Category Archives: compassion

Remembering Robin Williams

Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
~ Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2

 

Although the final act by this supremely gifted comic and dramatic actor was a deeply tragic one, for most of us it is not the sum total of his life, not what we will remember as his greatest legacy.

For me, personally, it’s not even the impressive body of funny, moving, profound work he did over a long and productive career … nor even the joy and laughter and hope he brought to untold millions.

In the coming weeks, I am sure that much will be written about those things by people who are far more qualified to analyze them for their lasting impact on us as individuals and on the larger culture. I leave it to the experts to eulogize the invaluable contributions he made to the dramatic arts.

No, for me personally, the totality of his legacy can be summed up in his eyes: blue and gentle, they shone with a lovingkindness that seemed to include everyone in the world, however anonymous or petty or undeserving we might be. It was his eyes that I will remember.

What will you remember him for? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

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Filed under compassion, lovingkindness, Quick takes

Never the Twain shall meet

I can’t stand George Eliot and Hawthorne and those people. I see what they are at a hundred years before they get to it and they just tire me to death.” – From a letter written by Mark Twain

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m saying it now:

Samuel, Samuel, Samuel. Sometimes you need to know when to shut up.

This from someone who has been a lifelong fan of Mark Twain’s writings and pithy sayings. I love his books. I love his short stories. I love his little bon mots that have been duly passed down by generations of admirers.

Come see the softer side of Twain

I love repeating his famous bits of wisdom like this one:  “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

And of course, this oft-repeated classic: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

There are even times when he borders on lyricism and beauty. His book Adam’s Diary, a little gem that in my opinion gets far too little attention, ends with this tender line about Eve:  “Wherever she was, there was Eden.”

Aaaaahhhh.

But spare me the venom

Sometimes, however,  Twain can be a little too much like the MTV character Daria.

For those who aren’t familiar, Daria is an animated TV series created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn for the teen-to-young-adult audience of MTV. The series features Daria Morgendorffer,  a sharp, acid-tongued and decidedly antisocial teenager whose wry observations about the people around her expose the follies and hypocrisies of popular culture and suburban life.

At first, her relentless cynicism is entertaining and makes her sound edgy and sharp, maybe a little smarter than the rest of us. But after a while, you just want to smack her and tell her to get over herself. Knee-jerk cynicism isn’t really any more intelligent than rank sentimentality … and given the choice, I’d rather be friends with a sentimental fool.

In praise of happy endings

I say this because Twain’s scathing dismissal of Nathaniel Hawthorne feels particularly harsh to someone who, as a teenager, found redemption and hope in Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. Like his main character Hester Prynne, I felt publicly branded and stigmatized for sins that  were of other people’s making. The oppressive condemnation and ostracism from self-righteous Christians that I experienced in small (and small-minded) backwater towns felt remarkably similar to that of the Puritans in Hawthorne’s tale. 

The novel ends with a happy ending of sorts:  evil is exposed, the guilty are punished, and the heroine finds genuine forgiveness and peace … and even a measure of respect from the townspeople who once shunned her.

It was good news for me

Maybe a worldly man of Twain’s maturity and experience could see where that story was headed. But to a 15-year-old girl who could barely hold her head up for all the shame that was heaped on her, it was a revelation of astounding proportions that a respected man of letters and man of God might actually be on the side of the tainted woman.

So with all due respect to Twain’s undeniable wit, given the choice between a sharp-tongued cynic or a compassionate if sentimental fool, I’ll take the sentimental fool any day, hands down.

Because if we writers truly have the power to shape the world around us, then I want to be on the side of the ones who offer mercy and hope. Seems to me that’s a much happier ending.

And when you get right down to it, don’t we all, deep down, want happy endings?

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Filed under compassion, Essays, Faith, friendship, God, Quick takes, Uncategorized, writing

Poem for April 22

For today’s prompt, Robert Lee Brewer suggests writing a complex poem. “Complex is a complex word,” he explains, “that can refer to mental state, apartments, difficulty of a situation, and so many other complex situations.”

My response:

Têteà-tête

She thinks she is manic-depressive, she says, using
The language of a generation ago to describe
What I saw every day:
The bursts of creativity, the beautiful melodies,
Whole programs taking shape in a single flash of insight.
These she juxtaposed among the late nights she dragged me out of bed
She said to shore her up
But really just to pull me down and down into her nightmare realm.
 
Did she have a choice?
I say she did.
 
There were those lucid moments when she knew,
When she could see the wreckage in her wake,
But it was too easy to make it someone else’s choice:
Her husband, her friends, her family all gave her the easy out
(And themselves, too, no doubt),
All said she could not help herself,
And therefore I must.
 
Which left me with a choice:
To follow suit, or to chart a different course.
I preferred Plan B,
Which despite its many pitfalls and uncertainties,
Has mostly worked out rather well.
 
Especially for her granddaughters.
 
She pauses, fork poised with the next bite,
Waiting for … what? I’m not sure. Disbelief? Evidence to the contrary?
Reassurance that she is fine
And everyone else is nuts? Yes. Probably that one. That was always my job.
But instead I laugh, my years of anger and misery long since passed.
 
“No,” I say, meaning yes.
“Do tell.”
 
 

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Filed under compassion, Poetry, Quick takes, writing

Poem for April 10

For today’s prompt, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest challenges readers to write a suffering poem. “A person or animal in the poem could be suffering,” Brewer writes. Or, he adds, “The poem itself could be suffering.”

Here’s my response:

Homework assignment

 
She came to class today, hat pulled low over her ears.
 
He pulled her hair out in clumps, she says.
She should never have gone out with him, she says,
When she had a paper due about global food injustice.
She should have known better.
 
This is not the first time it’s happened.
It’s been a pattern since her earliest days;
Men coming in and out of her life like so many jackals stalking their prey,
Waiting for some small unguarded moment that will allow them
To seize the opportunity.
 
She doesn’t say it, perhaps doesn’t see it,
Perhaps is hoping against hope that someone else, finally, will see it.
There is another kind of injustice playing out here;
Something else she could write a paper on,
That is much more pressing than the human-rights abuses
Committed by faceless corporations against nameless multitudes.
 
This is a tyranny that is hers alone to explore,
And I will be asking her to walk across a field of broken glass
That lies deep within her own soul,
To embark on a treacherous journey
That no one ever volunteers to undertake,
And whose destination is far from certain.
 
Write me a paper, I tell her,
In which you tell me what you already know,
But no one has been willing to hear you say.
Tell me, I say,
Because so many have said everything is all your fault,
And you know and I know that it’s not,
Tell me all the reasons why not.
I’m listening. I believe you.
 
And in her eyes, terror and hope.
Her journey begins.
 
 

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Filed under academia, compassion, crying, education, Poetry, Quick takes, Rape, student, tears, Uncategorized, writing

Who says there’s no crying in the classroom?

He is tall, muscular, and handsome — a confident ex-soldier who only moments earlier was keeping a lively class discussion percolating along with his entertaining observations and quips. It’s the first day of the semester, and within the first few minutes I can see that he will be one of those students every professor loves to have in class: bright, engaged, friendly, funny.

In short, he’s the very picture of success by our cultural standards.

But now he is on the verge of tears. Not noisy, gut-wrenching sobs that would draw attention to themselves. These are silent tears that well up in his eyes as he toils away at the simple writing assignment I’ve asked the students to complete. I wouldn’t even be aware of them if he hadn’t asked me to come over to check his work. Up close, I can see them threatening to spill over, but I can see also that he is struggling with every ounce of his being to keep them in check.

He’s embarrassed. He’s  hoping I won’t notice them. So I oblige him by pretending I don’t.

Voices of failure

So, what was the assigned topic that has reduced him to tears? I asked the students to write about their deepest fears surrounding having to take a college English class. I gave the assignment knowing that it would open up a Pandora’s box of painful memories for my students: discouraging comments from other teachers, repeated failures in other English classes, the slow wearing-down of confidence until the student decides, somewhere deep inside, that “I just can’t do it.”

But that’s not why he’s crying at the moment. Right now, this veteran of fierce combat conditions is crying because he’s flat-out scared.

He’s scared that, even though he has answered every single one of my questions and formatted his writing just as I specified, he must be doing something wrong. Those relentless voices of failure that he’s internalized over the years insist that it must be so. And when I reassure him that he has done exactly what I asked him to do, he presses his fingers to his eyes, blinking hard to stanch the fresh threat of tears.

A regular occurrence

It’s a delicate business, this teaching at a community college. So many of our students arrive at our doorstep perfectly equipped to do the work as far as mental capacity is concerned, but so badly damaged by difficult life circumstances that I sometimes wonder how so many of them manage to muster the wherewithal to sign up for college classes, much less show up day after day, week after week.

Which is why I give a small, rueful laugh inside when I run across the occasional article by a fellow academic posing some form of this question: “How do you handle it when a student starts crying in front of you?”

The way the question is framed, it has a “has-this-ever-happened-to-you” quality to it. As if the notion that a person struggling with the everyday challenges of adult life might experience a meltdown here and there is something of a curiosity.

I don’t know where these other professors do their teaching, but in my realm, tearful students are a relatively common occurrence. I have regularly witnessed students shed tears of frustration, tears of relief, tears of sadness and loss, occasionally manipulative tears as an alternative to doing any actual work — and, more often than not, tears of sheer terror.

Nobody had ever asked

Consider the case of Tammy, a young woman who took one of my basic grammar courses several years ago. Defiantly decked out in giant hoop earrings and skin-tight animal print, she had all the swagger and bravado of the quintessential Tough Chick.  On the first day of class, she stalked past my desk without so much as a glance in my direction and found a seat near the back of the room, sullenly cracking her gum.

That steely facade held up for the first several class sessions. Then one day I noticed she was staring blankly at the wall rather than listening to the class discussion.

Suppressing my annoyance, I walked back to her desk and leaned over.

“Tammy,” I said softly so that no one else could hear. “Are you with us?”

A pair of wide, startled green eyes swerved from the wall and locked on mine.  “No, Professor Price, I’m not,” she whispered. “I’m trying, but I don’t understand a word of what you’re saying.”

And before I knew what was happening, her whole story came tumbling out, there in that classroom while the other students waited patiently: a whispered litany of failure after failure in her English courses because she could never understand what was being said.

And then she whispered the clincher:  “You’re the first teacher I’ve ever had who asked.”

The journey of a thousand miles

Thus began a slow journey that Tammy and I undertook together over the next several months, meeting after class, painstakingly breaking down simple classroom tasks into even simpler tasks. And over the course of that semester, we talked about all those voices she had internalized, voices that told her she would never succeed in English class, in college, or in life. We talked about possible ways to silence those voices.

And through it all, I could never really tell how much of it was taking hold.

Then came the final exam. I held my breath, knowing that Tammy often became so anxious taking tests that she  completely blanked out.

Sure enough, when I looked at her desk, she was staring at the wall with that blank look. But wait. No, not completely blank. As I looked closer, I could see that her wide green eyes were slowly filling with tears.

“Tammy,” I said quietly, and motioned for her to follow me out into the hall.  And we talked. We talked about the internalized negative voices. We talked about the importance of believing in herself. We talked about all the hard work she had done that semester. We talked for a solid half-hour, and when I sent her back into class, I told her she could take as much time as she needed.

She finished nearly two hours after her classmates, but she finished.

And the result?

I would love to report that she passed the test with flying colors. The truth, however, is always far more nuanced than we would like it to be. The truth is that she made an attempt to complete the exam. By objective measures, it would not be considered a good attempt, but I knew it was the best she had in her. I had my work cut out for me trying to find ways to give her even partial credit for her answers. I tweaked and twisted and bent the rules so far in her behalf they all but screamed in pain.

But in the end, she did not earn a passing grade on the test. She passed the class — barely — because I gave her lots of points for effort. But even so, I was pretty sure her failing grade on the exam signaled a failure on my part to help her get past her destructive self-talk.

Until the last day of class, when students were asked to write out their evaluations of the course and the teacher. There sat Tammy, struggling as always to put down some semblance of a cohesive thought on paper. When I saw what she had written in her halting prose, though, I knew I had my answer.

“God bless you, Professor Price,” she wrote. “No one has ever tried as hard to help me but you. This is the first time I thought I could maybe achieve my dreams.”

What’s a professor to do?

So with all due respect to my colleagues at colleges where apparently the students are an admirably stoic lot who barely bat an eyelash under stress, I return now to the question: What do you do when a student starts crying in front of you?

I don’t know what the others do, but I can tell you what I do.

I do whatever the student seems to need me to do. 

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Filed under academia, Articles, classroom, compassion, education, Essays