Category Archives: reflection

Learning in Community

It didn’t matter how little sleep we had had the night before, we made ourselves get up in order to be on the road by 6:30 a.m. on the two days in the fall when we would attend The Atlantic Festival of Ideas in Washington, D.C. Most of the time, the weather was beautiful, but sometimes there would be rain and flooding. On the occasions when there was heavy rainfall, we had to leave home even earlier in order to get to the parking garage and find a spot near the front of the lines waiting to get into Sidney Harman Hall where the Festival forums would take place.

We liked sitting in rows close enough to the stage so we could see the faces of the guests in real life rather than on a screen. I was always eager to see the journalists from The Atlantic and NPR, as well. After so many years of reading their work or listening to them on radio, I felt as if I knew these journalists and I wanted to see if my preconceived notions of what they looked like panned out. Never did. I was always way off in how I thought they might look.

We saw members of Congress, journalists, artists, entrepreneurs, educators, environmentalists, and many other thinkers who were asked questions about their take on a wide range of current events and the future issues. I was amazed at how all of us were able to just sit for hours and listen to one guest after another chat about the world and our place in it.

Because of the COVID pandemic, the Festival was virtual this year. The guests were just as interesting as when we could be in the same room with them, and we were up close where we could clearly see their faces on the screen, yet the virtual experience was less satisfying for me.

I tried to get at what made the experience less satisfying than being in Harman Hall in person. For example, although I’d be taking notes furiously on the questions interviewers posed and the responses offered by the guests, I could, at times, look down the row from where we were sitting or look at the people in the row in front of us and try to guess how they might be judging what they were hearing. There were people of all ages at the Festival but not much racial diversity. Over the years, I would look in wonder at the many rows of people who shared the same skin color, but not mine.

When there were breaks, we would seek out other people who looked like us to start a conversation, exchange cards, and sometimes promise to follow up. The people who planned the virtual Festival were aware of the need for people to interact, so they set up chat rooms so people could make connections. This didn’t appeal to me. I remained silent.

Treats of the onsite Festival included exhibits of up-and-coming innovations, an opportunity to see documentaries and films that may not be shown in many theaters, and the “Food for Thought Break-Out Lunch.” These lunches were sponsored at different restaurants in D.C.’s Penn Quarter or might be a box lunch at Harman Hall. The lines were too long at all the eating places and there was a scramble to find a place to sit, but it was well worth it because speakers such as the initiators of Black Lives Matter were there to have a conversation with us. The crowds of people—all eager to learn—evoked a vibe that I could not feel during the virtual Festival.

It was during the many hours I spent online getting a lot of information from the speakers that I had the best understanding of what students probably experienced as they took their course work online this past year. For some of us, just because the material presented virtually is the same as that presented in the classroom does not make it comparable. My learning is more than just the transfer of information from someone to me; it’s the feeling of engaging in a common quest with others that stimulates my desire to learn.

Along with students and teachers all over the world, I hope that in the next year and the years to come that learning in “community” will again be the norm for those of us who need it.

While there is something missing when the Festival is virtual. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with the Festival despite not being able to be there in person. The fact is, without the virtual opportunity, I would have missed the Festival altogether this year because I no longer live in a place where I can just get up and drive to D.C. whenever I like. I hope that when people can congregate in one place to enjoy the Festival, those of us who are not in proximity to the event can still join in virtually. In the meantime, following are some of my notes from the 2020 Festival. The quotes may not be exact, but they are accurate enough for my purpose here:

September 23

  • “1.3 million people would not sign an agreement not to discriminate.” – Brian Chesly, CEO of Airbnb
  • Author James McBride and actor Ethan Hawke talking about the film based on McBride’s book The Good Lord Bird:
    • “The blood has already been shed, the path has already been cut, now we just need to put on our hats and go on down the road.” (McBride)
    • “To do well by people, you have to not do what society wants you to do; you have to break the box.” (Ethan Hawke)

September 24

  • Samantha Bee, host of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, on “Finding the Funny During a Pandemic”:
    • “You have to prove that you’re vital, so I had to keep doing the show.”
    • “There was a lot of innovating and building new systems and trying to make things more visual rather than a flat experience.”
    • “This form of entertainment is our planting our flag on what’s right and what’s wrong.”
  • Dr. Ibram X. Kendi on “Antiracism in America”
    • “Trump’s denial of racism has become a mirror for other Americans to see themselves as deniers of racism.”
    • “We’re in the midst of a time when writers, organizations, and Black Lives Matter are making people aware of racism.”
    • “Removing Trump from the White House will not be a postracial time.”
    • “The path forward is to replace racist policies, structures, and systems with antiracist policies, structures, and systems.”
    • “On the interpersonal level, make sure we’re seeing racial groups as equal.”
    • “Racist ideas deflect us from what’s preventing us from coming together as a human community.”
    • “The resistance gives me the most hope.”
  • Echelon Insights Research—“Opportunity for Young People to be Successful”
    • Only 13% of those surveyed think the next generation will be worse off than the current generation
    • 43% think higher education is too expensive
    • 40% worry about health care
    • 35% worry about racial inequality
    • The American Dream consists of a husband, wife, white picket fence, opportunity to better lives where people are equal; freedom and financial stability.
    • Key Themes: Importance of the environment 74%; importance of education 72% (want more career and life skills)
  • Journalist and author Bob Woodward
    • “Trump was elected to break norms. His voters loved the lack of decorum.”
    • “We’re in store for a quadruple train wreck after the election.”
    • “Trump has no moral compass.”
    • “Dr. Fauci says that Trump is obsessed with one thing and that’s to be re-elected.”

Gratitude

“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.  

Jottings

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

Feet

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.

Teeth

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.

Food

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.

Heading Home

Read previous: Cuearnavaca, Morelia, and oh, Acapulco!

Having finally navigated out of the pitch-black courtyard after our stay at the unique Posada de la Soledad hotel in Morelia, we were finally on our way. Even after sunrise, it remained dark for quite a while due to heavy cloud cover.

We took turns driving every two hours with a stop in Guadalajara. In my mind’s eye, I can recall scenes in Guadalajara, such as the lovely flower-covered gates and street vendors, but perhaps because our stay was so brief, I didn’t record anything about our visit in my journal.

We powered on to Mazatlán, arriving 12 hours after we began this leg of our road trip. We were fortunate to get a room at the first place we stopped. Our goal was to scrub our bodies, wash our hair, and eat in a nice restaurant. It was in Mazatlán where we ordered fried fish and were surprised when we were served a whole fish including head and tail.

After supper we sat on a concrete wall overlooking the Pacific Ocean and watched the waves for a very long time before retiring for the night.

July 20

I don’t know why, but clearly I was in a goofy mood when I wrote this journal entry:

Chuckie and Gwen left Mazatlán at 5:30 a.m. They thought the streets and beaches would be deserted, but they were so wrong. The Pacific, near the shore, was full of bobbing heads of people taking an early morning dip. People were walking the streets as if it were midday.

It took nine hours to drive from Mazatlán to Guaymas. Gwen only drove two of the nine hours. Poor dear Chuckie! The kids ate cookies, peanut butter sandwiches, and tuna with mustard all the way to Guaymas. After finding a room at the Guaymas Inn, with stuffed tummies, they went directly to bed.

July 21

We know that today is Sunday because by 7:00 a.m. the highway leading out of Guaymas is relatively free of farmers. Traversing a relatively flat terrain in sunny and warm weather was a joy. We made good time driving, reaching the border around noon. We had to return our tourists’ permits at the Mexico Customs Station, and at U.S. Customs we had to take everything out of the car for inspection. We were lucky that the Customs Officer we had was nice because he didn’t dump our things out like some of the other inspectors did when inspecting the cars of other tourists.

As we drove away from the Customs Station into Nogales, Arizona, Charles started screaming and pointing at stop signs, street signs, and store signs because they were in English! We were laughing and screaming because we were so happy to be back in the good ol’ USA!

We went directly to the AAA office to exchange the little currency we had left. We marveled at the fact that we didn’t have to check to see if we had enough bottles of water because we could just go to a water cooler and drink the water.

Tucson was about an hour’s drive from Nogales. We welcomed the 97-degree temperature in Tucson because we had been cold so much while in Mexico. Our first task was to find a laundromat to wash our dirty clothes. We knew that there would be one near the University of Arizona.

After washing our clothes, we went to a campsite where it cost $2.32 to secure a space to pitch our tent – the Giant Genie. (I have no recollection of why I called the tent the Giant Genie in my journal.) I put the tent poles together while Charles unfolded the canvas. When these tasks were completed, we moved quickly because it looked as if it were going to rain. I began to pump up the air mattresses while Charles put the poles in the tent. Lightning began to flash as the sky grew dark.

Just as Charles got the tent set up, a strong wind began blowing everything away, including the Giant Genie! While I tried to hold down the air mattresses and loose articles, Charles struggled to keep our tent from blowing away, but he wasn’t able to keep one of the poles from breaking. We worked for at least an hour trying to improvise a way to keep the Giant Genie up despite the broken pole.

While we struggled with the tent, the wind and rain turned into a major storm. Drenched, we took the Giant Genie down, let the air out of the mattresses, and repacked the trunk of the car. Wet all over, we drove back into Tucson to an Arby’s where we ordered roast beef sandwiches and milkshakes. We felt better after eating and set out to find a room.

In our hotel room, we had a telephone that we knew how to use. We each called our mothers to let them know that we were back in the United States. I was thrilled to see that there was a television in our room, since there had not been one in any place we stayed while in Mexico. With great anticipation, I turned on the tube. Unfortunately, there was only static. Thoroughly disappointed, we cleaned up and went to bed.  

July 22

Although we had been drenched the day before and disappointed in not being able to watch television, we were in good spirits at breakfast as we made light conversation with the waitresses who were dressed in cowgirl outfits. We were feeling rested and optimistic as we discussed our options for the day: We could go to the Grand Canyon if we could get another pole for our tent. If we failed at this, we could visit Los Angeles.

After breakfast, we stopped at a service station for gas and selected an option that we had not previously discussed. The service station attendant noticed that our right front tire was low, so he suggested that we let him put the car up on a rack to check the tire for a nail. With sympathy in his facial expression and voice, the attendant told us that we were in for big car trouble. While there was no nail in the tire, he informed us that the front wheel alignment was off and, as a result, our tire was going to be completely destroyed.

Resigned to adjust to this new development, we unpacked the other maps, bought food supplies, and headed east for home. We drove to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and stayed the night.

July 23

After a sleepless night because of a storm, we took a tour of the campus of the University of New Mexico before hitting the highway. Impressed by the pueblo-style buildings, we’d never seen a university campus such as this.

We drove for about an hour before stopping for breakfast at the Longhorn Ranch restaurant. The street looked like what we’d seen on television as main street in Dodge City during the days of Dillon, Earp, and Hickock.

After breakfast, we went to the adjacent shop where I bought necklaces made of beads and corn. We sent postcards home, and for the final leg of our road-trip honeymoon, we hit “Highway 66” toward Oklahoma City and did not rest until we got home sweet home!