For two years, I attended a small women’s college in North Carolina on full scholarship. I arrived on campus feeling invincible. A year and a half in, I felt that I was being cultivated as an academic, and believed in the power of my intellect, the strength of my writing and, perhaps more importantly, my ability to analyze other people’s writing.
The professor I felt most connected to was also my work study supervisor. I spent endless hours in her office, reorganizing her impossible bookshelf, talking about my life in both academic and personal ways. I told her about problems with my then-girlfriend, as we broke up approximately every month. My professor shepherded me through difficult, upper-level English classes, and introduced me to African-American literature, which has been a love of mine since, and Restoration poet and playwright Aphra Behn, who was not my favorite then, and is not now.
In a lot of ways, it was difficult to maintain the distance most schools expect of the faculty-student relationship, as there were fewer than 500 of us on campus. Lines were constantly blurred, but I felt honored to be in her fold. We went to see “American Psycho” together and took a day trip to the Biltmore estate, which required a drive of several hours. She read my poetry and gave me feedback, encouraging me to edit, revise, and write more. She was one of the quirkiest, most intelligent, intriguing people I had ever met, and I considered her, erroneously, a friend.
Then, one day, all that came to an end. We had a minor interaction wherein she felt disrespected, that her role and authority were not reflected in my behavior. I was called into her office the next day, and as soon as I closed the door, she began to berate me.
She did not simply say that we needed more professional boundaries, or that I needed to be more aware of context in terms of our relationship. Instead, she told me that I was a brat. That it was no wonder my girlfriend and I couldn’t get along because I was impossible. That I thought the world revolved around me. That it was a shame I was so smart because I wasn’t going to get anywhere in life.
I sought help from the Dean of Students and was told she already knew the story, and believed that I was in the wrong. I do not know what story was told to her. I transferred colleges at the end of that academic year. Many people have experienced much worse than this, of course, but at 19, my back literally against a wall while my mentor yelled so close to me that I could feel her spit landing on my face, my self-esteem was shattered.
It is pathetic of me to harp on this incident, 20 years after it happened, but her words —particularly about most likely being a failure in my own life — kept me from trusting any other professor throughout my academic tenure, including graduate school. That very fact has proved complicated as I have needed references, or blurbs for books, and most professors do not remember or will not prioritize someone who, yes, came to class, did her work, spoke up, but never made a true connection.
For years, I allowed her words to keep my own personal and professional progress at bay. I not only went primarily unnoticed in school — a fact that, based on my precocious, over-achieving 19-year-old self, is absolutely perplexing — but I believed her when she said that my intellect wouldn’t amount to success. It took me nearly 20 years to shake that and attempt to put my writing out into the world, seek a job that was not in the service, unrelated nonprofit, or blue collar industries, but I am finally rounding a corner. While her voice still comes to me in moments of self-doubt, I realize now that she was wrong about me, and that her behavior was wrong, too.
Teaching has allowed me to begin to grow past her assessment of my potential. In creating clear and professional relationships with boundaries I do not bend, in getting to know my students and supporting them in their own personal and academic pursuits in a respectful, friendly, appropriate manner, I finally understand what I was meant to take away from that awful day in her office during exam week of 2001. Namely, that it is my job to teach and to be available, to support and to encourage, and to hold my students and myself accountable for the nature of our interactions.