I have spent this past long weekend enfolded in blankets and comforters, drinking endless pots of tea, reading Alberto Ríos and Gregory Rodriguez and Hannah Arendt. I cobbled together a nest of pure warmth in an effort to soak up some of the tears of last week.
I e-mailed that instructor, understanding how e-mails can go awry, and all too aware that there was too much going on for me to be able to see her in person. I told her that I felt that the environment in the classroom was hostile. I wrote that I felt attacked and insulted. I tried to be very careful in not pointing fingers. It was my goal to convey how I felt without placing blame. Still, I asked two people to read the e-mail before I sent it, and waited a few hours after their approval for good measure.
I wish that I could express exactly what happened and how it made me feel. I was told that I needed to take responsibility for explaining my thoughts better, and that I should have tried to explain what I was thinking until the instructor understood. Her e-mail began, “I think you know me well enough to know that that was not my intent.” I could write books on “you know me.” I could fill pages upon pages with how deadening to empathy and respect, how presumptive and so full of privilege these words are. If I had $20 for every manifestation of this utterance I have heard performed just before the speaker says something cold and free of care for another’s experience and feelings, I would leave this twisted place free of any debt.
The instructor’s e-mail ended, “This has weighed heavily on my mind since Weds, and I was hoping that you would come in to discuss it. But you have regretfully taken another path . . . you will be missed.”
Perhaps stupidly, her response sent me reeling. I was not trying to quit the class. I know it is an imperfect approach, but I was attempting to salvage so much by being completely honest with someone who I had respected at some point.
Upon the advice of someone I hold in very high esteem, I spoke with another professor about this incident. It was no small relief when the professor I sought advice from admitted she did not know the instructor I was having problems with. This professor gave me a candid assessment of the situation and presented several options for moving ahead. She told me that I needed to speak to this instructor again.
I am not ashamed to admit that I was too afraid to speak to the instructor face-to-face. I was not afraid of what the instructor might have done. I was bone-weary. Humiliation, indignity, hedging, can all have a way of building up into complete exhaustion. I have been exhausted for too long, and I have learned that exhaustion can sow the fecund seeds of fear.
I made an appointment, and eventually spoke with the chair of the department the instructor belongs to. I am certain that it comes as no surprise to you that he appeared sympathetic, but told me that he would take the instructor’s word for everything that happened. I showed him the e-mail I sent her and the one she sent back. He told me that he thought she was apologizing (despite the absence of an apology the e-mail) and that I was the one who quit the class (even though I did not write that). He said that he would speak with her, and speak with her he did.
As I left his office, he asked me if I had heard from any graduate schools yet.
Half an hour later I had a new e-mail from the instructor. She said that she hoped I would go to her office and talk it out or return to class. Sadly, she also told me that she could “literally feel [my] frustration.” It made me think of Du Bois, to be told how I feel. I think about The Souls of Black Folk sometimes. I like to imagine the wooden schoolhouse surrounded by rolling green pastures conducive to footraces joyously attended by brilliant azure skies. In my imagination, there are no cruel people (children or adults) who reject Valentine’s Day cards because of some make-believe hierarchies. Just happy children getting a real, quality education.
Life goes on, as it does, and other more dire issues swiftly moved in to make my perceived problems seem negligibly small.
Today, a cold, bitter wind blew into town; one of winter’s last threatening hurrahs.
I have made other plans and will not be returning to that particular classroom. I have also realized that I honestly don’t care either way about graduate school. I am grateful for the luxury my life affords: people who love me, people whom I love, and the richness of spending a bone-chilling day burrowed in comforters, sipping endless cups of tea, experiencing all the sadness, joy, and possibility in the world through the words of some of the most talented thinkers I have ever read.