When The Student Is The Teacher

Two to three months of not running due to injury now feels like two to three years as I seek to return to my previous level of mediocrity. On Saturday’s long run, I found myself eavesdropping in the back of the pack as two friends commiserated about how markedly their respective work cultures have changed. In simplest terms, an underlying “whose most ‘woke’ competition” has broken out in both their workplaces. 

The diversity leaders are attempting to teach their colleagues to respect differences, accept everyone’s social identities, and subvert traditional power dynamics. The participants are learning not to say how they really feel, lest they unwittingly stray from the liberal progressive path laid out before them.

Because the diversity leaders are focused on outcomes and not process, they’re plodding ahead completely unaware of the “go along to get along” self censorship that their work is whipping up. A phenomenon that makes meaningful change nearly impossible. 

As a long-time discussion leader, I’ve gotten very good at understanding this dynamic. And disassembling and reassembling it in my classrooms. But as an educator and fallible human being, I’ll never get that challenging work just right. At best, it’s always two steps forward and one back. Just like last week in one of my undergraduate classes. I flailed around a bit and then a student had the courage, and made the time, to enlighten me. 

In class, I suggested that as a country maybe we needed to recognize our limits and take some time to lower the temperature on conversations about politics and race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. “Pass the ball backwards” I suggested, before advancing up the pitch again.

My student gave me permission to share most of what he wrote me shortly after class ended. His fourth paragraph makes me think I did not communicate my message as clearly as I could have, but that does not take away at all from his overarching message:

“My takeaway from the conversation was that in the end, politics are simply politics, and one’s views reflect their level of education. This does apply in certain situations, but it is not applicable to basic human rights. As a white cishet (cisgender heterosexual) man, you do not experience these issues and therefore need to do more work to understand them. An important thing to remember is that the burden of your education on an issue does not fall onto those affected by it. As we have discussed in this class, most educators are white. I have had a very slim number of queer educators as well. Because of this, existing in these spaces made for white cishet people is exhausting. I am constantly expected to perform and have these conversations for people to convince them that I should be allowed to exist. Fighting constantly to be permitted to simply exist takes a heavy toll and as an ally in a privileged position it is your responsibility to do research and educate yourself on these topics rather than expect minorities to do the labor of educating you because for those minorities, those conversations can be dangerous.

As a white cishet man, you can have these conversations with certainty that you are safe. As a queer AFAB (assigned female at birth) person these discussions can put me at serious risk.

Furthermore, you need to understand how much more drastic this is with our current administration. Almost immediately after Trump came into office in 2017, his administration removed the official pages on civil rights and LGBTQ+ rights from the official White House website. Earlier this year, the Trump administration removed nondiscrimination protections in healthcare for LGBTQ+ people. Even more recently, with Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court, there has been new potential for marriage equality to be taken away. This is only an incredibly short list of ways that the Trump administration has directly impacted my rights. These conversations are so sensitive and are not as simple as disagreeing. If I meet someone who disagrees with my basic human rights, I am meeting someone who thinks that I do not deserve healthcare as a trans person and as an AFAB person. In a more extreme situation, as is with our vice president Mike Pence, someone disagreeing with me could mean that they believe I should be in a conversion therapy camp or worse. I do not have the privilege of agreeing to disagree because that disagreement can mean the loss of my life.

The human rights that do exist in our country today did not come from accepting or dismissing bigotry. The Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act of 1990 came to be because of disabled people protesting and restricting access to federal buildings, public transport, and other such things. The civil rights movement consisted of endless protests, sitting in the front of busses, and countless other acts. Women’s suffrage was fought for with protests and marches. Child labor laws came to be because of people fighting for children’s rights and safety. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, a riot is the language of the unheard. The expectation to be silent and accept mistreatment in hopes that we will be kindly gifted our rights and safety is ridiculous. This is why these conversations are not as simple as disagreement. I cannot sit and agree to disagree with someone’s opinion if their opinion is that I do not deserve basic human decency and rights.

To close this email, I want to reiterate that I do not mean this to seem like I am telling you exactly what you need to think or believe. My main objective with this is to hopefully bring you more perspective on why this mindset could be harmful. If you wish to discuss any of this further, I would be glad to discuss it over email. I appreciate you having a class environment in which I feel comfortable bringing up these issues and having this conversation.”

My second reply to him:

“Follow up question. Or more accurately, I’d like to practice active reading/listening to see if I understand correctly. Are you saying that some people (or maybe many people since 73m voted for T) are irredeemable and therefore personal safety has to take priority over dialogue? If so, I better understand why because of your thoughtful explanation of your lived experience. But as an educator working with students across the political spectrum, it’s difficult for me to conclude that.”

And his reply to my reply:

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that people are irredeemable, but more so that people that choose to not listen to minorities cannot be educated by them regardless of how much effort those minorities put into the conversation. The burden of those conversations can’t fall on the people affected by it because those people are being silenced, and therefore it becomes nearly impossible to change bigoted people’s mindset unless more privileged people educate themselves and use their voices.”

Obviously, I can’t tell my speedy running friends not to self-censor themselves, but my student has convinced me that opting out until “cooler heads prevail” isn’t an option for me. That doesn’t mean I have a failsafe roadmap on how to proceed. All I know for sure is I have to remain open to being taught by my students, and other people whose life experiences are markedly different than mine, and continue “getting more comfortable being uncomfortable”.

 

My No Good, Horrible, Very Bad Year, So Far

“It’s not how many times you get knocked down,” Stuart Smalley, Socrates or some spandex shorts wearing high school football coach once said, “it’s how many you get back up.” I’m not sure who to credit with this well intentioned quote because 2014 has not just knocked me down, it has damn near knocked me out.

To fully appreciate my wretched present, we have to rewind to October when I tore a calf muscle while doing too many hill repeats in prep for the Seattle Half Marathon which I ended up missing. Even writing “half marathon” makes me laugh now. I took four weeks off and then returned slow and easy. On the fourth recovery run the calf again rioted. So now I’m not even half way through an eight week hiatus. The other day I started corralling wayward Christmas tree needles when I had to turn the vacuum off and sit down and rest before continuing. All this, eighteen months removed from long distance triathlon success. We are always the last to know when we’ve peaked.

Add into the mix an enlarged prostate which means sucky sleep, contacts that are shot meaning sucky vision, and an unplanned trip to Dante’s Inferno compliments of an influenza roundhouse that left me too sick at times to watch television. Somewhere along the long downward spiral, I went from thinking “I should probably try to get back up and do Stuart Smalley or Socrates proud,” to “Screw it, I’m just gonna curl up in the fetal position and stay down. If I tuck tight enough it may not matter if 2014 continues kicking me in the gut.”

A part of staying down was going to the dermatologist who always smiles when she sees me. You’re thinking she’s probably turned on by me, but I looked liked I just returned from the lower levels of Hades. She always smiles at me because my tired skin pays for her boat. She has zero interpersonal skills, but she’s damn good with a liquid nitrogen canister. It was as if 2014 asked her to liquid nitrogen me until I begged for mercy. So now, a few days later, red blotches are forming all over my formally handsome self. And I haven’t shaved for ever, I need a hair cut, and if my sinuses weren’t completely blocked I’d probably lay on the floor of the shower for awhile.

Like a paratrooper who perfects her aerodynamic tuck, I thought if I just give in to my cosmic fate, I’ll hit bottom faster and bounce higher when I do. So why not roll the dice with one of the things I most cherish, my marriage.

“You know when I asked if you’d get me some 7-Up or Sprite?” “Yeah.” “Well, the funny thing about that is that’s what my mom always gave me to drink when I was sick as a kid. It’s funny, there’s something about a near-death experience that makes a part of me still want my mom. That’s probably the least masculine thing I’ve ever said, huh?” “A mother’s love is primal.” Say wha?! The first sign yet the calendar may not have it out for me.

And then I visited Australia, well actually an Australian blog after the author visited here. And I read this:

People often ask me what it’s like living with a chronic illness. And by ‘often’, of course I mean never.

So, for the benefit of absolutely no one, allow me to explain. You know that feeling you get when you start to come down with something? Your throat starts to hurt and your glands swell up. Your sinuses block and your nose starts to run. Your head hurts and you can’t think clearly. Your bones ache, your body feels weak and no amount of sleep seems to make a difference.

Well, to the best of my admittedly limited scientific knowledge. . . these are actually the body’s natural defences for fighting off infection. It’s your immune system switching on and kicking in to gear.

And these are the symptoms I’ve had 24/7 for the last seven-and-a-half years. Because, as I’ve explained before, my body has been fighting off an infection it can’t beat and my immune system remains permanently in the ‘on’ position.

The good news is that it means I rarely get whatever bug it is that’s going round. Happy days. The bad news is that I permanently feel like I have the flu. Not so good.

Of course, there are other symptoms, too, like sensitivity to light, noise, cold and heat, significant memory impairment, insomnia, chronic pain and various bodily dysfunctions not appropriate to discuss in this type of public forum. And that’s without the introduction of any number of medical treatments — and believe me, I’ve tried a few — which inevitably make you feel worse than you did to begin with.

So, in short, living with a chronic illness is a real party and that’s your answer.

The first gift of 2014. Perspective.

I am fortunate that the relentless attack on my body is abating and that most of my many ailments are fixable. I will ask the lifeguard to roll my pathetic, coiled bod across the deck and into the pool in a day or two. I will try to ascend the trainer tonight and soft pedal while watching college basketball. The torn fibers in my calf muscle will eventually reattach. I will start running in mid February and should be back to semi-normal in June. Meds make the prostrate manageable. I will make an appointment with the optometrist. My ugly sores will heal. I will shave my face and head. Then I will shower, put on clean clothes, and resume my rightful place among the mostly living. And that is the best I can do.