Hobart and William Smith Colleges
I remember feeling terribly flattered that this woman, this icon, this goddess with long black hair, could have chosen anyone to watch her children – but she chose me. I felt this responsibility, this honor, as I arrived at Toni’s house. Her house was a little dark inside, but it was immediately obvious to me that her house epitomized her. Everything felt casual. Comfortable. There were no areas that were “off-limits” to the kids. There were artifacts – treasures – from her numerous trips to Mexico scattered about, and blankets and lots of throw pillows. And books and books and books. She was who I wanted to be when I grew up….
These days I am repeatedly being told that students “need to be able to access online technology” because they have grown up using it. I have also been told they cannot read entire pages of text, so it is imperative to incorporate funny little pictures into my hand-outs. So far, I have refused to do it….
When I graduated from Hobart & William Smith Colleges in 1989, Professor Lee Quinby made a poignant speech and reminded audience members that another word for graduation is commencement and that commencement means “to enter upon” or “to begin.” She described commencement as a hopeful word, and it is. But she also went on to remind us that whenever there is a beginning, there is also an ending.
I have held onto these words for all these years because they have felt true to me. For example, I understand that when a man marries – while he adores his bride – he may simultaneously long for his bachelor days: the time he used to spend with his friends, unfettered by the responsibilities that come along with being a husband. When a woman gives birth to a child, she is no longer alone; she now must care for the needs of another person. And while she may revel in her child’s newness, she may simultaneously grieve the loss of her independence. When a child moves from one grade to the next, he may be excited about moving to another level of education, but he may be nervous about new expectations. Children may secretly mourn friends they know they will not likely see again; they may become silent and withdrawn or explosive and nervous.
Professor Quinby suggested that we consider allowing ourselves to grieve a little bit as commencement can be a scary time, an uncertain place, that middle place where one doesn’t know where one is going yet. We only know where we have been.
My advice to parents during this time of year is an echo of a lesson taught to me by Professor Quinby over 20 years ago: Be gentle with your graduates, whatever their age or grade. Some of them may be feeling a little disconnected – particularly if they will be starting at a new school, separating from old friends, starting a new job, or moving away from everything they have ever known. And while you may not be able to tell it from looking at them, on the inside, they may feel a little bit like lopsided, three-legged tables. Okay . . . just a little unstable.
George Eliot wrote, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” So don’t worry if you see your graduates begin to reinvent themselves a little bit over the summer: The rule-following boy who was so kind throughout elementary school, may become a little meaner as he enters middle school; the introverted girl who has always done everything her parents asked may suddenly seriously consider getting her belly button pierced, despite their protests. It’s okay, they are morphing, becoming, and this starting over can make all the difference in the world.
At one time or another, we all want to be someone else. The smart kid. The pretty girl. The cheerleader. The athlete. The guy with the cool car. It’s what children want – and what we grow out of, if we are lucky.
So let them change. Let the star football player put down his shoulder pads and try out for a play, if he wants to. Let the ballerina trade toe-shoes for track shoes; let the drummer try a little yoga. Feed their dreams. Help them discover all the various, untapped parts of themselves. Support them, but don’t rescue them from their jitters as new strengths will come from the discomforts of the middle place. Transition takes time. Give them time.
But for heaven’s sake, don’t baby them. And don’t buy them crap for graduating from kindergarten (“We’re so proud you can finger-paint!”) or elementary school. (Gag.) Instead, give the age-appropriate responsibilities as rewards for their new stage in life.
And trust me when I say that your graduates are going to be fine. Lee Quinby told me so a long time ago and, in my experience, she was right.
What do you remember feeling about graduation?
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I first met Professor Toni Flores as a student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I was told by an upper-class student, “You have to take Toni,” and so I found myself in Professor Flores’ Introduction to Women Studies class which was filled with many first-year William Smith students. (The class might have even been called “Our Bodies, Ourselves” as that was our major textbook.) In her class we discussed things I’d never thought about before: sex and gender, the history of motherhood, feminism and the abortion debate, date rape. She challenged nearly every assumption I’d brought to college and turned it on its head.
As the weeks passed, I had the opportunity to get to know Professor Flores and she asked if I had any interest in babysitting for her, then, two young sons. I remember feeling terribly flattered that this woman, this icon, this goddess with long black hair, could have chosen anyone to watch her children – but she chose me. I felt this responsibility, this honor, as I arrived at Toni’s house. Her house was a little dark inside, but it was immediately obvious to me that her house epitomized her. Everything felt casual. Comfortable. There were no areas that were “off-limits” to the kids. There were artifacts – treasures – from her numerous trips to Mexico scattered about, blankets and lots of throw pillows. And books and books and books.
At some point, during one of my visits with her children, I remember being in her kitchen (probably getting somebody a snack) and noticing a long line of ants marching directly from Toni’s sugar bowl in the cupboard, down the wall, across the floor and out a wee crack in the far wall.
When she arrived home after her meeting, I thought she might want to know about the bug situation, so I showed her the ants. Unfazed, and – true to her spirit – she crouched down over the little guys and watched them intensely for more than a few minutes. I remember looking at her, studying her, and seeing her smile. I remember the creases around her mouth, the joy she found in watching those little ants. She was able to find so much happiness in the little things. She was who I wanted to be when I grew up.
During my four years at college, she helped me with many things – personal things – but it is that little moment in her kitchen that I cling to. Toni Flores, Professor of Women’s Studies and American Studies, died on November 3, 1997, after battling a long illness. Toni wasn’t horrified by life, any of it. She was amused by it, mostly. And I have tried to take that lesson from her.
Who was your favorite teacher, and what do you remember about him/her?
In an effort to stay competitive in my job at my local community college, I recently signed up to take a 20 hour course to learn the latest and greatest ANGEL technology which – in theory – is supposed to help me to help my students by allowing me to “web enhance” my class. Some people teach entire classes online and love it. I have not jumped on this bandwagon. In fact, I imagine that is not a wagon I will ever jump onto without kicking and screaming.
I believe part of the educational experience – at every level – involves the relationship between the instructor and the pupil who need to interact with each other in real life, not just via email. I also believe it is necessary for students to learn in a classroom filled with other bodies – bodies that have minds and mouths which can vocalize serious differences of opinions and that it is an important role of the instructor to act as a moderator in some of these interchanges.
I attended the very first 5-hour ANGEL session and left feeling a little pessimistic. The man heading up the session started off with an ice-breaker activity where everyone introduced themselves, explained where they taught, in which department, and how they planned to integrate ANGEL technology into their curriculum. Many people attending the hands-on seminar were strictly online adjunct instructors. They were happy to have jobs and didn’t seem to mind that they had never actually met their students and seemed content to receive the one required digitally uploaded photo. One woman proudly announced she had individual conferences with half of her students via SKYPE right before a major essay was due. There were lots of ooohs and aaahs at this, lots of frenzied note-taking. Math teachers and gym teachers seemed to all really like ANGEL; I’m not sure what that means.
When it was my turn, the instructor pointed at me and asked, “And you? The one in the black turtleneck who is hiding a little?”
“Well,” I admitted, “I’m not planning to go all the way with this new technology. I am merely looking to enhance.”
I looked across the room and saw a few people roll their eyes. I wondered what that was about. And then I had an out of body experience. I realized they saw me as a dinosaur. I suppose at 43 years old, I sort of am. I actually remember loose-leaf paper. It came in two choices: wide-lined and college lined. My 6th grade English teacher didn’t like us to rip out paper from our notebooks; “shredded wheat,” she called it, and she wouldn’t accept assignments written on it. That’s when I discovered my preference for college-lined loose-leaf paper. (This same teacher did not like girls to wear clogs to class and made us line up our shoes at the front of the room and walk in socks to our seats. Our shoes, she insisted, were “too noisy” and “forever falling off feet.” I’m pretty sure she had some major issues, but I digress.) In high school, Mrs. Landfear had us write in those black and white composition notebooks and taught us the traditional five paragraph essay format and citation which has served me well for my entire life.
As an undergraduate student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, I had a fabulous professor who required his students to read a particular book by a particular author and told us to write an essay on a topic of our own choosing due in one week. There were no email reminders. I would never have dared to call him, and anyway, I would have had to have found a phone-book, a payphone, and a bunch of quarters. If I didn’t know how to do something, like citation, I consulted my pocket manual or style book or I asked a fellow classmate. In other words, I figured it out myself. No one owned a personal computer. Instead, we hauled our books and our butts to writing labs, where dozens of computers loomed silently on long tables. If every computer was taken, you simply had to put your name on a wait list and wait for someone to finish. The room of thirty or so computers was linked to one black and white laser printer designed to handle only text. There was no Internet access because the Internet had not yet been invented.
These days I am repeatedly being told that students “need to be able to access online technology” because they have grown up using it. I have also been told they cannot read entire pages of text, so it is imperative to incorporate funny little pictures into my hand-outs. So far, I have refused to do it.
So what exactly am I hoping to do with this ANGEL technology? I suppose I might use it to provide my students with a page to see my Course Information Sheet, my policies regarding plagiarism, my deadlines; maybe a link to some grammar exercises; perhaps a link to EasyBib.com to help them with the terrifying act of citing their sources properly. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure what I’m going to do with ANGEL. I’m not a big fan of all this cyber-coddling. I will tell you what I will not be doing with ANGEL. I will not be using it as a place where students can have “online discussions” in lieu of real life discussions. And while proponents of the environment may shudder, my students may not send me their essays online in some drop-box so that they can blame technology when I didn’t receive it. I want to see their eyes scan their finished drafts, checking for comma splices and run-on sentences.
Who knows, maybe I’ll use it on the first day of class next fall, you know, as a homework assignment to get them to find my online site. Maybe I’ll have them do some kind of ice breaker activity; there’s no reason everyone should have to suffer through those heinous get-to-know-you activities when you can simply do them online, right?
Sigh. I always liked that part.