me from still, at 32, this wanting to somehow fit in.

When I was 12, I just wanted to be me and didn't care about fitting in. When I was 21 I wanted to just fit in and not be me. Now I am pretty close to being back to just wanting to be me. Adolescence and my twenties rended me from that freedom, and apparently a couple of disrepectfully stated opinions are here to remind me that I am still attached, maybe always will be, on some level, to fitting in, no matter how much I love my life and am pretty happy "with myself".

Definitely worth a laugh. Somewhere out there I like to think that Mary Karr (author of Cherry and The Liar's Club, both of which I am currently reading) - who writes a great deal about the suffering so many of us do go through, from so many of these same issues, is laughing with me.


  1. I have a tendency to take comments like that personally as well. I still have issues with being judged, whether it is by my peers or by my students. The difficult thing is to separate the generally useful criticism of your teaching (too much writing on the blackboard) with the sometimes inappropriate personal statements (kind of crazy). The former can be used to improve your teaching; the latter is an impression on the part of someone who doesn't know you very well and doesn't seem to be able to express themselves in a way that is remotely helpful.

  2. we all want our students to like us. I took a seminar course taught by my advisor this last semester, and he would ask me after every class, "How do you think that went? Was it okay? Were the critiques reasonable?" This man is a respected, tenured researcher at an Ivy League school. He's been teaching for years, and he's probably the smartest person I know, and he's still trying to make sure the experience is what he wants it to be for the students. Maybe that's Why he is good at his job.
    Any time you care about anything, you set yourself up for a potential letdown. Every class will be different, and some will be better than others.
    And, just to clarify, you are "kind of crazy." All educators must be... but it's a good crazy. :)

  3. I think we are wired with the desire to fit in deep on the level with things like fear of snakes. At some point being a part of the tribe was a matter of life and death and while intellectually we might not give rat's ass what people think about us the social lizard deep inside tends to think otherwise. And I think it's just as true for people who are flagrantly non-conformist and take it to the level of the art form as it is for us mere mortals who are just trying to live the life on our own terms.
    I often have to remind myself that "i don't need them to get my food"

  4. thank you, all three of you. the educator stuff just reiterated what i already know (on an intellectual level - the emotional is something else, but that's workable) and the tribe/survival stuff is a great reminder of just how deep these "triggers" run. i wrote a piece about how i think i've had separation anxiety since birth (who hasn't!) and in all, this whole experience has been really helpful - helped me to see, as a student said last night about her own issues, "where a door kicked open that i didn't even realize was there." A few of those.

    love to you all!