That summer, 1991, I had finally gotten my resumé in the mail to numerous possible employers. After getting married, moving from Florida to New Jersey, becoming a new mom, and taking a break from my first “baby”—teaching—I was feeling the pull of the classroom. I had taken the NJ Teachers Exam, been substituting at every opportunity, and returned to school, because this is what I do: I learn. And I love school to guide me. At its best, it affords its participants a place to explore ideas with others similarly interested while someone who knows more, or at the very least is galvanized to discover, leads the way.
That summer, my almost-three-year old son, went to his babysitter while I set out early each weekday morning, headed to Rutgers University in New Brunswick to participate in a National Writing Project Summer Workshop. Our group of 12, a dozen people who became my Brothers in Arms, with pens and paper at the ends of limbs, were led by Deena Linett, a professor from Montclair State University. Nothing fuels intimate connection quite like a three-week, five-days-six-hours-or-more-each day, sharing-writing experience. I was fortunate to have the commute; I needed, at the very least, the hour-plus it granted me to regroup, both arriving and returning. That immersive and intense experience changed me as a teacher, a writer, and a person.
On the morning that Deena failed to arrive on time, her characteristic, wide-open smile absent as we trickled into the meeting room from the outside world, we took it in our stride, at this point conversing easily, particularly with our writing trios, waiting. When she walked in, however, her expression, her posture, the way she settled her things and herself into her usual seat, suggested that this morning was different. In a few moments she spoke,”Why is it that people think if you’re nice, you’re stupid? I am kind; I treat people with respect. It is such a deep disappointment that some confuse that with stupidity.” I’ll be honest, these words may not be exact; it’s been over 20 years after all, but her sadness and her question, the disillusionment I will never forget.
She went on to briefly recount her encounter with a mechanic before class, how his treatment of her signaled his lack of understanding about how she operates in the world: trust exists among good people; most of us are good people. But she had been taken advantage of, and vulnerability equates with stupidity. I am sure that it hadn’t been the first time she’d experienced this; what remains is that she shared it with us. Implicit in my understanding of it now, is the truth that, despite any previously similar occasions, she had not altered the way she walks in the world.
Deena’s disillusionment, devoid of artifice, remains with me as I engage with Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray’s book, Hacking School Culture: Designing Compassionate Classrooms, and their online discussion. Last week’s conversation focused on shaming and its toxic effect on inviting and building trust. One reflection asked:
“How might you have been vulnerable with your students in the past? How do you think this approach might have helped you build trust and connection?”
Almost immediately I remembered Deena and that arguably tiny moment in the weeks of wonderful and uniquely edifying ones that the Workshop provided. She was sincere. Vulnerable. Human. And she linked compassion and kindness as a default operating system with one of its inherent risks: others may label it stupid, naive, just plain duh-mb. She shared that with us, her students, not part of a scripted lesson plan, but indelible all the same.
Writers are risk-takers, but that is true for all of us making our way in this fraught world. We do not know how our kindness will be received, whether it will be reciprocated, if we will be deemed “stupid.” We do know that it is a choice, not without its consequences.
Here I am, once again, sending out my resumé, preparing to reenter the classroom, and realizing that Deena’s greatest lesson is one that sprung organically from her choice of coming at the world with an open heart, understanding that in being misread, the loss is the reader’s, not the text’s. We write our story day-by-day; vulnerability is a worthy theme.