OT: Why It’s Hard

Because I’m convinced I already know. Because it’s so hard for me to let go of my convictions and just listen. Just listen, and see what I have learned. Take off all the filters I’ve attached to my senses to ward off frightening data, all the little interpretive mental shortcuts that allow me to get through the day without too many challenges to my integrity, without too many failures. Because it’s hard, not to have decided already ahead of time what I am going to hear when someone opens her mouth. Because it requires a constant effort to keep my face open, my shoulders down, my eyes unaverted. My mouth shut.

At the end of the week the two conversations I had on Tuesday, ringing in my ears on Friday afternoon. Two young men telling their stories.

After lecture, from the student who fell asleep during it, whom I pounced on as he left the lecture hall: “I’m sorry I fell asleep. My doctor is adjusting my meds. I just got back from Afghanistan. [query from me as this student seems much younger than most who are here on the GI Bill.] Yeah, I enlisted when I was sixteen and a half. My parents gave me up for foster care when I was two and the state never found an adopted family for me, and the social worker thought it would be a good idea and a judge signed off. Yeah, it’s legal. Whatever, it’s ok. They didn’t ship me out till I was seventeen. No one here has any idea what it’s like there. Really, nobody has any clue at all. I haven’t been back that long. I still have a lot of nightmares and the medicine doesn’t really help. I’ll be fine. I’m sorry I fell asleep in your class. I’ll try to stay awake next time.”

After honor society officers meeting, with a favorite student from two years ago, who asked if he could come to my office to talk: “I really want to go on [our department’s prestige study abroad program.] But my mom just will not hear of it. She says it’s not safe. We’re really close, and I am worried we will never get past this. I don’t understand and neither does she. I don’t understand why she doesn’t see why this is important, and she doesn’t see why her feelings are not a sufficient reason for me not to go. I don’t know what to do. If I can’t at least apply I’ll always think I missed out. I don’t want to spend years being angry at her.”

Ta-nehisi Coates: Even if we think we know, we can still seek to understand. The point of compassion is not the assignment of merit to a narrative, but instead the achievement of a deeper level of knowing.

Don’t look away from other people’s suffering. It’s so difficult. Just don’t look away.

[Everything I want to say about Mr. Armitage today seems too complicated to write. This is what poured out. Apologies.]

~ by Servetus on September 24, 2010.

46 Responses to “OT: Why It’s Hard”

  1. I love this. I had a student last year who’d survived 37 different foster homes to go on to university. I didn’t even know what to say to someone with so much pain in his life except to tell him that I was humbled by his experience.

    And I’m humbled by your capacity to listen. It’s not easy when there’s so much on the table. Reminds me that the biggest possible plus of being a college teacher is that we get to learn new things, too.

    Like

    • As long as we are open to learning them, right? I could make a list of things that tired me out about all the troubling “stories” (accounts of events in people’s lives) that I heard this week and how they affected me, and my responses to them (of which helplessness is not the only one: anger figures in there significantly, desperation, etc.), but the tiring thing is not always dealing with one’s own responses (which are after all secondary to the actual issue), but getting up the next morning to hear the next batch and being open to them.

      I used to judge people who were not open to learning new things, but I’m starting to understand now.

      Like

  2. PTSD is a real disorder and we have so men and women who are coming back broken. I am truly concerned about this. Don’t ge me started on the sucide rates among vets.

    Like

    • They’d come back home with it anyway, but the fact that there seems to be little effort at prophylaxis once the troops are back in the US, especially given the experience our society had with Vietnam vets, makes me want to scream.

      Like

  3. Prof.,

    You are a sweetie.

    Hugs

    Like

  4. One thing that people with mental illnesses struggle with is the fear that others will disengage from them when they find out. Another is the lowered expectations of those that do know which can affect their self perception as they are in recovery. You may never have any idea how your compassionate listening affected that student and you did the absolute right thing by holding him to the same standard as the rest of your students in such a simple thing. His presence, both physical and mental, is important to you and letting him know that is a balm when you’re struggling with something that can make you feel invisible.

    Like

    • Well, some of this is self-interested. If I am boring the hell out of the class, I want to know that, and if other students see a student sleeping regularly with no sign that I’ve noticed it that delegitimates what I am doing by implying that I don’t care, and if a student is really struggling for some reason I want to know if there’s something I can do — I’d be an active destructive force in my own classroom if I let it go on uninterrupted, and if I didn’t ask why something like that was happening I’d be failing to live up to what I perceive as my obligations as an instructor. I’ve learned over the years that sleeping in class is rarely an act of malice and no one is trying to insult me by sleeping in my presence, so I also now ask outside of class what the cause is, but I do almost always ask.

      That said, I appreciate learning what you wrote above because the first thing had occurred to me (sufferers fear the reactions of others), and that was where my post went — that the main thing is to show people that you are not judging and that you will not run away from them if they reveal a troubling matter to you. But the second hadn’t occurred to me at all and it’s a comment that strikes to an issue that I think about a great deal, which is how to address and/or accommodate people who are having problems during a semester. There’s a university office that deals with this issue for certified disabilities, but there are so many other problems students bring to the table beyond the officially “approved” ones. So I am interested to learn that holding a student to the same standard is actually a helpful strategy.

      Like

      • I think it’s important in recovery to have a reachable standard. One of the most troubling parts of addicition recovery, for example, is a lack of organized thinking which is why the 12 step model works so well for so many. It gives the addict simple steps or goals to reach and includes things like making ammends to those you’ve hurt as an ackowledgement of the affect that your addiction has had on your community or the larger world.

        Like

        • Again, a really helpful comment as you seem to know instinctively that the “reachable standard” is precisely what’s at issue for me. Not so much in the case of staying awake — I think everyone should be able to stay awake for 75 minutes, unless s/he has one of those disorders that make people fall asleep unexpectedly. But:

          My classes are commonly acknowledged to be really difficult. For instance, I assign 2-3x the reading that students expect in comparable courses. To some extent this is a defense mechanism (makes students who aren’t really serious about the topic avoid me), to some extent from my perspective it is a realistic measure of what a student who’s taken a course on this topic should know — admittedly measured by the standards of my own undergraduate education, which may not be universally applicable. I’m aware that I have a huge luxury in this regard because of the university I teach at. And in my own mind I compensate for that by telling students (which is true) that it’s not hard to get at least a C in the class. I don’t give many Ds and Fs because I’d rather not and because I think that anyone who shows evidence of having struggled through an entire semester with me and my expectations deserves a C. But I regularly encounter students in my classes –usually one or two in each — for whom completion of the expected workload is — based on what I can tell about them from talking to them and from their work — simply not a “reachable standard.” And pedagogically, I absolutely agree that there’s no point in giving students tasks they simply cannot by any reasonable stretch of the imagination achieve. Not that there’s no purpose in failure, but I’m doing no favors by compelling students to fail.

          If we think about this problem from the stance of recovery from mental illness(es), as your comment has led me to do, then I should not consider changing the standard for students in this situation, because it makes them think I think they are capable of less, and that is harmful to their recovery?

          Like

          • Yes, I think it’s harmful. I think that when you say to a person “I don’t think you can do this” you break a piece of that person. I don’t want to turn this into a religious discussion but I don’t think Jesus was overstating his case when he said “When you say to your fellow ‘Thou fool’ you commit a murder.” (Don’t remember book:verse on that one but I’m willing to look it up if pressed) The trick is helping your student find a strategy to achieve the goal that you’ve set. It sounds like he’s being proactive in managing his PTSD so it could be as simple in his case as letting him know that you’re willing to work with him to help him find an effective strategy. There are people who take “I don’t think you can do that” as a challenge and it spurs them on to do greater things but these people are few and far between. For the vast majority of people it’s soul crushing.

            Like

            • I’m usually happy to have a religious discussion, jazzbaby1. 🙂 It’s Matthew 5:22, the Sermon on the Mount.

              I agree that there is enough unintentional, random cruelty in the world that intentional cruelty is criminal. Based on some stuff that’s been happening here I’ve been starting to wonder if there’s ever a justification for a teacher to tell a student that his or dream is unrealistic. The main framework in which I’ve done that in the past is graduate school; so many students want to be history professors and I feel it’s unethical to encourage all but the very, very brightest to try to follow this path. But I try to do it gently.

              My usual feeling in courses is that the student who’s in over her head could probably do it if she had more time, so my usual strategy is to offer more time. That has had mixed results; sometimes it actually facilitates the goal of success/completion; sometimes it just gives the student more rope to hang herself with. As your comment points out, if we only knew ahead of time how people would react to things we say. 🙂

              Like

            • I agree with jazzbaby1. When I was at highschool and we did this vocacional test, my result was teaching or an administrative job, I told the psycologist I wanted medicine, she said ‘But you can’t do it’ (she said something about how I don’t have a spatial-orientation), trust me, it broke me, it was such a dissapointment and I was numb. I arrived to the class, when my teacher saw me -stopped what she was saying, you can imagine my face- and asked me what was wrong, after I told her she said ‘If you really want to do that, do it. People who really want something do great’. I just needed to hear it from someone else I respected (maybe if she didn’t and went home my mom would have said the same and maybe I might have taken it as ‘yes, she’s family, she has to say that’), it restore me somewhat, when I went home I just said, this was the result and did not give it much importance.
              2 years later while studying for the admitance test to the U, I went to an accademy so I had help to study for it (especially maths), I think it was our tutor of math reasoning(I’m translating literally here, don’t know how is it in english) that told me ‘you can’t do this, you won’t get in’, needless to say it was another blow (I don’t like maths, more literature-girl), I was upset and later that day I told him that I *knew* it was hard for me and probably I wouldn’t pass the test the first time but I *was trying* and what he told me didn’t help.
              I think you know now I’m studying medicine and I love it, 2 years to start the specialty.

              OML 🙂

              Like

              • Good for you, OML! I have similar stories in my past and it’s incredibly satisfying to prove an “expert” wrong, isn’t it?

                Like

              • With medicine in particular one wishes there were more doctors who were a bit more up on humanness as opposed to math and biology.

                I do think it’s important not to lie to people. If I am asked, “can I get into graduate school,” I will say, “your writing / analytical skills as they are now will not be sufficient.” I do try to make it about the skill and not about the person. I feel like I would be doing students a disservice if I let them feel that their work was meeting a standard that it did not in fact meet (and here we are back to the beginning of the discussion I suppose).

                Like

                • I don’t think it is neccesary to lie, if asked (when someone asks is because they have their doubts -in this case- about themselves too, IMO) you can say what you think which doesn’t mean that the one asking can’t *still try* to achieve it.

                  OML 🙂

                  Like

        • Oh, and please understand that I’m not looking for a way to justify keeping my classes hard. That’s not so much in question for me — I’m clear on why that is — but I worry about some students’ experiences. If this is not the solution, is there another one?

          Like

          • Re: You’re SO there…I wonder if he’s ever thought about fan funding. It’s been an up and coming idea in the music industry that’s allowing artists to remain more independent of traditional record companies. All RA would have to do is ask and his fan base would mobilize so fast it might knock all the stupid questions about who sent him chocolate underwear into next week…

            http://www.boston.com/ae/music/articles/2009/04/12/lighters_down_checkbooks_up/

            Like

            • I love the fantasy of being able to call up his agent and say I’ve won the lottery and what I want to do with it is finance that particular project. 🙂 I wouldn’t even ask for creative control.

              I can imagine it would be a logistical nightmare, and I read some disgruntlement regarding “Charlie,” which apparently was being developed with fan funding, although Armitage was never listed as signed to do that, and never solicited fan contributions. I also wonder, no matter the generosity of his fans, if they could come up with the money for a motion picture. $30 million?

              But it’s an intriguing idea. I feel a guilty conscience sometimes when I watch something he’s done for the fiftysevenzillionth time and think, “I know what this is worth to me, but what has he gotten from it?” I’ve donated to charities in his name, but if the organization of the project appeared reliable, I’d strongly consider making a contribution within my means.

              Like

              • Where is the old Apple model when you need it, right? Like I’ve said before, I’m going to be very interested to see how “Coriolanus” fares and how that may affect not just him but other Shakespearean pieces in development.

                Like

  5. To tie this back to SB and JP. I was disappointed by how they handled JP’s PTSD that he had had for many years to the point of binge drinking and asstrangement from his family…all he needed was a good shag and one redemptive mission. I realize the show is all action, boys and guns but this just really irked me.

    Like

    • The show has signs in that direction, e.g., they show him having a flashback as he enters the safehouse in Basra, for instance. But I agree, if his problems destroyed his (admittedly already shaky) marriage and made him unable to work except at very unskilled jobs, they were more severe than the show implied. The “shag” thing — although the scene moved me, and I wrote about it as a rehabilitative moment not on the level of sex but on the level of understanding — was also wholly unbelievable, just because someone who hadn’t had sex in a long time (the implication of the show, and stated explicitly in the book) would probably be more likely to be embarrassed or reluctant than receptive to such an offer.

      This is all much more magnified in the case of Lucas, one suspects.

      Like

  6. Never under estimate the power of listening and bearing whitness for someone.

    Like

  7. While you probably felt frustrated by “helplessness” in such a situation, the simple act of listening must create a connection, which helps to break through the emotional isolation imposed by PTSD.

    Like

    • I think part of it is that it’s all I can do. I can’t remake the past, make it better, or even make any suggestions. So if I want to help at all (even if it doesn’t seem like it’s much help), I have to listen.

      Like

  8. @servetus,

    Tough week, all the way around. Regarding the young man who wants to participate in the honors program, he is standing at a fork in the road and the decision he makes here will echo through the rest of his life and his relationship with his mother. I hope he is strong enough to stand up for what he wants.

    @Rob, I agree with your comment about the SB, JP and PTSD…it trivialized. I am still angry that they skated over the fact that it was all a LIE! Porter was victimized, violated and had his life ruined for another man’s lie!

    This has been a less than great week, student wise for me, and God and Kudos were good enough to temper it with the premiere of Spooks. The weekend is sucking too and hopefully I can pull some good out of this by Monday.

    Like

    • (((Ann Marie!))) I hope things start looking up for you soon. And that your students, well, that they do whatever it is you need them to do. That is so hard. You really have my sympathies on that.

      Thanks for commenting on the second story. I’m one of those people who chews over conversations long after others, and I think part of the reason that the second one stuck in my mind was its contrast to the first one, i.e., it seems like a comparatively trivial problem. Yet it’s the biggest one he’s faced in his life. I learned long ago that you can’t compare suffering. Trying to determine who’s been victimized the most is a game with no positive outcome. (Yes, I realize that is a controversial statement.)

      Like

  9. Just by reading what your student said it affected me, the feeling that this is ‘real’ person who has suffered, that you may never really imagine what it was like, to hear it and be in front of him can’t be easy. Don’t know really what to say, just that I feel glad this sharing it with us, makes you feel maybe a little better and that we can offer our support.

    OML 🙂

    Like

    • It really helps me a lot to write about stuff that’s happening in my life — much more than you might suspect — and to be the recipient of such support and sympathy. Thanks, OML, and everyone else who posted on this. It’s good to know that one is part of a larger humanity, and you all reminded me of that.

      Like

  10. Yes, the church of Richard Armitage and you are our preacher. 🙂

    Like

    • (nervous laughter) OK — but only if we limit the dogma to “Read, think, be curious, and above all be kind” and no one has to believe anything or attend any meetings, and there is no reward or punishment for compliance or non-compliance with the dogma at the end of time. 🙂

      (I have to say this because of the way I grew up, even though I get that it was a compliment. I don’t want to sermonize. Really. Though again given the way I grew up and the things I study, it’s a constant hazard. And this post was kind of a sermon.) 🙂

      Like

  11. I am teasing you a bit. I like when you veer off Armitage. It is nice to read the slice of life posts. I do not feel as though this post was a sermon or that you were sermonizing. I am not for dogma either. I believe that we can minister to each other anytime anywhere.

    Like

  12. I wrote these comments after going to a foodie/wine event. Never post under the influence!!!! I was doing a call back to the b-day post/comments a few weeks ago. Where people tend to come here for the same reasons they go to church build community, going through a hard time, etc. That’s what I was trying to get at.

    Like

    • I’m delighted for this to be a community center / support group for people interested in Richard Armitage, and to function as the event coordinator. Thanks, I’ll take that job, @Rob. 🙂

      Like

  13. […] I saw him sitting in a classroom this afternoon and burst in to give him a hug. (Then apologized to my […]

    Like

  14. […] dressed, breathing deeply. Drive to work, park, buy a coffee, walk to office. Work, teach, prepare, counsel students, write, grade, administer, with occasional breaks for food. Talk to mom on the phone. When all the […]

    Like

  15. […] if they should stay home and study this afternoon. I think of my student who went to Afghanistan once and almost twice and then didn’t go. He did get to OCS and he graduated, after which I lost […]

    Like

  16. […] dressed, breathing deeply. Drive to work, park, buy a coffee, walk to office. Work, teach, prepare, counsel students, write, grade, administer, with occasional breaks for food. Talk to mom on the phone. When all the […]

    Like

  17. […] I disagreed with. When I wrote things that could be understood as political, and I certainly did, I often tried to keep them on the emotional rather than on the political level, written as things about shared values even when policy in response might be […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

 
%d bloggers like this: