Seeing Humanity Through Film

Recently I saw two memorable films: MAID, a Netflix limited series, and Mass, shown only in theaters.

I’m not qualified to speak to the technical aspects of films or the quality of the performances of the actors. Here, I want to briefly share what struck me hard as I watched these films.

In MAID, we watch as a young woman, Alex, attempts to escape from what she feels is an emotionally abusive situation. She is living with the father of their two-year-old daughter, Maddy. Along this road to freedom, Alex cleaned 338 toilets, had 7 types of government assistance, made 9 separate moves, and spent 1 night on the floor of a ferry station. All of this happened during the entire third year of her daughter’s life. And not only is Alex a mother, herself, but she also feels responsible for her own mother.

Watching Alex on this journey is exhausting. But beyond all the hard work as a maid and the toll taken by complicated relationships, her journey exposes a world that is impossibly complicated and restrictive when someone in need attempts to access government-funded programs created to assist people in situations similar to the one portrayed by Alex in MAID. Although Alex had a hard way to go, her homelessness was not nearly as humiliating and terrifying as it is for most people who can’t find a safety net when they fall into this category.

The movie Mass is about two sets of parents meeting six years after a tragic mass shooting at a school. The parents of the school shooter agree to the conversation, which is hoped to be therapeutically healing for the parents of one of the victims of the shooting. As the conversation unfolds, it is obvious that feelings of profound grief have been devastating for both sets of parents.

As we witness the excruciatingly painful toll the tragedy has taken on both sets of parents, we begin to understand the essence and the core of what it means to be human. These actors show us naked humanity. Naked humanity experiences a range of feelings such as anger, blame, and hate tumbling over one another in order to be recognized as the priority. And yet, in the course of a conversation, we also witness that intangible unique aspect of humans called grace. Indeed, we have the capacity to change powerfully negative feelings into something that resembles sympathy and empathy.

I Can Laugh Now

A couple of weeks ago, I laughed out loud when I saw the Dairy Queen “Sweeter” Vest on CBS This Morning, and I knew that I had to have one. I immediately went online to order one and they were already sold out. Though disappointed that I couldn’t order this goofy sweater vest (especially when it likely turned out to be more of a marketing ploy than actual merchandise), I was happy for the laugh, especially since it wasn’t at anyone’s expense.

It seems that most things that make us laugh are at the expense of another’s misfortune. We tend to laugh when someone is socially awkward in some way. In silent films, the funniest scenes were when someone slipped on a banana peel, ran into a door, or in some other way did something that would make them feel embarrassed.

People also find it funny when someone does their best but ultimately fails or “falls on their face.”  I have fallen on my face in many areas of my life.   

For example, I’m a terrible cook. I love cooking, but it is not intuitive for me. Some of my most embarrassing moments have been associated with my cooking.

When our son brought his then-girlfriend (now spouse) home for dinner for the first time, he prepared her for my cooking by telling her, “When Mom cooks, it’s a lab experiment.” 

A glutton for punishment and foolhardy at best, when we have guests, I usually try new recipes because I want the meal to be special. Everybody knows not to do this. I can’t resist.  

There was the time when I invited a colleague I really wanted to impress to dinner. I was going to roast lamb accompanied by mint jelly, as I had read that mint jelly made the dish extra special. I’d never had lamb before and had no idea how it was supposed to smell as it roasted.  As the roasting progressed, I became more and more distressed by the intense and unusual aroma. Luckily, I had a chicken that I could roast.

Upon entering our house, my colleague gleefully exclaimed about the aroma of the roasted lamb and said roasted lamb was her favorite dish. As I placed the roasted chicken on the table, my colleague asked about the lamb that she had smelled. When I told her that I had thrown the lamb in the trash because the aroma made me think there was something wrong with it, the look of shock on her face indicated that I had certainly made an impression…just not the one that for which I had hoped. I can laugh now.

On another occasion I invited a colleague and his family for Sunday dinner. They had two young children who were impatient for dessert because they could see the beautiful pound cake on the sideboard. They were excited when I told them that there would be ice cream, as well. I was excited about this cake because I used the recipe from a dear friend who made the best pound cakes ever. As we grown-ups ate my very, very dry cake in silence, their 5-year-old screamed, “This is the worst cake I ever taste!.” I can laugh now.

Even when we were not having guests, cooking a meal was never routine. I had a library of cookbooks, collected favorite recipes from friends, and even had an onsite tutorial from a friend on how to make the best brown gravy.

My best dishes were by accident. I would make a dish that was praised but would have no idea why the dish turned out the way it did. Invariably, wanting to replicate what was previously praised, I would try to improve on it when I made it again. Apparently, I had been successful in pleasing our son on a simple dish—green beans. Trying something new, I added whole green peppers to the green beans to spice them up. Unfortunately, if one were not paying close attention, one could have both green beans and peppers on the end of one’s fork. When our son got the pepper surprise, he abruptly stood up from the table, threw his napkin down beside his plate and asked accusingly, “Why did you have to ruin them?” I can laugh now.

My husband never wanted to hurt my feelings about my cooking, but I knew when the meal was an ordeal for him. On these occasions, while holding his fork with his right hand to eat, he would have his left forearm on the table with his fist clenched tightly. During one of these fist-clenching times, after taking two bites of one of my “lab experiments,” he looked at me with the saddest expression on his face and in a soft plaintive voice said, “Hon, I just can’t eat this.” I can laugh now.

Whatever happened to…?

I have always been an inveterate memory keeper. In addition to journals, I kept appointment calendars of the kind where one wrote with a pen or pencil on paper. On these calendars, there are names of both people I do not recall and those I recall vividly because we had a close relationship.

It’s a fact of life that people enter and exit our lives, and there is not always a good explanation as to why either occurs.  Whether or not the relationship is a cherished one, it’s a price well worth paying for the experiences that contributed to my understanding of myself, others, and relationships themselves.

Curious to know what happened to some of the most interesting people on my calendars, I Googled them. Some had no presence on the web. Others, I discovered, went on to do impressive things, such as having books published, producing art, working at prestigious law firms, being college presidents, holding high-level administrator roles in colleges and universities, and starting or leading nonprofits.

Some people were still in the same place as when I knew them and, from what I could glean from their online presence, did not seem to be the worse for it. I know I’m certainly not the worse for having spent some time with them.

All My Sisters and Me

In March 1992, my Black sisters and I were in San Antonio attending the annual conference of a professional women’s organization. Historically, the organization’s membership had been virtually all White, except for a couple of notable Black women who were the best in their field. By 1992, our coterie of Black sisters had increased to a small minority with some status.

During a free afternoon, five of my sisters and I decided to shop for pottery and jewelry while enjoying the sights along the River Walk. 

Not too far from the hotel, we encountered an Asian American colleague who was usually in solidarity with us because the same issues and concerns Black members raised also plagued other nonmajority members. The number of Asian American and Pacific Islander women in this organization could be counted on one hand.

My sisters and I greeted our colleague warmly and we embraced all around. A fellow member of the program committee, I asked if she knew what time the meeting was that evening. Expressing dismay that I didn’t get the notice, she let me know it was to be at 7:30 p.m. After more hugs, she moved on. 

Now knowing the time of the committee meeting, I suggested to my sisters that we get something to eat while we were out during the afternoon so I could eat with them.

We continued to meander down the River Walk, stopping to look in shops along the way. In one of the shops, “Diva” expresses great admiration and interest in a lovely bracelet. I encouraged her to buy it, going so far as to ask the clerk if he would give her a discount because she really liked the bracelet. He agreed to give the discount and she bought the bracelet. I felt happy for her, and I’m sure I beamed with satisfaction.

As we continued our shopping, it seemed that Diva was determined that I also buy something, no matter what it was. Eventually, I became annoyed. My motive in encouraging her to buy came from a good place. I did not feel that her motive was the same.   

Sometime after I had suggested that we eat while we were out, a couple of my sisters began making comments such as, “Gwen is hungry, so we better get something to eat.” I was accustomed to the teasing, so their comments didn’t bother me.

We chose a Thai restaurant. During the latter part of what was an amiable dinner, Diva, who was new in the organization, apparently feeling comfortable with us, said that she felt unwelcome when she first joined, feeling that the organization was “cliquish.”

“Elegant “responded in a friendly tone, “I was friendly with you.” I followed up her comment with, “I also befriended you. Do you remember that I invited you to lunch?”

Diva responded in a less than friendly tone, “Yeah, but that was business.”

Taken aback, I mused, “I thought I was being friendly; how did you get the idea that it was business?”

Two of my sisters said nothing and just stared as “Admiral” and Elegant tried to convince Diva that things were not as she perceived them. When I sensed that Diva felt strongly about her initial feelings and seemed to want to be able to express them and be heard, I wanted us to empathize with her and give her experience the respect it deserved.

Sage that I must have thought I was, I said, “You know, Diva, you really might have felt a chilliness toward you because it’s not uncommon for people as strikingly attractive as you are to cause some people, perhaps unconsciously, to wait and see before they extend a welcome and acceptance.”

Diva’s lips turned down and her eyes seemed to float out of their sockets as she responded, “Yes! I’ve experienced this before, and I think people who put themselves up as important and as ‘sisters’ are just hypocrites because they usually do this kind of thing.”

I had apparently touched a nerve. I tried to close this box of snakes that I had opened, saying, “People are human, and this can be a natural and unconscious reaction….,” but Admiral cut me off, declaring, “This is not true in this group. Maybe when males are in the group, the competition is there but not in this group of women professionals.”

The mood definitely changed, and I could smell the stink of anger in the air. 

When we are outside the restaurant, Admiral got in my face, saying, “Gwen, I can’t believe you said that!” “How can you think that?” I’m a part of this organization and I know this is not true.”

I felt apologetic and tried to explain that I was just trying to make Diva feel better. Admiral cut her eyes away from me and walked ahead with Elegant. From their postures and movements, I gathered that they were talking about me and rejecting me for my comment.

In the meantime, Diva fell in step with me, saying, “I believe what you said, and I want to talk with you further about this.” Not wanting to keep this line of conversation going, I escaped from Diva and began walking in step with the silent sisters. Diva kept talking with anyone who came near her. My other four sisters got very interested in the pottery we passed along the way, ignoring what Diva was saying.

I deliberately walked next to Admiral and said, “I know you want to kill me for making that comment, but when you think about human behavior, what I said could be a possible motive for the chilliness that Diva felt. Jealousy and envy are real.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” responded Admiral, “but you have so much going for you—you have this nice little shape, shapely legs…. You don’t have any reason to feel as you do.”

“I’m not feeling that way!” I protested. “I’m speaking generally!”

Admiral ignored my comment and told me that I wouldn’t be late for my meeting because we’re only a couple of blocks away. I had no idea how to get back, and told her so, but she only said, “It’s easy,” and turned away. 

No one said goodbye to me. With a sigh of exasperation, I began my search for the right direction to return to the hotel for the 7:30 p.m. program committee meeting.

Reflections on Possible Pandemic Harbingers

Although I received my COVID vaccination in March 2021, I have continued to shelter-in-place except for a road trip with family to California in mid-June. Optimistically, I set July 1, 2021, as the date on which I would brave the new world and get outside of this personal bubble that has been in place since March 2020.

Like many others, during my time staying at home I adapted to doing essential shopping online. However, I did not do what I consider elective shopping online. I saved that for the time I would be free to shop in person. While sheltering, I made a list of all the things that I wanted to shop for when I could finally go out and feel relatively safe.

Beginning on July 1, I set out to get myself some “retail therapy.” From furniture to kitchen utensils to hair and skin products, I indulged my desire to shop and felt absolutely wonderful that, though masked, I could comfortably go into stores to browse and buy.

I think I’ve been coping well with the isolation but, while shopping, my feelings surprised me. It seemed to me that being around other people, in the flesh, triggered dormant emotions that I can only describe as a sense of being vitally alive! For example, though I think I’m usually polite to store employees, during these excursions, I was extra polite and friendly. My behavior was akin to how one might react when seeing friends after an extended period of time. My smile, though no one could see it, never wavered at annoyances that might have caused consternation in the past. It never faded, no matter what obstacles were thrown in my path that might hinder me from reaching my shopping goals.

Sadly, my euphoria was short-lived. With recommendations to continue wearing masks even when vaccinated, the apparent strength of the new virus variants, and breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, I am, once again out of an abundance of caution, only engaging outside my home when absolutely necessary.

While feeling pandemic whiplash like others, I’m preparing to make the best of resuming my digital life and will reignite my self-reflection and self-care.

Notwithstanding my mature attitude about being isolated, again, in some of my reflective moments, I wonder if those of us who shelter in place more vigilantly are being profoundly changed. Is our hypervigilance about avoiding being infected or infecting others making us less inclined to seek out opportunities to be physically present with others even when it will be safer to do so? Is our success in adapting to the requirements of this pandemic a harbinger of the crisis to come as we become less and less social beings? Are we getting more comfort and satisfaction from being alone with ourselves than we once experienced being with friends and family? Are we reveling in the utopia of isolation?

Or, is this pause in heretofore normal social contact allowing us to awaken to the joy, appreciation, and satisfaction of being in the same physical space with one another as sentient human beings?

We will have to wait and see.

After September 11, 2001

After September 11, 2001, everyone had a story about where they were, the efforts they made to get home, and what they did to connect with loved ones upon hearing the devastating news about the attacks made on American soil by foreign terrorists. The senseless tragedy was almost beyond comprehension.

After September 11, 2001, I witnessed a NASPA staff that was shaken but not defeated. Although there were a multitude of anxieties, such as fear of being in Washington, DC, doing work on Capitol Hill, taking the Metro to and from work, flying on behalf of NASPA, and even opening mail because of anthrax, staff members adapted and redoubled their efforts in support of student affairs professionals who were needed more than ever on their campuses.

After September 11, 2001, student affairs professionals served as navigators and provided safe harbors for all members of their campus communities. Using their skills of empathy, understanding, and knowledge of crisis intervention, they were the first responders for students, faculty, and staff. They did what they were trained to do and shared strategies with colleagues across the nation on how best to respond to these unprecedented times, and the increased needs of the student and campus community amidst fear, uncertainty, and a range of reactions, including the bizarre and self-destructive.

After September 11, 2001, NASPA leaders looked beyond the tragedies of the day and sought ways, where possible, to reduce risk on campuses and, unfortunately, to prepare for the aftermath of future senseless tragedies.

After September 11, 2001, what did NOT—and never should—go unnoticed is the commitment of student affairs professionals to working with campus communities to create a climate that promotes learning and a sense of security and belonging in the face of adversity.  

Mixed Emotions

Zaila Avant-garde holding national spelling bee trophy with confetti coming down

I wasn’t surprised by my mixed emotions, several weeks ago, when headline after headline and several television stations were hailing the accomplishments of Zaila Avant-garde, the first African American champion of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. My feelings were complicated to say the least:

  • Elation for Zaila and her family and what this means for her future.
  • Collective pride, along with other Black Americans, that her hard work was rewarded.
  • Shame that the screaming headlines that highlighted the fact that Zaila is Black may cause some to draw the illogical conclusion that what Zaila did was extraordinary because Black Americans don’t usually have the intellectual capacity for such a feat.
  • Resentment that the United States is still recognizing “the first” among Black Americans.
  • Anger because “until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black children were routinely banned from participating in spelling bees. All winners were White until Puerto Rican Hugh Tosteson Garcia was named champion in 1975.” (Shalini Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee win sends exuberant message,” Opinion, CNN online, July 9, 2021)
  • Disheartened that “Indian American winners who have steadily won since 1998 have endured a litany of racism on broadcast and social media for not being ‘American’—code for not being White. Seen by many as outsiders, and as part of communities subjected to waves of anti-Asian violence, they are left to make sense of negative reactions to their success in the form of calls for ‘real Americans’ to regain control of this contest.” (Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee”)

Despite my mixed emotions, I’m glad that Zaila received so much attention because her success will alert other families and their children that they, too, can have the kind of success that Zaila, the scholar-athlete, has achieved.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Identifying Your Institutional Purpose

I recently had the opportunity to talk with David Keymer, who served as a chief student affairs officer at SUNY Utica Rome; California State University, Stanislaus; and Zayed University (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) from 1983-2004. This is the final installment in a seven-part series in which I shared some of the wisdom gleaned from David’s experience in student affairs across these varied institutions.

Different people have different strengths.  You need to look at the institution really hard and find what your own strengths are within that context. Figure out what the institution is for. And what your role is in that. And don’t forget that.

It doesn’t come from the mission statement and it doesn’t come from any of the “official language.” It’s more like Cardinal Newman’s idea of the university in an ethical framework. What kind of a universe is a university or a college? What is it there for? What does it do for our society? What does it do for the people who go through it? What does it do for the people who work there?

And you need to remember that it is a community. It may be dysfunctional at times but it’s a community. Communities are good. We live in communities. You need to make your community work.

If you can keep a clear focus on what’s important, you’ll avoid the trap of slipping into a kind of imperial boat mode: “This is our Student Affairs Empire. Don’t you touch it because we’re in a pond of our own.”

We’re not in separate ponds, we’re all in one big pond (that connects to the larger world in myriad ways). And if you think that way, you have a better chance of understanding the concerns of the other players, and what language they speak. That’s something you run across in higher education frequently: barriers that are there because we don’t learn how to talk to players in the other boats in our common pond.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Documenting Success, Demonstrating Value

I recently had the opportunity to talk with David Keymer, who served as a chief student affairs officer at SUNY Utica Rome; California State University, Stanislaus; and Zayed University (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) from 1983-2004. This is the sixth in a seven-part series in which I will be sharing some of the wisdom gleaned from David’s experience in student affairs across these varied institutions.

One of the things I like about academics is that they tend to respect evidence. It doesn’t necessarily change their prejudices, but they do respect it. So, if you can get a large enough evidentiary base through student interviews and so on, and if your questions are consistent so you can kind of plot things, you’ve got exactly the type of evidence that academics will listen to. And it’s being presented in their language, not your language.

I think anything a student affairs professional can do to document the success of their endeavors is worth doing. Sometimes, student affairs professionals are so busy on the front end, providing service, that they don’t stop to think of documenting their successes and their issues. We need to supply evidence to other people that our services make a difference.  Like it or not, you have to sell yourself all the time.

We all have our own focuses. And we all want the thing we’re focused on to do well, and that’s one of the reasons for having a senior student affairs administrator on the President’s Council. The Provost is interested in students, too, but the Provost has the faculty, which is the 500-pound gorilla in the room. Faculty issues and concerns occupy 80, 90% of the Provost’s time. And when the Provost goes to the President’s Council to talk, that’s what the Provost will focus on.

Business and Finance offer a lot of services. But while they offer them so students can be there, students aren’t their primary focus.

The Chief Student Affairs Officer does two things. One is overseeing a lot of services that make it possible for students to get into the university, through the university, and do better. The second thing is being the voice for the students, for student concerns and issues, to make sure they’re heard at the highest level.

It’s a matter of focus: The Provost talks about faculty; I talk about students; the business and finance person talks about building plans or money; and the advancement person talks about university development. To do my job well, though, I’ve got to listen really hard to the other people at the table. Listening is a paramount skill—and if you do listen, and show them you’re trying to support them as well, you have a decent chance of being heard yourself.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Seeing the Big Picture

I recently had the opportunity to talk with David Keymer, who served as a chief student affairs officer at SUNY Utica Rome; California State University, Stanislaus; and Zayed University (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) from 1983-2004. This is the fifth in a seven-part series in which I will be sharing some of the wisdom gleaned from David’s experience in student affairs across these varied institutions.

I never intended a job in Student Affairs. I’d been a professor. My specialty course was on Machiavelli and More: Political Thought on the Eve of the Reformation. It’s hard to get more un-Student Affairs-y than that.

I moved into an administrative job at SUNY—the State University of New York—and moved through four jobs in five years on the way up. Basically, I was a jack-of-all-trades, trying to be useful at whatever the college needed me to do. And I wound up—with no prior experience in student affairs at all— the college’s first Dean of Students. I didn’t think of the job as a detour. I was still an educator and at the schools I’d attended and worked at, the dean of students was a real player. I found I really loved the work. For one thing, it got me back to students again and I’ve always loved working with students. That’s part of the reason I left full-time teaching because though I was good at researching, I didn’t like working in a room alone. I’m not a monk, I’m a people person.

Then I moved to California, where I was the first vice president for student affairs at Cal State Stanislaus. I’d done eight years as dean of students in New York, nine years as VPSA in California, and then I moved to Dubai, and for three years was the first dean of students at Zayed University, a public university for Emirati women. Until  it was done, I didn’t realize how remarkable my career in Student Affairs had been. In all three schools where I’d worked, I was the first true chief student affairs officer the campus had had, which meant, among other things, that no one else really knew what I should do and so I could do as much as I could convince other people was needed to be done. I loved it. I really loved it. It was the perfect job for me.

But I didn’t come in with any expertise in any of the fields that constitute student personnel administration. I wasn’t a counseling guy or a student life guy or a res hall alum; I’d never worked in financial aid or educational opportunity or the registrar’s office…or athletics. I supervised athletics, too, at SUNY Tech, and if you knew anything of my history with Phys Ed courses, you’d know what a stretch that was.

I didn’t find it a problem though because the job of chief student affairs officer is so different from any of the subordinate jobs. Well, maybe not if you’re associate dean or something like that. But if you direct an office, you basically have expertise in a functional area and you know how people operate in that. And you have much more direct control over the product you turn out. If you’re director of counseling, you have a counseling staff with whom, you meet, you can set up counseling standards, everything will be fine. But if you’re a chief student affairs officer, you have a panoply of offices under you. I had 12 directors reporting to me in California and they ran the  gamut from student recruitment, admissions and registration, financial aid to residential life, student life, the health center and things like that, various academic success and assistance programs, counseling, and various special entry programs.

The people who worked in these offices—really, really nice people—often didn’t see what they had in common because their particular professions came with a focus. That’s one of the first things that anyone who moves to a top or near-top job in student affairs has got to learn. All of a sudden, what you’re doing is outside the grasp of your own hands. And it may be outside the grasp of your own expertise. What you’ve got to do is persuade the people who work for you that they’re all in the same business, with the same ultimate end. The person who’s doing financial aid is helping students get into school and stay in school just as is the person who works in the residence halls. Students need many services and supports in order to succeed. Our job is to create the conditions that make it easier for students to pursue their educational goals.

Students don’t come to our campuses because we have good dorms. They’re not there because we have financial aid. They’re there because, ultimately, even if they don’t know it, they want power over their lives and to achieve that, they need to be educated. It’s our job to help that happen. If you can get that message across, instead of just talking about your expertise and your services as though they were stand-alone treasures, you can persuade everyone, even faculty, even other administrators who are competing for resources with you that there’s a value in supporting you.