Author Archives: gwendungy

What is learning? Lessons that stick when everything else is forgotten

The habits that seem to really stick—whether for celebrities or just plain ordinary folks—often come from lessons learned from parents, grandparents, or other elders during one’s formative years.

I’m no different. I can’t believe the dumb things that I do or don’t do because of lessons so ingrained in who I’ve become:

  • I try hard not to cry in front of people because I still remember hearing, “No, no, no, no, crying will make you ugly!”
  • I won’t keep the best for myself and leave the rest for everybody else, ever since being told when I turned five, “All right, if you don’t want the other children to have any of the flowers, you’re going to have to eat every last one of them yourself.” What seemed like a victory was anything but one as I can still taste the bitterness of the dye in the pretty flowers that were on my birthday cake. Perhaps in part because of this experience, I didn’t grow up selfish.
  • I try not to get in physical fights because my Daddy warned me that if I lost the fight, he would kill me himself.
  • I never assume that I can just take something without asking permission because I remember clearly this warning: “Don’t even take a straw out of a broom that does not belong to you.”
  • After Miss Alice, our neighbor, whipped her boys, Jesse and Curtis, and my Grandmother looked for some green twigs that wouldn’t break when she switched my skinny little legs, I learned not to show little boys what was in my underpants and I didn’t want to see what was in theirs.
  • A constant reminder of the need to secure my own financial security came from my mother when she would sing: “Mama may have, Papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.”
  • It’s not easy to just sit and relax without getting up every few minutes to do something because my Grandmother would say to my Grandfather: “There is always something to do, even if it’s just nailing a nail into the wall and pulling it out.”

As anyone can see, it’s not the profundity of these lessons that make them stick. For me, it was the timing—the teachable moment.  


“You would have more time to get other things done if you didn’t write so many thank you notes and letters,” said Joan, my wise administrative assistant in the 1980s.

While reviewing notebooks and journals I’ve kept over the years, I am amazed at the number of times I noted that I was writing a thank you to someone for something or other. For example, shortly after my retirement as NASPA executive director in 2012, I took a trip as part of the association’s exploration of offering professional development to those who provided student services in some of the universities in China.

I was in Shanghai at the Renaissance Hotel after having travelled to several other cities in China when I reviewed my meeting notes and made a list of the people with whom I had met during this visit. My list included 27 names and pertinent information to help me recall who the people were and the occasion of our coming together. These were the people to whom I would be sending thank you letters upon my return to the United States.

When I wrote the letters, the ones that made me smile the most were the ones I wrote to “unofficial” people, such as the exuberant young women students who met me at some station or harbor in pouring rain carrying a bouquet of flowers that were the worse for wear after being drenched by the rain.

As I look back on what was a time-consuming and, to me, necessary chore of writing so many notes of gratitude over the course of my life, I realize that I likely benefitted more from writing these missives of appreciation than the recipients who might have given my message a cursory review at best.

In order to write the message, I had to recall the location, the interaction, and the result of the meeting. I could relive the pleasantness of the moments. Often, there are so many distractions and emotions present during encounters—whether with people we’ve just met, day-to-day colleagues, or long-time friends and family—that keep us from appreciating what is happening in real time. Recalling the experience in quiet contemplation, we can tease out the wonder of the gift of having made this unique human contact. I’m grateful for these memories and writing to express my gratitude on so many occasions has been well worth the “costs” in time and effort.

The Beauty of Memory

Before Alex Haley’s Roots captured our attention and ushered in family reunions, funerals had been the impetus for our family to come together. Though painful to lose loved ones, the grief was always eased by the abundance of humor. We are a family that can find something to laugh about in just about any situation.

When the family would get together and start “lying” on one another and showing no mercy to the victim of the moment, someone would bring up “the fire.” The aunt, uncle or cousin who told the story would also mimic the action, such as running, and would be laughing so hard that they could hardly finish what they were saying. The funniest part of the story was how fast my mother—“Muhdear,” to me—was running down Hollywood Street away from the burning house. The storyteller would say that she out-ran the fire truck.

After tears from laughter were wiped from cheeks, somebody would recall that my grandmother’s sister had run back into the burning house, found me in the bed in the front room, grabbed me by the ankle, and pulled me to safety.

What really happened?

Me: Muhdear, how old was I when our house at 494 S. Hollywood burned down?

Muhdear: You were four-and-a-half years old. Your birthday was in July, and the fire was in December 1948.

Me: I thought I was about that age. I don’t know what I remember about the fire and what I heard people say about the fire. Muhdear, can I ask you a question? Did you leave me in the burning house and run down the street?

Muhdear (in her own words): I had planned to save my new suits to wear Christmas, but I decided to wear the navy suit and the navy shoes the Sunday before Christmas. When Mama asked me why I was wearing the suit before Christmas, I told her that I had a feeling that if I did not wear the suit on that Sunday, I would never be able to wear it.

I had put two snow suits for you, one blue and one pink, in the lay away, and I had put two suits for myself in the lay away—one navy and one gray. I also bought two pairs of shoes to wear with the suits. The suits were $140 each on sale and the shoes were $32 each on sale. These were good clothes that really looked sharp on me. I had the money because the Christmas savings club had divided up the money that we had all been saving.

This was going to be the happiest Christmas I had ever experienced. I bought the record, “Merry Christmas Baby,” and hummed it all the time. Every inch of the house had some decoration about Christmas and there were new covers on the furniture. The house looked great. We were all in good health, and I was happy that there was no man in my life.

It was December 18, 1948, when one of my Mama’s brothers, his wife, and their children came up from Mississippi where they were sharecropping to spend the Christmas holidays with us and our other relatives in Memphis. The children were excited to be away from home, and they squealed when they saw anything that they had not seen before. Despite their running and screaming, I went to sleep. There were pallets of blankets and sheets all around on the floor for everyone to have a place to sleep.

You were sleeping with me, and you woke me up and said, “Muhdear, I want to go wee wee.” I told you not to be scared of all the people in the house. You should just go through the room where the kids were and wee wee in the slop jar on the other side of Mama and Daddy’s bed and come right back. You came right back and told me that the children were in the other room playing with matches. As it turned out, the children were sticking paper into a space heater and when they heard grown-ups approaching, they threw the lighted paper into the closet and the fire was out of hand immediately.

Somehow, I got you to safety in a fire truck, and I was trying desperately to get my new shoes out of the burning house. My navy shoes were just inside the door where I had slipped them off when I came in earlier that night. Lucy Turner, our next-door neighbor, ran out of her house with her mink coat and her alligator shoes. The neighborhood had just gotten gas, and Lucy Turner was running and yelling for people to get out because the gas was going to explode. When I heard this, I started running too. Folks teased me later saying that I was outrunning the fire truck. I was really scared that there would be an explosion.

When folks calmed me down by assuring me that there was not going to be a gas explosion, I looked for you. During all the confusion, your daddy and his wife had come for you and took you home with them. I was grateful. We all had to find a place to stay. Mama and Daddy stayed two doors down at Miss Nanny’s. She owned the only little eating place and sundry in the neighborhood. I stayed with a co-worker named Augusta from Airways Cleaners, where I was now working.

Me: Wow! I’m sure that was a really scary time. I do remember being cold and I think I was in the fire truck for a while before my Daddy came for me. So how did the story about Aunt Lady grabbing me by the ankle and saving me from the fire at the last minute come about?

Muhdear: That wasn’t you. One of your cousins was still asleep on the couch and he was grabbed from the house just before the roof collapsed.

As Muhdear looks off into the distance taking herself back to that night, in my mind I’m playing the investigator as if a crime has been committed: Got me to safety, trying desperately to get the navy shoes, and out-running the fire truck all at the same time the fire is raging. Huh?

If she says this is what happened, this is what happened. This is the beauty of memory. It’s ours and ours alone.

Before the fire…

HUGUENOT! This is a hard word to spell when you’re in kindergarten. I had just learned how to spell the name of the street I lived on when the name was changed to Hollywood. Without moving, I now lived at 494 S. Hollywood Street.

Our house seemed big to me, but it was just a three-room shotgun house. The front room was immediately followed by the bedroom and then the kitchen. The front and back doors in alignment, earning the name of a shotgun house, for the saying goes that if one shot a bullet straight through from the front door of the house to the back door, it would exit without ever touching anything.

This was the house my grandparents felt blessed to live in after moving from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis as part of the Great Migration. My mother and I lived in the house with them. One of my earliest memories of living in the house was using a slop jar to do our “business.” It was not until the house was rebuilt after the fire that we had a toilet in the house.

“Mother dear”—“Muhdear” in my mouth—and I slept in the same bed, which took up most of the space in the front room. Just across from the foot of the bed was room for a small couch where my grandparents sat and listened to the radio and later watched television. On the right side (when facing the bed), there was just enough space for a chair at the head of the bed. In a corner on the left side was a tiered “whatnot” with a picture of me as a baby on the top shelf. I don’t remember the picture, but I do remember the frame—oval with a wide black border with pink and white flowers on one side. I liked the frame. Years later, I was told that this only picture of me as a baby was lost in the fire…

Campus Climate: The Significance of Thoughts and Feelings

It used to make me angry and demoralized to think that my race, gender, assumed economic position, body image, sexual identity, religion, or my divergence from commonly accepted standards of beauty could diminish the power of my contributions, whether in public speaking, writing, or being part of a group where I was the minority. These prejudices were wrong and will never be right. In hindsight, though, I am grateful for the results these challenges afforded me.

I think that these challenges and experiences have…

  • been invaluable in enhancing my desire and capacity to learn about the lives and experiences of others, especially those who are often described as “marginalized;”
  • deepened my well of empathy and compassion for others;
  • honed my skills in identifying and supporting individuals and groups who feel that they don’t belong and are not valued; and
  • fueled my resolve to be ever diligent in remaining self-aware in my interactions with others.

Recalling and reflecting on my experiences leads me to conclude that they have been instrumental in making me the person I am, for which I’m grateful. However, the intellectual analysis is only part of the reflection:

  • The feelings of pain, humiliation, and anger are easily relived when I recall how vulnerable I felt as a student. I sometimes wonder how I might have achieved at my university if I had not feared and distrusted my academic adviser, who was also one of my professors.
  • These feelings were magnified within me because I felt that assumptions were being made about my intellectual abilities leading to questions about whether or not I had the right to walk the grounds and enter the classrooms.
  • The times when I felt worse were those times when I was made to feel invisible.

Recalling my feelings and thinking as I do now, I’m encouraged that many colleges and universities are taking their role as humanist institutions seriously by taking giant steps to create a campus climate where no one—faculty, staff, student, or administrator—will feel as I often felt on college and university campuses in each of these roles.  


Words that stick

“Magnificent obsession.” I have been intrigued by this phrase I find oxymoronic ever since I first heard it as the title of a book and at least two films. 

While an obsession can be helpful if it ultimately leads one to success after doggedly pursuing a vision about one thing above all else, it can be detrimental if one thing is pursued to the exclusion of all else yet the goal is never achieved.

Therefore, I don’t think an obsession can ever be “magnificent” because of all the other wonders that are missed while pursuing the one vision or goal.

However, I think it’s magnificent to be obsessed or passionate about something.

How did she know?

As evidence of how loving, obedient, giving, and helpful her teenaged daughter was, the mother would often tell the story of how when she was deeply occupied and intent on her writing, she would drink copious cups of tea. During these times, her sweet, kind, and perfect daughter, without any hint of resentment, would, when the cup was empty, ask her mother if she wanted more tea.

To keep the cup full, the daughter would have to interrupt the cleaning,  washing, ironing, or studying that she was doing, walk down a long hallway to the kitchen, put the kettle on the stove, wait for the water to get hot, pour the tea, and bring it back to the front parlor where her mother sat writing. The daughter was mindful to fill the cup to the rim with hot water covering the Lipton tea bag, carefully carrying it so as not to spill any tea into the saucer where it would wet the wedge of lemon.

On one of these days, the daughter asked, “Mother, do you know that this is your 13th cup of tea?” The girl’s mother replied, “Yes, baby, 13 is your lucky number.”

Triggers of deep memory


Her feet are never dirty because she showers twice a day and uses a long-handled brush to scrub her feet with soap. Every time she scrubs her feet unnecessarily thoroughly, she recalls a time when she would use her forefinger to slowly rub the area between her ankle bone and Achilles heel into rolls of moist black dirt. Though she yearned for a bath, there was no opportunity.


She brushes her teeth more than twice a day when possible. Each time she has to caution herself not to brush too long and too hard. She is so grateful that she has what she needs to brush her teeth because there was a time when she did not have a toothbrush or toothpaste, and rinsing her mouth with water and using her forefinger to rub across her teeth was not enough to keep the green border from forming just below her gums on her upper front teeth. She covered her mouth when she smiled so the green would not show.


It is not enough that food be freely given – it must be plentiful and eagerly given or she will lose all desire for it. She will become angry with the person who, in her distorted interpretation of the situation, is withholding the food or grudgingly giving it. It’s only after one of these episodes of feeling infuriated and then ashamed for being so unreasonably angry that she reflects on why she reacts this way.

There was a time when her meals consisted of a small amount of food apportioned on a plate, which was left on a stove as if for a pet. Unable to access the snacks in the pantry or the popsicles and ice cream in the large freezer chest because they were padlocked, she chose not to eat at all.