Squishing About in My Brain

Posts Tagged ‘kindness

I was talking to a coworker today while we did our relatively autopilot job, and as I told him about my college years, and it hit me that what I ended up majoring in was not at all what I planned on doing when I went to college. “They” say that college freshmen end up changing their majors on an average of five times before graduation anyway, but I went knowing what I wanted to do: I wanted to write. Period. Plain and simple. I knew I could, would, and should be a writer. I knew I had books in me.


So I entered college at the good ole University of Northern Iowa (which was the cheapest state college at the time, which is why I chose it. My parents agreed to pay for it, as they had been saving for it since my birth, but my Mensa brother was going to get to go to an expensive college the next year, so I purposefully went with UNI—I suppose I thought I was helping the family somehow. I also had a friend who went to school there and was all hyped to room with me, but she joined a sorority the semester before I got there, i.e. screwed me, and left me to the dorm wolves instead.)

I digress, as usual.


I was excited to go to college. Freedom AND knowledge? WOOHOO! I diligently signed up for classes, not caring that I had to take all of those crappy general education requirements; I had picked pretty good courses anyhow. I was most excited to get started on my lit courses. They were why I was there; my reason for bothering with higher education.


When I landed Native American Lit with Robert Gish, I got REALLY excited, and stayed that way, as both the literature and the teaching were excellent and interesting. But then there was my American Lit course. The professor was also my advisor, and the head of the department. I thought, “This will be great! He will actually KNOW me when he advises me. This cannot be bad!”


Now, understand, I went into college with an above-average vocabulary. I’d always loved words, and I had been reading since what seems like nigh on toddlerhood. And I’d been writing since I was seven. I wasn’t some grammarless hick who could not communicate or needed to larn me some letters.


I worked hard in American Lit. I read, I listened, I took notes, even though it was hard not to doze off sometimes; the delivery was sometimes a bit narcoticizing.  Not just for me, by the way. But I wanted to do well. There were a couple of older male students in my class (juniors or seniors, I believe), who were already pretty buddy-buddy with the professor, and while I didn’t think I could compete with them, I was certain I wanted to end up with that easy professorial banter someday as well. I was basically shy as a freshman, so I didn’t kiss ass, but I was ready to be buds, an occurrence which I was sure would begin once he had a chance to read my papers and see that I was an intelligent and capable writer, someone who would flourish under his tutelage.


We didn’t have our first actual advising meeting for awhile, and when I went to it, I had to tell him I was in his class. Okay, I could give him that; he had a lot of students to keep track of, and soon enough he would know me by name and help me onto a clear educational path that would help me arrive at my dreams of being a writer.


I am going to skip right to the chase on this advising: I was cooperative and engaged and full of verve for my path, even the crappy gen-ed requirements, and I was cheerful about accepting my lot in that area; he was not encouraging, was dismissive, was completely unhelpful and did not appreciate that I knew what I wanted to do. And that was only the first meeting. (Later, when I dropped a math course to take an easier one, he made facial expressions and sounds that I would have expected my parent to make as they wrote me out of the will.)


Things were also not going well for me in his class. (Although I was kicking ass in Native American Lit, where I felt both encouraged AND got positive feedback—and good grades—on my papers and tests.) So I did the correct good-student thing: I talked to him after class as he had told us to do…and basically got blown off. I made appointments with him, and pretty much got the same. I never got told WHY my writing was bad, as it obviously had to be, since he couldn’t be bothered to give me any encouragement or even point out my errors.  If I asked him directly what I could do to improve, I got nothing, and once he even said he just “had no time for” me.


And, understand, as a freshman, I was a Pleaser. I tried to please people, I tried to do what they wanted to make things better, I was completely willing to take their advice and desires to heart! (Yeah…I’m over that now.)


I just could not make him give a shit.


To this day, I do not know WHY this professor disliked me. And I assure you, he disliked me. He did, I had noticed, seem to favor the male students over we women, and joked with them and talked to them as equals, but it felt much more personal than that, and as far as my education went, it WAS. When I asked him questions, I got looks that made me feel stupid, as if I had just asked him which end of my pen was the writing end, and why wouldn’t it erase. When I wrote papers that seemed intelligent and well structured, (and had received the “attagirl” from the senior English major friend across the hall), he red-penned them without really saying WHY my grade was so low. Same with exams. There were a lot of Cs and a few Bs, which was hard on a girl who had been getting As in her advanced, college-prep English courses in high school until a mere three months before, and had been writing since she was a single-digit.


By second semester, I was frustrated and haggard with worry whenever I went to his class or was forced to get a signature from him. And he was dismissive, and sometimes incredibly snarky, for the entire time he was my advisor. Which really wasn’t long—one semester, I believe—as he had me transferred to another professor for advising; I wasn’t worth his time.


I got out of that class, the first course in my chosen major, the road to my bright, Holy Grail of a future…with a C. And also a complete and heartfelt knowledge that I could not ever take another course from this man, while at the same time knowing that I was going to have to do just that, multiple times. And I seriously doubted the results would be any different than that first attempt.


It was, you will excuse me, fucking depressing.

College is hard enough without having your advisor dislike you, and it is even heavier when he teaches courses you will be required to take to earn an English degree…which is all you have ever wanted. NOT encouraging, since my degree rather hinged on the HEAD OF THE DAMN DEPARTMENT ACCEPTING ME, starting with PASSING me in his courses!


So, you may be wondering, what did poor pleaser punkin do when faced with the denigrating feeling that her degree in lit was never going to manifest?

She fretted. And smoked Marlboro Reds. A LOT. And she took all the courses she could that were NOT taught by her advisor. But by the end of her freshman year, she had no idea how she was going to manage to make it through and earn her English degree.


The saving grace, as I think of it now, was those pesky gen-ed electives. Enter Intro to Theatre, where you had to put in lab time in one of the shops to get your credit. Other students were always trying to get out of the lab portion, from the first day Lorraine mentioned it. Literally, after she said it the first day of the course, we sat through over fifteen minutes of people saying, “But what if [A, B, C]…then would we get to skip that requirement?”

But I was not one of those silly, lazy fools. I loved plays and musicals as much as I loved books, so I was ready, able, and completely willing to check this out.

(What I did not expect was to fall madly in love with my scene shop lab. Seriously:  deeply, completely in love. Turning tools and sawdust and stinky-ass slop paint into a world of its own?…awesome!)


So I signed up for more theatre electives, and less English ones. That seemed to calm my nerves and my sense of impending educational doom somewhat. I believe I thought if I could just back off the English department a little, that the next year, things would be different, that maybe he just hated freshmen.


By mid-first-semester of my sophomore year (if I remember correctly), I was walking into my advisor’s office to get his signature on my change-of-major form so I could go be a theatre techie. The Me I am now would have had PLENTY to say to him about my reasons, and gone ahead and said it. I do not remember what I DID say, but I know it wasn’t much, although I DO think I mentioned the head of the department disliking me, in some way or other.


It wasn’t until much later, after talking to older, wiser others, that I realized a few things, like a bolt of lightning upside the head.

One, that my prof was completely testosterone-centric. I had seen it but not recognized it. Several female students had stories similar to mine. One senior woman actually said, “Oh yeah. He’s famous for hating women. It’s like we shouldn’t be in higher education at all.” Wow. NOT what I was expecting from my higher education.

Secondly, and this after cobbling together in my mind both conversations with other professors and students and those with him: he just DID NOT LIKE MY WRITING STYLE. It wasn’t the content, it was the style. It was the way I thought and put thoughts together. It was words I chose. It was the way I viewed things. It was, in short, everything about my writing, my voice…and probably my mind. No, he never flat-out said this to me. He was much more subtle as he destroyed me. It probably wasn’t even a challenge for him. But he did it, and did it well.


All I wanted to do was write. I was brought up to desire higher education, to want to go to college and get a degree in English to lend credence to my writing. It sounds dramatic, but it is honestly this simple: that ONE professor KILLED THAT IN ME. He undermined not only my dream, but my BELIEF IN MYSELF. And THAT was not his job, was not his place to do, was not his right.


Nowadays, I can accept that there was much wrong in that situation, and not be as distressed about it. Being a theatre major was a good path for me. I made lifelong friends without whom I cannot imagine being on this journey. I learned that I am an artist, and a natural painter. I learned that I love paint and color and sharing my work with an audience. I got my daughter as a direct result of that change in major. In short, much good came of that veering of my path.


But it was still cruel to kill that passion in an eighteen year old girl with a dream, to snuff that fire by deliberately pulling out the fuel a bit at a time, to refuse to help rather than to encourage…or at least humor.


I did not tell you all this to get a “oh, poor girl!” reaction. So, here is the point of Story Hour with Chelle: It is incredibly easy, and I believe inherently WRONG, to crush someone’s hopes and dreams, especially if you know you are in a position where you can do so. This goes for children, teenagers, or adults; anyone with a passion. If you are in a position to help someone with their dreams, even if just to encourage them to reach for those aspirations, you should. At the very least, you should refrain from making a negative contribution. Each of us has the potential to make a huge difference in someone’s life…for good or evil. We should choose the good, because here’s the core of the matter: if someone isn’t suited for their dream, if they are not qualified or not talented enough to pull it off, THEY WILL FIGURE IT OUT. It will “come out in the wash” of their lives, sooner or later. To strangle someone else’s dream in its infancy, just because YOU do not think they can or should make it, is horribly arrogant and an awful abuse of their trust, and possibly your position. It is THEIR dream, not yours. You are not the master of their fate, THEY are…but you may have the power to crush said aspirations to death, slowly or quickly, and IT IS NOT YOUR PLACE TO DO SO.


Go forth and be GOOD to each other, in every possible way.


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