Friday, February 27, 2015

Confessions of a Sociable Hermit

by Jean Roberta

Writing this post has been a challenge. Maybe it’s because I always post after Annabeth, whose posts tend to express startling but authentic emotions in carefully-chosen words. How to follow that?

Connecting with other people has also been a challenge for me, although some of them (including my spouse, Mirtha, who has known me intimately for over 25 years) tell me I have a knack for it, especially at social gatherings. Small talk: I do that.

Maybe it’s because, according to some schools of astrology, I have a “cuspal” personality: born early in the sign of Virgo and therefore an introvert, I show traces of Leo, the performer of the zodiac. I do like performing, and therefore my long teaching career hasn’t felt like torture, as one of my fellow graduate students described it to me some time in the early 1980s.

This person was one of those with whom I didn’t really connect. I could sense her anguish at feeling pressured to perform for an audience of students when she only wanted to be a lifelong scholar doing research, and writing articles on literature. I wished I could have found a way for her to do that exclusively and get paid for it, but alas, I was not in charge of the Ivory Tower or any other corner of the world.

I understand that most people have a wound of some sort, whether hidden or openly displayed, and that I usually can’t help anyone else beyond acknowledging what they have shown me. In several cases, I’ve been aghast when the person I’ve been trying to console decides that their pain is my fault, or the fault of a whole demographic to which I belong (women, old women, mothers/parents, white folks, Americans by any definition, queers, feminists, leftists, the smart-ass, phony, intellectual class).

In too many cases, I have tried to move the earth while standing on it. An angry person in my life (my late ex-husband, each of my blood relatives, to various degrees) has demanded acknowledgement, an apology or some help from me. They have demanded that I make amends by confessing to something I didn’t do, as far as I know (which means that if I did it, I must be really delusional). They have pointed out how selfish, dishonest and unreasonable I am. To keep the peace, I have vaguely admitted that I have been self-centred, like all other people I have ever met. I have apologized for giving the wrong impression. This confession is never enough.

I suspect that after I have left this world, some of the people who thought they knew me will feel cheated: I have escaped without paying for my crimes, once again. They will still be in pain, and they will still believe I am the perpetrator. How could I get my work published, so many times, when they haven’t? How could I be relatively healthy when they aren’t? How did I hang onto a job that pays a living wage when so many others are chronically unemployed? Why am I not being roasted over a slow fire in Hell? (I assume that a fundamentalist Christian version of the afterlife for sinners is not real. I could get a rude awakening in my eternal sleep.)

In a recent guest appearance on OWN (the Oprah Winfrey television channel), Susan Sarandon tactfully discussed several of her failed past relationships by saying that some people, including herself, try in their innocent youth to overlook huge differences between themselves and their Significant Others, but such deal-breakers always destroy the relationship, sooner or later.

I had some great sex with men when I was younger, and I remember the thrilling discovery that this is one service that most men are happy to provide for women – and most of the men I knew were more generous and considerate in bed than anywhere else. Unfortunately, every live person has to get out of bed some time, and that was when the double-binds began closing in. If I didn’t keep a clean-enough apartment (or I wasn’t willing to clean the digs of the guy who had invited me in), I was considered a slob. If I immediately began cooking and cleaning, I was apparently trying to manipulate him into a suffocating domestic arrangement. If I was attending university, I was pretentious. And in any case, I was a girl, so in the eyes of a male observer, my plumbing gave me a kind of biological stupidity which I could never overcome.

If I had just had mind-blowing sex with my current partner, I was a pathological slut. And when the criticism began driving me away, I was told that I was fickle, unstable, prudish, frigid. And an ugly dog on whom the guy should never have wasted his time.

Like Susan Sarandon, I think I have developed some common sense re other people since I was young and unreasonably hopeful. I no longer expect to get along well with people who have nothing in common with me, and especially with those who express a grudge against my “type,” however they define it, and expect me to agree with them.

In the past few years, I have been overwhelmed by the compliments I get from anonymous students on the evaluation forms that are always handed out at the end of a semester. I am overwhelmed because – no matter how many compliments I’ve had from students before – I always find them irrational to some degree. Most of the courses I teach are mandatory for most students, and many of them have learned (are learning) English as adults. Many students dread the class, and with reason. I teach grammar and poetry, both of which are unpopular with undergraduates in general. Yet I have been told, over and over, that I am hugely popular with students. At the same time, I never feel a cool breeze from any of my colleagues, who sometimes invite me to lunch and ask for my advice. It seems I was born to be a star in a small corner of the sky.


  1. I get pissed at those who'll lay blame on anyone who doesn't completely agree with them. They expect that you'll go down the rabbit hole with them or agree with bad decisions. If not, you're not a true friend. If you do agree, they'll blame you when things go sideways. But if you're held in high regard by your colleagues, people who know what they're asking or talking about, you can rest comfortably.

  2. I hope so, Daddy X! It seems to have taken me a very long time to learn that I can't expect to get along with people I meet at random. There has to be a shared frame of reference or a connecting link. (Obviously, everyone here at the Grip is on the same page, so to speak, even when we don't think exactly alike.) Thank you for commenting.

  3. Somehow it seems to me that you've been fated to be a mirror of others' dissatisfactions. That's a tough role to play. I must say that you appear to have come to terms with that.

    It took me a long, long time to learn that I couldn't change the people I loved. Sure, I could nudge them in directions I thought were promising, but if they refused to take the path I so obligingly pointed out, there was absolutely nothing I could do. At that point I (and you) have two choices: accept the differences and keep the connection, or cut it off. I'll admit that it is sometimes rather difficult to make up one's mind.

  4. Jean, I'm touched by what you say about my posts. I love your writing and very much look forward to reading yours.

    I've had experiences like what you talk about here—of people suddenly and surprisingly deciding that their pain is my fault. "Aghast" is a good word for it. I try, as it sounds like you also do, not to accept responsibility for things I didn't do, but sometimes that person displays so much conviction that I'm left wondering about myself. (Your "if I did it, I must be really delusional" thing is actually something I have pondered at great length.)

    A few months ago I was called a liar by someone with whom I had taken the utmost care to be honest. It was so odd to me. There were other things I thought I could fairly have been insulted for, but for weeks I kept wondering whether there was some way I had indeed lied without being aware of it. (Probably that tendency to think too much that Lisabet has teased me for.)

    But you sound too certain of yourself at this point in life to allow that, and I think that's good. And as you point out, there are many double-binds available for us to fall into (I know that cleaning/not cleaning one all too well, as well as the slut/prude one you describe after it.)

    It's awesome that knowing all this you connect well with your students. I think self-confidence and self-awareness are deeply attractive, and you seem to have both!

    1. When we get accused of something we're not capable of, we can be sure the accuser is. Otherwise, those thoughts would never occur to them.

  5. Daddy X, I think you've nailed it. Annabeth, if you've considered the possibility that you might have lied about something, but you honestly don't remember lying, and you can't imagine when you could have done whatever you're accused of, at some point you need to stop wondering! I didn't seriously want my ex-husband to suffer, but after his death, I was somewhat relieved to learn that he had been really delusional for some time before that. Apparently he had gone regularly to the emergency entrance of the local general hospital to complain that people were spying on him, plotting against him, etc., and that supernatural beings were rearranging the stuff in his kitchen cupboards! This helped me to put my marriage to him in perspective and realize who was really out of touch with reality (hint: probably not me).
    Lisabet, you're right about how hard it is to decide what to do about relationships like that. I tend to believe in having higher standards (needing more in common) with friends than with acquaintances who only cross paths with me once in awhile.

    1. Indeed, both you and Daddy are right about this. And I've definitely experienced people who have identifiable patterns of blaming others/paranoid behavior.

  6. I know that the approval of your students can't make up for the pain caused by family and others, but it may be the best measure of your real worth and extraordinary talents. It's certainly a good measure of who you are now, regardless of how some have seen you in the past through vision obscured by their own pain.

  7. Thank you, Sacchi. There's some formula about how many compliments it takes to erase the sting of one insult (5 to 1? 6 to 1? I can't remember), but compliments from anonymous commentators (students or reviewers) have a powerful ability to outshout insults or criticism from those who have personal axes to grind. The paradox of putting on a good performance -- in the classroom, on a stage or on paper -- seems to be to channel something or someone beyond oneself. Years ago, I gave myself confidence as a teacher by telling myself it was not about me; my role was to keep looking for better ways to get students involved in the subject-matter and the writing process. Yet students keep saying that even though they're only lukewarm (at best) about English as an academic subject, they like me. Writing seems to be a parallel process: developing a personal style seems to involve letting the subject-matter speak for itself. Even though I can't help wishing my blood relatives would change (even knowing how futile that is), my life now really seems blessed. Years ago, I wouldn't have believed it was possible to receive so much positive attention without having stepped on anyone else to get it.

    1. My own experience teaching suggests that students can tell when you care about their learning. Some of my students clearly like me a lot even though I failed them.

      But I like your notion that teaching needs to be an ego-less process. When you're focused on the outcomes, not on yourself, you rise to heights you never imagined.

  8. I really envy you and Lisabet having had the opportunity to teach. I taught for one year right out of college, (and I still have contact with one student who became a close friend) then had to make a career change since I wasn't able to afford my car payments, let alone the student loan payments. The bank officer actually shoved my paperwork across the desk at me and told me I needed to either get a second job, or change careers, since the 6-month extension was all he could give me, before I needed to start repaying the bank.

    I raised my own 4 kids, while doing home day-care for many others before and after school. I volunteered in grade schools, was a paid school lunch-mom, and ran my daughter's Girl Scout troop for 8 years. Then I got into subbing and I've been doing that for the past 11 years, with only occasional bouts of long-term, when I could actually plan my own lessons and grade student work. Otherwise I'm stuck doing what I call "day care for teenagers,", a saying that got me let go from a district when a mom overheard me say that and took the time to write a letter to the principal insisting that with that attitude, I didn't belong in front of a class of impressionable teenagers. I'll bet her kid was one of the ones who loved me, as many in that school did. They had started a Facebook fan club for me as their favorite sub, and many offered to stage protests when I was let go. I told them it was no use "fighting city hall," and to let it go.

    Being in front of a class is acting, pure and simple. If you're not entertaining, you can't get anyone's attention to teach them. Teaching is "Loving something so much that your students learn to love it too." I stress to the kids I interact with, both at the high schools I sub at, and in the after-school tutoring program with younger kids, that learning is a life-long process. I tell them that I love them all, and that they are all capable of achieving great things. And they repay me with nicknames, smiles, and the occasional hugs, which I usually get in trouble for since we're not supposed to touch students, even when they initiate a hug they obviously want.

    Sounds to me like you're a giving personality, a nurturer. That's why so many in your personal life have attempted to make you the guilty party in their narrative. But thankfully you have refused to accept the blame. Some people you just have to hold at arm's length, for your own sanity. But for the many students whose lives you've changed, you're the epitome of a good teacher: you make them feel better about themselves. Great job!