The voices were loud enough for me to hear through the closed door. “Whoever heard of teaching an honors course using fingerpaints and clay.” “I thought that was for kindergartners.” “I heard someone call her the fingerpaint lady.” There was loud laughter and more negative, judgmental comments.
I stood at the door, listening to my colleagues disparage me, my way of teaching, the courses I’d designed—unable to make myself open the door. I knew from students that some faculty members denigrated what and how I taught, but hearing it voiced, with no one defending me or my work, was startling. Old voices of not being good enough screamed inside me.
Even though I knew what they said was nonsense, based on knowing nothing about how and what I taught, I was thinking of leaving when the director came, greeted me, opened the door and left me no choice but to enter the meeting followed by her. Having my colleagues greet me as if they hadn’t been tearing me apart minutes before, made me realize I couldn’t trust anything they said.
Did I care? Yes and no. I don’t like people making fun of me or what I do, but their obvious ignorance of how I teach spoke louder than their words. If they had had the wherewithal to ask me why I chose to use fingerpaints and clay as part of my teaching world literature, and we had a discussion, and then they chose to disagree with my teaching technique, I would respect them for asking. We could agree to disagree. We could be colleagues in the best sense of the word.
I took a deep breath, remembering what a student had recently told me: “Professor King, I want you to know I took your course because I heard we’d be fingerpainting and sculpting and I thought it would be an easy A. I was wrong. Your class made me think harder and more deeply than any class I’ve ever taken. For the first time I felt that who I am and what I say, matter. I’ve been really depressed and was thinking of dropping out of school, but now I’m staying. I changed my major from business to art. You and the class helped me find the courage to be the person I want to be, not the person my parents want me to be.”
What the student said was in sharp contrast to the shallowness of my colleagues’ comments. They didn’t know me. They weren’t interested in knowing me. As the meeting progressed, the director asked me to describe a new program I created that had just gotten funded. I kept my account short, wanting to see how my colleagues would respond. It was all I could do to keep from laughing as they congratulated me with facile responses and no questions as to what the new opportunity would mean for our honors students. I realized I didn’t need their approval. I felt known by people who matter to me.
How do you react when people talk about you? How do you choose what matters?
What makes you feel genuinely known in a difficult situation?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.