I suspect most doctoral students feel overwhelmed by information at the end of their first year. Because I’m the kind of student who can’t manage the anxiety of not being prepared for class, I read almost all of everything that was assigned to me, even if it was listed as optional. And as often as I had time to, I read background material to help me understand what I was reading. And then sometimes I read additional material that was listed in the references of assigned reading. In short, I read a lot in 33 weeks. And most of it I wish I had read more carefully.
So I am awash in ideas, theories, arguments, explications, and swimming in the midst of all this information about schools and teaching and power and discourse and epistemology and ontology is some information about me that I also need to read more carefully.
It turns out that there are people in my program who don’t like me. Perhaps more importantly, it turns out that I am really bothered when people don’t like me, and that people not liking me consumes more of my time and energy than I have available right now when, you know, I should be reading.
Yesterday as I was walking home from the farmers’ market, feeling supremely grateful to be living in a town where I can walk to a farmers’ market and return home with garlic scapes and blue oyster mushrooms and baby rainbow chard and French breakfast radishes and snow peas and fava beans and a cucumber, I got over my shock at being disliked—I am so awesome, after all—and realized that the dislike I am experiencing here is much like the dislike I experienced at my last teaching job. I think the term for me there was “suck-up cheerleader.” Here it seems to be “elitist white girl who is taking advantage of her privilege.”
I begin to suspect that these dislikes are of the same variety. Or, rather, that they are motivated by the same perception of my way of operating. Because I am a cheerleader of sorts. I do get cheerleader-level excited about what I’m up to, about what my students are up to, about things I read, about big talk with smart people who inspire and provoke me. And I do take every opportunity to be up to big things. And I do seek out other people who are up to big things, and I am not generally close with people who are not up to big things. And I totally see how this way of being can quite easily be read as either sucking up or elitist, because I do enjoy many opportunities thanks to being so geeked about what I’m up to, and because I work hard at it, and because I am unbelievably lucky, in equal parts.
My friend Katherine, one of my loudest and most abiding cheerleaders, told me recently that my task is to figure out how to share generously even to folks who aren’t interested in or good at receiving generosity (and I should know who they are, she reminded me, because I am one of them).
I have a summer vacation kickoff ritual: I read a novel, usually one I bought ages ago that has been sitting on a shelf tempting me while I read for school or grade papers or write papers. (This seeming digression will make sense momentarily, I promise.) I just finished reading my first novel of this summer vacation, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. If you haven’t read it, stop reading this and go read it right now. Seriously.
Verghese has one of his characters, Ghosh, recount the tale of Abu Kassem and his slippers; there are several versions of the story, but they all have to do with Abu trying to get rid of his slippers and the getting-rid-of causing some trouble that he must take responsibility for. In Verghese’s telling, the tale gets explained this way: “The slippers in the story mean that everything you see and do and touch, every seed you sow, or don’t sow, becomes part of your destiny….The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t….Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny” (351).
So the task is for me to own my slippers, own my cheerleader-y geeked-out way of being about school, which I seem to capably sustain both as a teacher and a student. There’s no getting rid of it, and the getting-rid-of would cause trouble that I would have to take responsibility for.