An Open Letter to my College Poetry Professor

I would like to tell you that you helped create a harbor of learning, buoying me into a future spun with words and wonder. I would like to say that you were a lighted beacon providing safe passage through dark waters, an even keel knifing through the rough, a voice of stolid encouragement amidst the sirens’ calls. But mostly, I wish I could say that I forgive you.

It was difficult when the school administrators uprooted the entire creative writing department, firing the people who were our mentors and academic advisors. We hoped for something better, though. So when we learned that one of the new professors hoped to start a nationally syndicated literary magazine, our enthusiasm crested. You found the interest in the prospective magazine so great that you decided to conduct personal interviews to determine the class membership.

On the day of my appointment, I gathered copies of the award-winning magazine I had edited back in high school and strode purposefully across campus to the trailer serving as your temporary office. You welcomed me with a soft-spoken Southern twang, and you deftly managed my ebullience with gracious, close-lipped smiles and nods in all the right places. I was thrilled to be taken so seriously. I left your trailer with a veritable bounce in my step and called my mother, anticipation beaming across telephone lines.

Later that week, when I filed into my first modern poetry class with you, I felt that we had made some sort of connection—I believed that we were women on a way to an understanding with one another. So when the lecture began and I offered a counter-narrative, I didn’t anticipate a volatile reaction. Rather than judge my comment for what it was—a discussion point—you immediately labeled it a hostile action. As I sat there, red faced and astonished, you flatly explained to the entire class that I didn’t know what I was talking about, that I was so very wrong, and that I didn’t know enough about anything to properly discuss the work. Oh, Walt. Walt fucking Whitman.

In retrospect, I can’t remember the point I’d hoped to make. I know that I’d taken past criticisms to heart: as women, we are so often told that we are not outspoken enough, that we fail to lead discussions in classrooms and boardrooms, and that we defer to men too often. I had attempted to initiate this process of learning through conversation, and you had humiliated me. You were not an ally. You were not a mentor. You were a parent scolding a recalcitrant child, and you made it clear that that was what I’d always be. Had I known that Leaves of Grass informed a totalitarian regime in your heart, I might have kept my mouth shut. I still wonder—did shaming me make you feel more powerful?

Despite my ongoing attempts to make amends, offer conciliatory discourse, nothing pleased you. At your request, I knitted a hat for your newborn niece. I dutifully arrived during office hours, poetry in hand, to workshop your suggested changes. I approached each essay from a new angle, hoping that a different technique might yield better results. And when nothing seemed to work, I remained mute. Because you’d made an example of me, my peers understood how the game was meant to be played—I’d never again make it off the bench. Regardless of how much time and effort I poured into papers and poems, you half-heartedly dismissed them with below-average grades and snide remarks. I brought my work to other instructors, desperate to understand how I might improve it, and they shook their collective heads, perplexed as to how you’d arrive at such arbitrary and unfitting letters.

I internalized all of your subtle criticisms as you fundamentally changed what I had loved best about my small university. I had wanted an environment in which both professors and students knew one another and grew together, but this smallness also created certain inescapabilities: I could not drop any of your classes and still hope to move forward. By the time the anticipated literary magazine course arrived, I was neurotic with despair. You refused to provide me with a necessary letter of recommendation for graduate school, casually stating that you weren’t comfortable telling someone else that I was up for the task.

You still gave me an assistant editorship in promotions, though. I had no desire to work with any forms of advertising (nor did I have any relevant experience in marketing, networking, or graphic design), and you knew it. My friends handled my disappointment with a glass half-full attitude, speculating that you just wanted to challenge me, force me to rise to the occasion. I glumly tried to believe this. I quelled my crushing anxiety and cold-called other publications to inquire about exchange ads. I learned Adobe InDesign and Photoshop so that I could create a series of decent print advertisements for you to sneer at. I learned about circulation. I coordinated the release party. I even made time to sit with the goddamn Konica man to learn how to use our monstrous new copier, all while continuing to participate in the day-to-day necessities of running a soon-to-be-published magazine.

And even when my other classes and relationships suffered, you were never happy. You’d periodically bring me into the tiny magazine office to discuss my small failures or explain that my classmates were disappointed with me. Before finals, you told me that you were considering giving my editorship to someone else, and that you were very interested in knowing how the website was coming along. An instantaneous wave of nausea rolled through me. In point of fact, you had never asked me to create a website, and the syllabus confirmed this. When I pointed out that deviation, you smiled and told me that my grade in the class depended on its successful implementation. Perhaps the administration had always wanted a website for the magazine and you’d forgotten to have someone look into it. I was the perfect write off—if I failed, it wasn’t your fault, but rather the fault of an unreliable student.

By some miracle and the powers of Dreamweaver, I surprised everyone. The site wasn’t connected to the school network and never would be, but I could proudly display a working demonstration at the academic showcase. I suspect you remember that year’s event. We had just published the first issue of the magazine, and it won a well-deserved award. So did I. I will never forget climbing to the podium in front of my peers and the honors committee, award-winning essay clutched in shaking hands. I wasn’t nervous—I was furious. You had destroyed my one sliver of glory just moments earlier when I overheard you telling a group of other professors that, “It’s a relief knowing her prose is at least a little better than her poetry.”

I wonder if you knew how close you came to ruining me. It wasn’t enough to demolish my GPA—you had to alienate me from my classmates and discredit both me and my work in front of respected faculty members. I knew about the lies you spoon-fed to my friends in that magazine office. I heard them so many times that I very nearly started to believe them. I sometimes wished I could be angry with my friends, knowing that they never spoke up in my defense. But how could I blame them for trying to avoid the misery you rained down upon me? As someone raised in an honesty-is-always-the-best-policy-house, your antics rendered me so distraught that I had a meltdown in another professor’s office. That professor found me so downtrodden and defeated that she thought I was going to kill myself. Regardless of how wrong she was, I found myself in a required meeting with a school counselor. I remember the counselor’s small, drawn face as she plainly informed me that I had an anger management problem. That surely one of the University’s esteemed professors would never launch such a complicated and devious campaign against one of her students.

Oh, I would have loved to sit you down on that couch. I would listen to you talk about your military family with feigned interest and then make suppositions that the strict nature of your upbringing had damaged you. That perhaps when you were a little girl, you had challenged the authority figure in your life, your father, and that he had righteously punished your transgression. That you had probably learned the evangelical brand of shame at an early age, and that it had permanently permeated your life. I would tell you that you were unable to learn from your childhood, and that as soon as you moved out, you clutched your newfound authority so tightly that you knew no other way to live. I would ask you if writing offered you escape, but before you answered, I would speculate that the classroom functioned as your security blanket. It swaddled you in a false embrace of control and allowed you to smother any notes of dissonance. Me.

But your past does not provide you with an adequate excuse for your behavior. From you, dear professor, I learned a different kind of powerlessness. I had understood bullies to be schoolyard miscreants or difficult bosses—I couldn’t comprehend that a teacher would knowingly engage in the same forms of damaging misconduct. You washed my subconscious with so many insults and disapprovals that I started to believe that there was truly something wrong with me. That I was useless. Do you understand how long it takes to shake that sort of self-loathing? I learned rage so slow and cold that it persevered through a deep and lasting depression. I vowed that I would never let someone bully and manipulate me again, regardless of the consequences. It took me years to accept that the Sisyphean failures were not my responsibility, but yours. 

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