Reflecting on Top Gun: Maverick

I was eagerly looking forward to the release of Top Gun: Maverick since it was postponed more than once during the height of the pandemic. I’m a huge Tom Cruise fan and I don’t care if he jumped up on Oprah’s sofa in excitement when he appeared on her talk show eons ago.

As I’m still taking some precautions regarding the transmission of COVID, I wanted to see the film when the theater may not be as crowded in order to have some distance between myself and other moviegoers. The movie was showing at the largest theater on the largest screen in the area. I waited until the movie had been out a few weeks and went to the box office on a Saturday afternoon for a 4:10 showing. You know what happened: Sold out!

I bought advanced tickets for the following Wednesday at 1:10 p.m. since some very senior people in front of me chose that date and time. I figured that there would not be many of us in the theater at that time. After all, those not retired would be at work or at the gym or doing something else that more senior people might not be interested in doing.

You know what happened. Every seat was filled in this huge theater on Wednesday at 1:10 p.m.! And there was a wide diversity of ages. I, like everyone else I’ve spoken with, thought the film gave us what we wanted from it, meeting our expectations. The images and accompanying sounds were so intense that there was very little time for eye-blinking. I’m sure I’m not the only one who had dry-eye when this vivid and visceral experience was over.

Clearly, dialogue was not the heart of this film, and I doubt if anyone other than me listened for words to ponder following the experience. However, when I left the movie theater and images of the aerial scenes and the intense emotion portrayed by some of the characters began to fade, I recalled three short sentences from the dialogue.

Admiral Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky, played by Val Kilmer, says to his friend Maverick, “It’s time to let it go.”

And when Maverick responds, “I don’t know how,” I thought that this movie was about to exceed my expectations.

At some point during this same exchange, the Admiral said, “It’s not what you are, it’s who you are.”

I’ve heard that evidence of a good musical is when you leave the theater humming the songs. For me, a good movie is one that allows me to reflect on something someone said that made me think.

My Personal Hall of Fame—and Shame

Guest post by Marguerite M (Maggie) Culp

I spent some time recently chatting with doctoral students about the evolution of student affairs in the community college. The conversations reminded me of the profound impact that our profession has had on America’s community colleges since the 1960s. They also helped me realize that, in many respects, I owe my career in student affairs to an army of colleagues in colleges and universities throughout the country who served as guides, sounding boards, and—occasionally—rescuers. On the flip side, there were a few people along the way who did their best to make me feel inadequate or powerless.  Spoiler alert: their efforts failed. When I read your blog last week, I thought it might be fun to share my list of the first five people in my personal hall of fame. As you can imagine, it was challenging to settle on just five; but I met these people early in my career, and each had a profound and lasting impact on me as a person and as a professional. They deserve to go first.   

Hall of Fame: The first member of my hall of fame is the vice-chancellor of the Virginia Community College System who sat next to me in a graduate class at the University of Virginia in 1966, convinced me to consider a career in community colleges, and cheered me on when I obtained a counseling position at a large community college near Washington D.C. When my best friend was killed in Vietnam, he checked on me weekly, helped me to continue to function professionally, and set an example of courage and friendship that I will never forget. The entire time the man was helping me, he was battling cancer—and never said a word. When he finally told me, I was furious: the man was only thirty-five years of age and just beginning to make a difference in the world. When I voiced my thoughts, he looked me in the eye and said something I will never forget, “It’s not the time you have, but how you use the time that matters. I will continue to make a difference because you and many others like you will carry on the work I started. Make your life count, Maggie.”  

Ten months after I started work, the college hired a new president: a young, innovative educator from the Florida Community College System. After the president assembled his leadership team, he asked me to orient the team to the programs and services provided by student affairs professionals. He also gave me four pieces of advice that I never have forgotten.  Educate your colleagues: most community college leaders are familiar with academic affairs because they are former faculty members, but they know very little about student affairs. Focus on teaching and learning: help the leadership team understand how partnerships with student affairs have the potential to increase every student’s ability to learn and every faculty member’s teaching effectiveness. Speak with confidence: student affairs professionals may be junior partners, but they are essential junior partners.  Keep it real: use facts and figures to introduce the team to their students and to remind them to pay attention to the whole student.  That conversation alone would have earned the president a spot in my Hall of Fame; but he sealed his selection by nominating me for an NDEA Fellowship and providing numerous opportunities for me to grow professionally, acquire new skills, build positive relationships with faculty, and try out new ideas.       

While attending a series of national conventions, I kept running into an interesting guy whose brain seemed to generate an idea a minute. When I first met the man, he was a dean of students in Florida. The next year, he was a higher education professor at the University of Illinois. Seven years later, he became the executive director of the League for Innovation. Every time I met the man—whether at a formal presentation or over drinks and dinner—I left with dozens of new ideas. My commitment to educating the whole person, student-centered learning, helping students understand who they were and providing them with the tools to lead a good life and earn a good living grew out of our early conversations. Our paths continued to cross over the years. We recently collaborated on a book, and—over fifty years after our first meeting—he still managed to teach me a few things. 

At another convention in St. Louis, I suspected that the speaker was drawing conclusions not supported by data and raised my hand to ask a question. When the presenter skillfully evaded the core of my question, I raised my hand again and asked how he planned to reconcile the inconsistencies between recently published research and the conclusions he was drawing. As I finished my question and started to sit down, the gentleman seated in front of me turned around, extended his hand, and said, “I do not know who you are, but I love you.” And that is how I met the dean of students at a large community college in Texas who, over the years, offered me sage advice—even when I was not sure I needed it. He taught me how to deal with difficult people and effectively read—and navigate—complex political landscapes.   He also introduced me to dozens of student affairs professionals in colleges and universities across the country who played starring roles in my professional life.

There is no better way to close out the list of my first five hall of fame candidates than by including my trusted friend, frequent collaborator, and valued writing partner.  We rarely worked in the same time zone: Virginia, Florida, and Texas for me; Illinois, California, and Arizona for him.  But we always stayed in touch, celebrated the good times and offered support when times got tough. For over forty years, my friend never was more than a phone call away, elevated every book we wrote with his keen insights and finely-tuned prose, motivated me to look for innovative solutions to some challenging problems, and had a knack for seeing through bull****. Whenever I found myself in a professional hole—as I did in 2020 when Covid  prevented a writing team from submitting  a chapter on time for a book I was co-editing—he handed me a shovel and helped me dig my way out. In 2020, the “shovel” was agreeing to work with me to research and write a replacement chapter in three weeks.     

Hall of Shame:  The only thing I can say about the following list is that I rarely think about these people. Remembering them occasionally, however, reminds me what life was like for many women of my generation and how some of our time and talents were squandered dealing with Neanderthals, opportunists, and saboteurs—and the negative force fields that seemed to surround them.   

Neanderthals proudly lived in the past.  My first run in with a Neanderthal occurred when a university professor told me to “get laid, get married, and have children” because no reputable university would waste a seat in a doctoral program on a young, attractive female.  Then there was the dean who, when the president decided that the college would remain open four nights a week until 7:30 p.m., ordered the single women to cover the extended hours because the men had family responsibilities.  My favorite Neanderthals, however, were the deans of three institutions who interviewed me—in different years and in different states—for counseling or leadership positions. One asked if my husband approved of my working. Another wanted to know if I planned to become pregnant in the next few years. The third asked where I worshipped each Sunday, if any of my ancestors had fought for the Union, and if my hair color was natural or came from a bottle. The Neanderthal who left me speechless, however, was the female faculty member who, when I gently reminded her that Jesus would have said that slavery was immoral, cheerfully replied, “Yes, he would have said that. But Jesus would have been wrong.”

Opportunists had no principles except “me first,” liked to build their reputation at someone else’s expense, and saw work as a zero sum game where only one person could win.  Charter members of this group include every administrator, faculty member, or student affairs professional who took credit for programs that worked and publically blamed others when something went wrong as well as those who took credit for another person’s ideas or accomplishments.  Card-carrying members also included staff members who “butted” ideas to death, made supportive statements in meetings and derogatory comments in private, and were absolute artists at denigrating colleagues while insisting they were only trying to help.       

Saboteurs appeared to be honest and above board on the surface, but they had their own agendas. I will never forget the reporter for a weekly newspaper who interviewed me about a new program the college was launching for mature women. He was pleasant, asked solid questions, and then wrote a front-page article that focused almost exclusively on the fact that I wore a pants suit, came from Boston, and probably was trying to bring women’s lib to the county. There also was the seasoned counselor who casually would chat with me about a class I was teaching, or a project I was coordinating, and then go straight to the dean to outline what “the new girl” was doing wrong.  I will never forget the vice-president who, when he saw me working every day in my office during spring break, seized the opportunity to criticize my boss and my colleagues before offering me a position in academic affairs where my talents would not be exploited.

Why the Stroll Down Memory Lane? The surface explanation is that I am trying to stay sane in a world that increasingly resembles the holiday fruitcakes I receive every year: wherever you cut them, there are too many nuts! Remembering all the wonderful people I met during my career and how I managed to educate or isolate the Neanderthals, inactivate the saboteurs, and neuter the opportunists motivates me to continue to fight the good fight; to make a difference every day no matter where I am; and to trust that, in the end, the views of people who are thoughtful, kind, and decent will prevail over the views of the negative and nasty, the power-hungry egotists, the conspiracy theorists, and the data-deniers who seem determined to destroy this country.

The slightly less flattering explanation is that I was disappointed in myself last week.  Workers repairing my sprinkler system started to spout “truisms” like a college degree is worthless because the curriculum has been watered down to allow women, Latinos, and Blacks to graduate; the events of January 6th never happened;  and Putin has the right idea—take what you want. I patiently tried to help them rethink their “truisms.”  When they doubled down, I verbally eviscerated them and fired the company. Later than day, I could hear my dad telling his nineteen year old daughter that “The toughest battle you will fight in your life is not the battle to change the world, but the battle to make sure the world does not change you.”  Creating a personal hall of fame was an attempt to remember who I was, work harder to prevent the world from changing me, and not disappoint my dad.          


Marguerite M (Maggie) Culp is a higher education consultant and former faculty member, counselor, dean, and senior student affairs officer. She is co-Editor of six books including the recently published Student Success in the Community College: What Really Works?

Mementos for a Rainy Day

If you’re like me, it’s easier to recall the slights, humiliations, put-downs, and general meanness experienced than the kind, gracious, generous, and loving messages received.

In my quest to clear my memento cache, I discovered that I had squirreled away some of the kind messages that I’d received.

For me, this blog serves as a way to preserve parts of these messages kept for a rainy day. It is my hope that this encourages you to not only reflect on such messages you have received, but also to be the giver of such encouragement. Such messages go a long way in countering the negative messages, and often are treasured by the receiver far more than we know.

For instance, when I faced challenges in my leadership role, Mike affirmed that, “You, more than any single person, are responsible for the success of NASPA. I thank you for your amazing service to our Association and for your friendship over the years.”

And KC took it to another level:

Thank you very much for another year of progressive and excellent leadership at NASPA. You have had a wonderful and lasting impact especially with the new and young professionals who have become a part of the organization. Your leadership has been very “Heroic” meaning it is visionary, energizing, passionate, enduring, courageous, and loving. During my undergraduate years, I always heard and witnessed the Jesuits speaking and going on about “Heroic Leadership,” and I thought it was something unique to them as an order or religious organization. However, after witnessing you, your presence, and your leadership at and with NASPA, you too have it and are a “Heroic Leader.” You and your presence touch thousands in a very positive manner year in and year out. Thank you very much for leading and creating an organization that all members can be proud of and develop full ownership in. (December 31, 2007, KC)

Indeed, the messages from and about the young professionals like RW that I sought to mentor hold a special place in my heart:

Bless you! Thank you so much for supporting my efforts to pursue my education. I am very thankful for you taking time out of your hectic schedule to support me…. You are an amazing role model and mentor.

And when I wasn’t always sure how well a presentation had been received, messages like these made all the difference:

I can’t begin to describe the passion and sincerity with which luncheon participants described your presentation. They were deeply moved, and they were moved because you told them the truth in a manner that allowed them to hear it. However, after telling them the reality of these times we live in, you gave them reasons for and ways to keep hope alive. (December 2000, GE)

***

I really enjoyed my one-on-one visits with you and was grateful beyond words that you were our group leader. Your presentation Thursday really got me thinking, and I have been working hard on articulating my personal formula (which we hope to have our staff do as well later this summer). (July 30, 2007, JC)

And in those times when you wonder if others see the vision toward which you’re working as the leader of an organization, messages like the one from XR let you know that the sacrifices are paying off:

During your tenure NASPA has expanded internationally, grown in membership, significantly expanded its financial assets, and has become “the” voice of student development nationally. In addition, under your vision and leadership, NASPA has become our collective voice in Washington and on Capitol Hill—a role that becomes stronger as the years pass. (November 3, 2005)

And, finally, there are the messages that convey more than collegiality, but a true friendship and understanding of one as a person (down to the use of “integrity” as part of my FIRE mnemonic):

It is a pleasure working with you, Gwen. In addition to your high level of competency, and even, rational approach and warmth with people, you have a tremendous integrity that underlies all your work. I am so proud that you represent NASPA to the world—you make us look really good, and I consider myself fortunate to have this opportunity to come to know you and work with you. (December 17, 1998, KRH)

***

I just wanted to sincerely thank you for your support and friendship over the past few years. I truly enjoyed my time on the Board and have always been so impressed with the amount of passion and grace with which you do your work. I have learned so much by simply watching you and I sincerely hope we are able to stay connected. Thank you for everything and know how much you are appreciated. With much gratitude. (March 16, 2010, Pauline)

I am truly grateful for the support and friendship of so many over the years.

1951-1952

I called the cab stand and Miss Henrietta, the operator, answered saying, “Orange Mound Cab Stand.” As always, without giving a name, I asked, “Is my Daddy there?” I heard her yell, “James, your baby is on the phone!” When Daddy came to the phone, he asked, “Are you alright? Where y’all at?”

I was seven years old going on eight, and my little brother was one going on two. Reflecting on what happened in 1951 and 1952, it’s as if the ring of the call I made was a bell tolling for the demise of our fragile family. Except for during the first months of my life when James rented a room in a boarding house to which he could bring Lottie Mae shortly after I was born in 1944, it was during 1951 and 1952 that we lived together as a family.

It wasn’t long before we were once again living with our mother’s parents on Hollywood Street. Sometime before my eighth birthday in 1952, our mother’s father was called to Chicago to help take care of his gravely ill brother. After being in Chicago for a short while, he sent for our grandmother to join him.

Because our mother, Muhdear, also was gravely ill with what had been diagnosed as terminal, our grandmother insisted that Muhdear, my brother, and I go to Chicago with her. Muhdear did not tell our Daddy that she was leaving Memphis and taking us with her. She was too sick to remain on her own with us in Memphis, and she knew that Daddy would never allow her to take us to Chicago. He didn’t know where we were until he received that fateful call from me.  

 In Chicago, my grandparents were able to rent what was called an attic “apartment,” in the same building where our grandfather’s sick brother lived. The apartment was one long room under the eaves with enough space for a small bathroom, a stove, and refrigerator. The eating table was at the foot of the bed, the only space available.  

Leaving her baby boy with her parents in the “apartment,” Muhdear and I were essentially homeless, sleeping on couches and makeshift floor pallets at the homes of various cousins, aunts, and uncles. During the day, Muhdear sometimes took me with her while she looked for work.

Life in Chicago made me long to go back to Memphis. Because our condition was so bad and she was so sick, I frequently asked Muhdear if I could call Daddy to come get us. Years later, when I asked what made her change her mind to allow me to call our Daddy that day, this is what she told me:

Snow was deep and the street cars would not wait for you to get on with children.  One day, I got up on the streetcar and paid my seven cents. When I looked around, you were still on the platform. This really scared me, and I began to wonder if I could take care of my children in my condition. I knew that if anything happened to you all, I would rather be dead, and I knew if anything happened to Rabbit’s (James’) children, he would kill me because I left him and took you all with me.  

So, when Daddy arrived to take us back to Memphis, she got in the car for the sake of her children to make the risky but necessary trip back to Memphis.

Why

Two weeks ago, Buffalo
Two days ago, Uvalde

??????????????????????

Why are active shooter attacks increasing?
Why does this keep happening?
Why can’t we stop this?
Why do people kill?
Why is enough not enough?

Why do all the questions begin with WHY!

Beaches

Beaches are on my mind. The one constant for me about beaches is that my loving Charles was always with me when I was on them. Our first beach together was in Acapulco when we were on our honeymoon. We visited various other beaches in places such as Nassau, Nice, St. Croix, St. Martin, Hawaii, Jordan, and several beaches in Florida. Stone Harbor at the Jersey Shore was our favorite.

Some of my favorite things at the beach—in addition to the sand, sun, and water—were sipping the varied piña coladas, reading books that had piled up on my bedside table, and eating the kinds of sweets and snacks that were forbidden in other settings.

When I would tire of reading, I would ask Charles questions about himself that, when he would answer, never failed to elicit some new information about the man with whom I was spending my life. On some occasions, we would share our fantasies and dreams about the future, while other times we would reminisce together. Recollections beginning with “remember when” tended to elicit a lot of laughter. The memory was usually about some embarrassing moment that was not funny at the time but oh-so-hilarious now.

As Charles and I sat side-by-side, there would be long stretches of time when, in complete silence, we just stared at the water. As I looked out over the water, I usually felt a deep sense of humility. Everything was aligned and put into perspective through no effort of my own.

When we were on the beach, it seemed as if we were alone in our own world even though surrounded by people up and down the shore. This was our time to be easily and naturally fully engaged with one another without expectations or distractions. It was just us.

It was on the beaches where I felt most emotionally intimate with my life partner. It’s hard to articulate the specifics of bliss, but the contentment and happiness I felt during our time on the beaches was about as close to bliss as I’ve ever been.

 I miss having time at the beach with Charles.

A Very Good Summer

Summer 1999

It was a very good summer. All the stars aligned. Good vibes all around. I recorded specific encounters and activities in my journal and found that most journal entries ended with some acknowledgement of how fortunate I felt to have my family, friends, and colleagues. In retrospect, I wonder if the events are what made it a good time or if my attitude helped me to see the positive in some situations that could have been interpreted differently if I had not been working on a personal challenge.

I challenged myself to be deliberate and intentional in practicing graciousness and respect during encounters, especially when my instinct might be to push back. My challenge to myself was like a New Year’s resolution or a change in behavior that some implement at the beginning of the Lenten season. I wanted to experiment with how I might be able to change my experience by changing the orientation of my mind.    

I determined that I would look for opportunities to honor the basic goodness in others and act without rancor when negativity invaded my space.

I had several opportunities to try out my experiment during the summer of 1999. One   opportunity was during a professional development program being run jointly by my organization and another on a campus in the Northeast. Our team of facilitators was excellent, and I made no journal entry indicating that there was any friction among colleagues.

My opportunity to implement my personal challenge came instead from an encounter with a woman who was working at the cash register in the dining facility of the host college. I noticed that unlike most people who might have an occasional bad day, this person seemed to be having a bad day every day. In my journal notes, I describe her as impatient, unfriendly, and rude. One morning, when this woman’s supervisor (who was always kind and smiling) was near, I praised the worker at the cash register for her patience with us because it had to be frustrating when visitors didn’t know or follow the processes that made everything go smoothly. Within earshot of the supervisor, in a teasing manner, I commented that this worker should receive a bonus for having to put up with us.

A change in attitude was immediate. By lunchtime that same day, the once unfriendly woman appeared to be in a much better mood. On subsequent days, when I was not in her line, she would give me a smile and a nod across the way. On our final morning in the dining hall, my new friend came to the table where colleagues and I were having breakfast to wish all of us a safe trip home. I recorded this episode in my journal because I was so moved by the power of honoring the positive and basic goodness in others especially when the first instinct is to respond in kind.

Family ties were strong. My skills were stretched and appreciated. Travel for my work was exciting. And, when there were mishaps and possibilities for negativity, I harkened back to my challenge and reframed the situation. The summer of 1999 was a very good summer.

“Gift” Unto Others

Perhaps you, like me when hearing certain songs, conjure memories of what you were doing when you first heard the song. 

When I hear a recording of Barbara Streisand singing Secondhand Rose, I see myself in a small café where the noise of the el trains is so ubiquitous that no one notices it.  

During a break from college, I was at home in Chicago. My priority was to get a job—any job. I saw a classified ad in the newspaper for a waitress position, and that’s how I ended up working in a White, working-class neighborhood on the north side of Chicago.

The man in charge of hiring questioned me about whether I was one of those college students just looking for a summer job. He said that he didn’t want to hire somebody who was going to be gone in a short period of time. I could understand his position and that is why I pondered whether I should tell the whole truth and ruin my chances of getting a job or rationalize telling a lie because if I didn’t get a job, I most likely would not be returning to college.

After the lie about my status, I was hired as a dishwasher. This was something I had experience doing. It was during the times when I was washing dishes that Streisand was singing Secondhand Rose. Hearing her was like being with a friend.

Occasionally, I received a reprieve from dirty dishes and could help the waitress. I was eager to pitch in for even a short while because I thought I might be able to get some tips.

One day, a group of men who were having their lunch break from their laborer’s jobs were laughing a lot. Being a Black woman, I assumed that they were having a laugh at my expense. I just kept Barbara’s beautiful voice and song in my head and continued to clean tables, all the while keeping alert in case customers needed anything.

I recall that I was deliberately attentive and courteous to the “happy” men because I thought that if they noticed how attentive I was, they might leave a tip. When the laughing men left, I went to clear their table.

The tip was one thin dime. I felt anger and hurt. I wished that they had left without what I saw as a mocking gesture. I felt demeaned. I understand and believe that it is not the gift that counts, it’s really the intention and thought that matters. The thought and intention were clear to me. I believed that the paucity of the “gift” symbolized these strangers’ measurement of my worth and the intention was not to reward me for service but to put me down.

My feelings associated with that experience have made me sensitive to what I think others might feel upon receiving a gift that does not reflect a sense of authentic caring. That’s why I think that you ought to gift unto others as you would have them gift unto you or don’t gift at all.