The Speech

I thought I should write to say THANK YOU, once more, to everyone who came on Friday and especially to Jesu and the union leadership and volunteers who did so much work to make the end of the year luncheon happen. It was very cool to be a part of it and obviously required a tremendous amount of work.

I also know that all of you are buried, and I know a few of you have said that you wanted to go but couldn’t, so I thought I might share with you a little about it.

I wish I’d stuck with my first plan–let me say that much right off the bat. I wanted to stand up, say a few thank yous, maybe drop a quote or two, and get out. But I heard from a few people that I should have a speech–like a speech, speech–and I didn’t want to be an ingrate and flout expectations, so I started writing, and somewhere around the time Asim’s speech, he was the first student scholarship winner, was wrapping up, I realized that I’d written an essay (blogging HAS ruined me!), not a speech, and I started frantically trying to cut it down so I wouldn’t have people throwing ouzo and matches at me while I read off my pages. It was funny and embarrassing to be outperformed by our students.

As a result, in the speech I ended up giving, which Gitte was kind enough to post on the CAST site, I left out a bunch of stuff that I wanted to include (and should have) and kept some stuff I could have cut out and probably left more than a few threads hanging disconnected. Lucky for me, my children’s reviews (“Too long. Also, too boring”) were tempered by their joy at winning a dozen doughnuts in the raffle, so their memories of it won’t be all bad.

And I am still glowing. Plus my Derby horse came in, so it was a pretty great weekend, altogether.

Anyway, here is what I meant to say:

Thank you Jesu, and hello everyone. I’m honored, amazed, and grateful to be standing here as Harold Washington College’s Distinguished Professor today.

When Don told me I’d been chosen, even though I had an inkling that it was coming, I was quite literally without words. “Holy Mackeral,” I thought, and then, “Oh, no!” Despite being a pretty consistently optimistic person (I’d say), my first thoughts were a mix of stunned pride and creeping certainty that surely this would lead to some sort of disaster.

All I could think about were stories from classical literature filled with warnings about such moments. There’s Boethius, a famous Roman philosopher and powerful man of his time who was named advisor to the Theodoric the Great, along with his two sons, and sentenced to death with them less than a year later. From his jail cell, he wrote, in a work I taught this semester, “When sitting amid troubles of all sorts, the most unhappy kind is once to have been happy.”

Another story from ancient Greece was of Solon, the wise lawmaker and founder of Athens, who visited the richest man of his time and, upon being asked if he’d ever seen anyone so happy, responded that the uncertain future has yet to come, and he wouldn’t call anyone happy as long as they were alive and still vulnerable to misfortune. The king was rather annoyed and so kicked him out, only to find himself a few years later, after losing a war, about to be executed. Given the chance to speak his last words, the formerly rich and proud king cried out, “Solon you were right!” His puzzled conqueror asked him the meaning of his words and ended up sparing his life in acknowledgement of Solon’s point. The wisdom literature seems to speak in a single voice in saying, “This too shall pass.”

But how could I not be happy? How could I temper it? I’m the luckiest person I know! I am married to a spectacular woman and partner whose encouragement and support and strength and capabilities leave me awed. Larry, as I know her, is the person I can go to on the morning of a class and say, “What should I do today?” and leave ten minutes later with multiple great possibilities to choose from. I saw her plan and work and revise and struggle and succeed in doing transformative teaching long before I ever stepped into a classroom, which was not only an invaluable teaching apprenticeship, but a powerful motivation for many of the choices that led me to a teaching career, especially to leave a safe, but unfulfilling certainty for a risky and uncertain possibility. I would not have had that courage without her.

And then I found my dream job. And it truly is. Above my desk there is a framed rejection letter, signed by the department chair on HWC letterhead, that was mistakenly sent to me by the Humanities department the same summer that I was hired. It arrived a few days after I’d found out that I was going to be hired and I keep it there to remind myself how lucky I am to have this job that I wanted so badly and love so much. Most days, I don’t yet feel like I’m distinguished at it, though.

Even so, I love it, like you, because it’s work that matters, because of the incredibly inspiring students, because I love my subject and love turning people on to it, and because I work with such unbelievable colleagues, from whom I’ve had another, ongoing apprenticeship. Amanda, Matt, Adriana, Marcy and I came in together in 2003, along with Isabelle and Pierre—and I can’t even start to tell you all the ways I have learned and grown through their friendship and collegiality; a hundred stories and a thousand examples would not be enough.

But we were just a part of the first wave of a faculty transformation, one I have reveled in. I was hesitant about accepting the nomination because I still see myself as being new. Then, in talking it over with Larry, I realized that having nine years in makes me, amazingly, among the top third most senior faculty. In a few weeks, I’ll be in the top 20! Amazing and terrifying. Luckily, I’ve benefited from lessons and advice and suggestions and modeling that so many others have shared with me —Armen, who provided invaluable mentorship to me as a chair, the enthusiasm and support of past distinguished professors, the fierceness of Arlene Zide, the political acumen of Paul Urbanick, the integrity of Jim Schulz and their willingness to give us a chance together; not to mention the humor, intelligence, generosity, playfulness, ambition, determination, reflectiveness, rigor, curiosity, focus and so much more shown and shared by so many others—too many to name–and of course, the support and advocacy of so many, but especially The Realist, for what might be my best (or at least most visible) idea, the Harold Lounge—I could stand here for days listing more qualities about each of you, including the real name of the Realist, if we had enough time, but Michal said to keep it short, so I’ll do that instead. (She also said I should be funny, but my sense of humor disappears about March and doesn’t return until sometime around Memorial Day. Too bad for all of you.)

In talking to colleagues at other colleges—both city colleges and otherwise—I’m also reminded how lucky we are to have worked for the local administrations we’ve had—the relation is always a challenging one and not without its bumps, and rightly so—but we’ve been lucky, I think, to be led by people who want to say, Yes, who want to help us do powerful work better, and who have been consistently committed first and foremost to the ends and aims of an affordable, quality, liberal education. In my nine years I have worked for three different presidents, four vice presidents (one twice), and six deans of instruction, and five associate deans of instruction, and despite so much disruption among the college’s leadership and the often tricky politics of their positions (not to mention three Chancellors and more Vice and Associate Vice Chancellors than I have fingers and toes), they have all contributed to, rather than detracted from, the excellence of our college. That is an amazing run and, from what I hear, unbelievably rare. Add to that the quiet, crucial, often unnoticed and unacknowledged competence of our staff and professionals who keep everything running and all of the parts moving, and it’s clear that any success that we have is quite an ensemble effort, and I feel, again, incredibly lucky, even with all of its challenges, to have fallen into such a great situation

And now this.

There’s an old saying that suggests it can be hard to see your own flaws; it goes, “You don’t know your legs are muddy until you step out of the water.” I’m sure it’s true, but in my case, when Gitte and Amanda first asked if I’d accept a nomination and later in that hallway with Don, the first things that came to my mind were my failures.

There was the time, this March, when I was riding the train with my kids, grading essays from the institutional assessment and our stop arrived. Not ready, I scrambled for my stuff, and my kids, and in hustling off the train, stabbed my youngest with my pen. He started crying, I’m yelling at him for playing on my phone and not hustling off the train and trying to see if he’s bleeding, so I set down my essays on a bench on the platform (it was windy), and the train takes off and I hear my daughter yell, “Pop!” looking up to see papers fluttering down the tracks behind the train like a boat’s wake. So much for that data.

Or the student who came to our final meeting together, an exit interview for my Intro to Philosophy class—where we’d studied Emerson and Nietzsche and Lao Tzu, all three of whom advocate for people to find their own way. In our meeting, he said that he wanted to thank me—because of my class, he’d decided to quit school and move to the mountains of Mexico, completely drop out of society and cut himself off from any previous ties. He left and I thought, well, that’s the last time I teach those books together.

I think of the little stuff—I walked into a class a few weeks ago and one of my students said, “Wow, I saw your shirt and just had a flashback to 1994. You know, when everyone had your look.” I laughed it off, until I heard other students saying, “Yeah, that happened to me last week.” I consoled myself with the idea that in another ten years my clothes will be cutting edge cool again.

I also think about the big stuff, too—the students in crisis, the ones who disappear, the ones who come to apologize because they feel like they let me down. This can be an emotionally traumatizing job, and it’s often demoralizing—when the students succeed, things have gone as they are supposed to and the credit is (rightly) theirs; when they don’t, we are left wondering what we might have done differently, what more we might have done to help, no matter how unreasonable or irrational the impulse. And every term there’s another whole wave of students who need, it seems, ever more help and support to get as far as their predecessors. Mix in the toxic national conversation about teachers, unions, and education “reforms,” and it’s not hard to be left wondering at 2 a.m., while staring at yet another unsuccessful essay, whether we’re doing anything but harm.

But, that dark moment passes, too. Standing here today, I have to admit that it’s not all failure; if it were I’d have stopped long ago. I demand a lot of my students, and I tell them at the beginning of the semester that I’m going to teach their class the same way I would teach it if I were teaching at UIC or U of I, and I mean it. We read hard works, and I refuse to tell them what they mean, encouraging the students to grapple with the sentences and ideas of these thinkers and, so, with the presence of those ideas in their lives. I support them, but I warn them that it will not be “The Dave Show,” where I flaunt all the things I know for them to see and applaud. I tell them that I’ve learned this stuff—now it’s their turn, which in our case means that they have to do the heavy lifting. I can provide the opportunity and the tools, but they have to do the hard part.

I figure that I have maybe one chance with them—16 weeks—and I figure that in that sixteen weeks, I can help them read works that people from all times and places have found to be life changing. I figure I have sixteen weeks to try to open up a world to them that they might otherwise never see and explore or re-explore possibilities that they’ve rejected. I attack that opportunity with all of the urgency that it deserves, and every once in a while, powerful things happen.

This semester, one student wrote in her paper that she found relief in reading Montaigne in my class; “For those of us with a decidedly shaky sense of self-esteem, there is comfort in knowing that an individual whose work stood the test of centuries and made the Great Books list also sometimes felt like he didn’t have it all together.” I find some relief in that idea, too.

A 12th century Chinese Philosopher, Chu Hsi writes, “It’s best if what you see in yourself is simply the shortcomings but when others look at you they see progress.” Maybe that’s what’s going on here. I certainly don’t have it all together, but I’m truly and deeply honored to be recognized for what I’ve gotten right. I’m profoundly grateful to receive the recognition of my colleagues—with special thanks to my nominators, Amanda and Gitte, whose generosity and beautiful letters are gifts I’ll treasure and keep close to check those late night doubts. I’m thankful, too, to Ivan and Carrie and Sammie whose generosity and understanding in the past helped me to believe enough to say yes this year. Also, I’m thankful to the committee who made the recommendation—Hector, Uthman, and Sherry—and with much respect to the other two, surely worthy nominees, though I don’t know who they are, and with love for everyone who has contributed to my journey, especially my partner and inspiration, my children (for not minding the late night and early morning typing, not to mention the ever-present stacks of grading; and thank you to my colleagues, especially my department, but also my friends across the college.

At my first department meeting, Jim Schulz, the retiring philosophy faculty, looked at us newbies and said that he was really excited for us—we were on the cusp of not only a great job, but a great education. I didn’t know what he meant then, but I think I do now. Probably, when most people hear the words “learning community” they think of a group of students thrown together to learn together—and I did, too, until I started on this speech. What I’ve come to realize is that among the many things I love about our college, something special about it is that all of our students are joining an already existent learning community—ours—and that in welcoming them in, we broaden ourselves and our possibilities. A novelist that I love writes “The suns rays are on the move; they won’t always shine down on your nest.” I can’t deny the truth of that idea. The voices of classical literature suggest that I shouldn’t get too excited about all of this, and I certainly shouldn’t take much of the credit. I think I’ve got the second one covered, but I can’t help myself in regard to the former.

This joy that I feel about what we get to do—what I get to do—despite and because of the challenge of it and because I so deeply respect the work of those with whom I get to do it is profound. I try to glow with that joy every day, even if only dimly on some of the harder days. And if it’s that joy that distinguishes me, if it’s that joy that has led you to recognize me here today, then I say thank you. Come what may, I will not regret this happiness, and I will use it as fuel to continue and advance the urgent powerful work that lies yet in front of us.

2 thoughts on “The Speech

  1. Awesome. I think you’ve really captured a univeral experience.

    It was a great speech live too; definitely one worth remembering either live or in memorex (for those old enough to remember 1984)

    Best to you and have a lovely summer!

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