This is not the performance I intended, but then... is it ever?
The junior year of my undergrad, John T. Warren came to SIUC to teach, and I finally stopped putting off that intro to Comm Theory class. Most of the semester, a friend and I sat in the back of the room trying to figure out where the hell this John guy came from. All of the sudden, he was just everywhere. And he was funny, & damn smart. He also had this curious habit of using the word “partner.” He never used gender pronouns when he referred to this “partner,” and never once did I hear him use Gina's name. Just this mysterious word... partner. & ya know, my friend & I in the back of the room, we never did figure it out that semester. We did have a running bet, though, which I eventually won.
More than the $5, though, something else happened. When, after having identified as a lesbian for 8 years, I started dating a man for the first time, it was John I went to. “What the hell am I doing?” I asked him. “Well, I'd guess you're doing all you can do,” he said.
My first semester teaching, I decided to use the word partner. I'm not going to lie to you, I wasn't exactly thought out about it; I just wanted to be like John. But when a student told me one day that you can just tell what someone's sexuality is, that ya know, it's that gaydar thing, it suddenly clicked: this little word gave me some space. And I want to be careful here, because, as Craig Gingrich-Philbrook has reminded me and many others, sometimes this word can both signal alliance and simultaneously obscure privilege, and I certianly didn't want the latter. But in this case, the ambiguity I'd left myself by using this word, like John, had given me a productive site of inquiry. So I had my students take a vote: what am I? Straight, bisexual, lesbian, transgendered? Pansexual? Asexual? I made them justify their answers, and in turn, they had to think about, perhaps for the first time, how they were reading my body, my speech, my beingness with them in the classroom. And I like to think that might have done some good.
That semester was a hard one for me, though. On top of a personally rough time of things, one of my top students—a young, African American male from inner-city Chicago—got expelled for getting caught with a dime bag. Another student contracted HIV from her cheating girlfriend, who had also apparently been sharing needles. And then an A student who hadn't missed a day up to that point suddenly missed two full weeks, including the day he was scheduled to speak. When he finally came back to class, he stayed after to talk to me. He wouldn't meet my eyes; he just stared at the floor, tears rolling down his face, as he told me that he had been struggling with severe depression all semester, that he missed his speech because his depression had gotten so severe, in fact, that he hadn't been able to get out of bed, and then he was embarrassed to have to tell me that, so he just stopped coming. All I could do in that moment was give him a hug, ask him what I could do, and offer him a chance to make up the assignment he'd missed.
In all three situations, I went to John. He helped me fight student judicial affairs on behalf of the young male getting expelled; he gave me a list of resources for my student dealing with her diagnosis of HIV. This third student, though, touched me in a different way, and one night after a class with John, I just started crying. This A student struck down by depression hit a chord with me; it was like looking into a mirror of my past, the depression that hit me so hard my freshman year that I just stopped, and didn't know how to start again. The depression I was dealing with now, in my first year of graduate school. The first thing John did was give me a hug. “I just don't know if I did the right thing, or if I, I dunno, maybe I care too much,” I sniffled. John smiled, “You've had a tough semester, that's for sure,” he told me. “But I don't believe you can care too much. Just remember that you need care, too, and it's here for you.” He stood with me in the parking lot for almost an hour that night. That's the kind of teacher I want to be.
Skip forward a couple years to my first semester of my doctorate program. In an ethnography class, we're reading one of John's really early pieces, and the topic of his publication record comes up. We're all talking about how prolific he's been, what a huge influence he's had. And out of nowhere, all I can think is, “John moves like spaceship.” So, of course, lacking in much of any kind of filter, I say this outloud. The next day, Joshua here, of course, ran to tell John all about it, and he was just tickled pink about it. I didn't know that he knew, though, until I walked past his office door and saw a post-it with the four words: “John moves like a spaceship.”
And it's true, you know. John moved like a spaceship; he was prolific, quick-witted, fiercly intelligent, and always willing to engage. But for as fast as he moved, as much as he got done, he always knew when to slow down, too, when to pause with a student, with me. When to take time to show care, and how to create those productive spaces for dialogue, the accidents from which the real work of teaching arises.
No, this performance is not what I intended. But sometimes, you have to know when to create space, and when to pause, to consider, to be with and among. This is the kind of teacher I want to be.
Note: this performance took place at the 2011 Central States Communication Association conference in Milwaukee, WI.