I haven’t been thinking about much else except Barbara’s questions: “How did you become a professor?” “When did you change and become a teacher?” They are tough questions. The answers are tougher. To answer them I have to bare some more of my soul. It was a mentally and emotionally rough walk this morning, and the incessant early-morning heat, humidity, and bugs had little to do with it.
I have to admit that I did not go into academia like some intellectual Sir Galahad in quest of the Holy Grail of wisdom. I became a history major while attending Adelphi College in Garden City, New York, only because I screwed up my pre-med program and any chances of going to medical school. I was a World War II military history buff as a teenager, nothing else interested me, and my sophomore advisor said I had to major in something. I backed into academia on the rebound, then, for want of something else to do. I didn’t want to go into the military because I had heard something about a place called Indochina; I was afraid I didn’t have what it took to survive and succeed in the sordid world of business; I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life; and I discovered the ivory tower was a safe haven from the stress of life.
I did not get a Ph.D. because I thought I could be a superb scholar and a modern-day Herodotus or Pliny. It was all Dr. Birdsall Viault’s fault. He was a young history professor at Adelphi in whose class I had accidently enrolled. He took me under his wing. He was impressed with my exam essays, research papers, and class performance. He said I was a good researcher, critical thinker, and writer. He told me that I would make a good historian. He strongly suggested that I go on for my Master’s degree after I graduated from Adelphi. So I went to St. John’s University only because it was inexpensive and the school was closest to where I worked to earn my tuition. And when I completed my Master’s a year later, and went to Dr. Viault and asked, “Now what?” He replied, “Go south, young man.” So I went into the unknown wilds of what I thought was the “uncivilized” South to an idyllic place called the University of North Carolina, which I knew nothing about, to get another advanced degree that meant little to me and with which I did not know what I would do.
I did not go into the classroom on a mission or with a sense of calling to instil the awe and wonder of learning in the coming generation. Like most graduates, I was being groomed as a research scholar. I was dumped, untrained, into a classroom–first at nearby North Carolina State University and then at UNC–to teach a freshman survey western civilization history course that few students, professors, or graduate students took seriously. We learned on the job, without guidance, by the seat of our pants, more often than not by aping our lecturing professors.
Once inside the classroom, however, I stayed there because I could hide from both others and myself. I could be something I always dreamed of being. I never had the dedication or discipline or self-confidence to cut an academic swath. I was at best a mediocre athlete. To gain attention in high school, I had resorted to humor and became the class clown, a punster, and a prankster of such repute that they talked of my antics long after I graduated. Being voted by my high school teachers as one of the college-bound students least likely to succeed didn’t help shore up my weakened sense of self-worth any more than did my lackluster performance in college. At UNC, one of the top universities in the country, I had this deep-seated fear that, being surrounded by smart people, it would be just a matter of time before I would be detected. I discovered, however, that the door to the classroom was locked tighter than the door to the bedroom. Even my professors didn’t dare invade the inner sanctum of my classroom.
The classroom became the one place where I could compensate, feed my ego, and fill a void. I was important in there; it was the one place I felt important. I could be a leader and students would follow. In the classroom, I was the sage on stage, at the head of the class. I was needed, looked up to, seen, wanted. I could be smart and look smart, and no one would challenge me; I could exhibit self-confidence and no one would be the wiser. So, contrary to the advice of my professors, I decided that I would concentrate on my teaching rather than on research.
Nevertheless, in the process I had desecrated myself. All around me were the subtle signs that I was a failure, for everywhere I turn I continued to be haunted by the image of being a second son. I did not see the Ph.D. so much as a membership card in an exclusive intellectual club as a second-class degree for cerebral second sons compared to the more prestigious and lucrative M.D. so wished for me–and them–by my parents. The classroom had little glitter of prestige. By all of society’s standards, it was a place for life’s second sons. There was the pervasive attitude that when a person couldn’t do anything else he or she could always teach. In academia–whose priorities dwelled on the length of the scholarly resume of awards, grants, consultancies, conference papers, and publications–the teacher was treated as the second son. Moreover, my discipline was often academia’s second son, at the low end of both the social totem pole and salary scale. The imagry of being the second son came to me every time I heard the demeaning statements about the uselessness of history and people’s dislike for what one student described as a “boring memorization of a bunch of stupid dates, places, and names.” It was a discipline that always had to fight for recognition in a society that demanded practical application. Where I landed carried with it the image of the second son, not the fabled fame, fortune, and prestige that I thought I needed to bring me attention, happiness, peace, well- being, and love. I wished for things I could not have; I tried to become something I was not; I dreamed and fantasized of doing things I could not; and I failed to appreciate fully my own untapped inner strengths: my energy, creativity, imagination, individuality, self-reliance, and sensitivity. My barreled definition of success and my shallow appreciation of myself left me with a sense of humiliation at ending up as a teacher at a small out-of-the-way college in a region of the country and a state known more for Tobacco Road and Gone with the Wind than its intellectual accomplishments. Later, as a published scholar, national reputation notwithstanding, I found myself once again as the second son in an area of history that more than one fellow historian denigrated as “an insignificant country side show to the big tent of this sub-field of American history.”
My son Robby was a profound gift who forced me to open my heart and eyes. I mean it finally dawned on me. What the hell did reputation, publication, awards and grants, and promotion have anything to do with real success and fulfillment?
The truth is that, for the first time, when I was faced with the very real possibility of losing my son, whom I loved more than my life, everything else seem so inconsequential, so small, so transitory, so superficial. And I asked questions that forced me to evaluate myself and my life for the first time and decide who I had been, who I was, and who I wanted to be. I forced me to acknowledge that I was pretending to be satisfied with both me and my life.
Lord, that truth deeply hurt. I started to see that as I had walked though the chapters of my life, I had strayed from the truth of myself, blinded and shackled by thoughts, feelings, ideas, and dreams that so often had been created by decisions influenced by others in my family, in academia, and in society. Surviving my experience taught me things that I probably would not have learned any other way. It was a hell of a learning tool. I’m not sure I would recommend using it.
At the same time, I think we learn and grow most from those experiences that are hard and painful, at least challenging, rather than from the ones that are easy. Like any pain, however, mine was a gift fraught with opportunity–but only if I had the courage to open it. I discovered that such an effort is, as someone once said, seldom a convenient scheduling of an appointment; a polite tap on the shoulder; a quiet, almost unnoticed whisper of a “may I?”; a protective “excuse me”; a safe stay at home; a comfortable repose in an easy chair; a pleasurable stroll in the garden; or a leisurely weekend canoe ride down a meandering river. It’s an arduous and dangerous trek over treacherous terrain, a lonely exposure of strengths and weakness, a stark rejoinder, and maybe even a howling reprimand.
I have discovered over these past three years, however, that as I walked the hard road and asked myself the hard questions about myself and what I do, and did not rest until I started getting the honest and painful answers, I began entering into another world. I found something no one could give me. I found something I did not think I possessed. I had acquired the knowledge that I am stronger and worthier and more talented inside than I ever thought I was.
Slowly and painfully I learned that I had been running after things I thought would bring me inner contentment–things like getting parental approval, degrees, reputation, tenure, and prestige. I have to admit that all they got me was heightened anxiety, a greater disturbance of my inner sense of peace, a deepening prejudice against myself, greater limits on my sense of self, and a subtle disdain for students who were a constant reminder of my shortcomings, who were a barrier to achieving recognition, and who were, as a colleague said, a “nuisance necessary to pay the bills.” I started to discover that I needed things and approval only to the extent that I was not inwardly defined, only to the extent that I thought I needed something from others, only to the extent I did not accept who I was.
I started looking around at the “system.” I started asking myself, “Why this business of being a college teacher is such a struggle for me? Why is it such a thankless task?” It is because to be a teacher is to challenge the legitimacy of all the accepted material criteria for success. It is because to be a teacher requires almost an unimaginable strength of character to reject those priorities. It takes a lot of courage to spend the enormous amounts of energy and time required to teach, energy and time that cannot be spent on advancing a professional career. Teaching demands an almost heroic sacrifice of personal and professional advancement in a system that does not give great attention to teaching and the well-being of the student. It is so much easier and safer and more secure to accept those priorities and tilt yourself toward yourself in the name of the survival of both you and your family, leaving the students “home alone.”
I used to bemoan so often how I had to sacrifice the classroom for the archive because of the demands that the system imposed upon me. Now I see that I had acquiesced to the system only because it was in my interest to do so and because I did not have the strength to do anything to the contrary.
In 1976, for example, my colleagues on the Promotion and Tenure Committee judged all nine years of my teaching efforts and campus activities as “non-professional”: the establishment of the Faculty Scholarship Program for needy students, the creation of the Week of Seminars program that became legendary, experimentation with interdisciplinary and topic courses, introduction of a costumed lecture series, development of the honors program, initiation of administrative reforms to ensure quality education. The committee refused to approve my promotion to full professor. These were both my colleagues and my friends, many of whom had worked with me on these projects. We were faculty in a college that bragged about being a “teaching institution” but was selling out to the pressures of reputation, power, and money that lay in research and publication.
Instead of fighting the system, in a self-righteous pout I resigned from all campus activity, stopped experimenting with teaching techniques, and went elsewhere to be seen, recognized, appreciated, and important. Whatever recognition I had from the students wasn’t enough, because they were not my equals and no one really listened to students. I “played the game,” increasingly sharing the classroom with the archive, and went on a 15 year research and publication binge that resulted in the acquisition of a national reputation. Now I have to admit that when I say “they” or “it” made me do it, I was deluding myself and shirking responsibility for my own actions and thoughts and words. I forced myself into the publish-or-perish rat race. In this particular and critical instance, I already had tenure. The promotion was inconsequential since it carried no additional salary increase. But my ego–the need to be recognized–required that I be promoted. I thought a promotion, and later a few publications, would somehow change my inner life and I could go back to teaching. But there was always “just one more.” The more renown I became, the more renowned I wanted to be. The more books and articles I published , the more books and articles I wanted to publish. The more conference papers I presented, the more conference papers I wanted to present. The more grants I received, the more grants I applied for.
To achieve all this, I became more sensitive to what others thought, and thus lost a measure of the independence I so valued. I used to say agonizingly that I couldn’t do what was needed both to publish and to properly teach, but I never made the hard choice in the interest of the students. The lure of reputation was too great. I felt I had done my moral duty merely by recognizing my dilemma. I used to say that it was a “vicious devouring monster” that I couldn’t stop, when all I had to do was say a simple and firm “no.” By gesture or deed or word, in one way or another, for a variety of reasons, regardless of cost, I, like so many of us, submitted, got with it, became a particular type of team player, and “played” the game because it was safe and easy and self-serving.
I see now the power I can impose on the “system.” I am not apart from the “system.” I am part of it. No, I am the system. I bought into it to satisfy my needs and thereby helped to fashion, reinforce and defend what it is, because it was in my interest to do so. And I must therefore assume ownership for all to which I have submitted and promoted. I see now that I cannot change a system that which I am a part by pointing the finger at someone or something else, by conforming, by submitting, or by rationalizing its actions. I know I cannot start on that tough, long road of changing myself as long as I acquiesced to the system. I think it was Carl Jung who once said something to the effect that if parents want to change a child, they should first look at themselves. If I wanted to change the hold the system had on me, I first would have to look at myself, assume ownership for my decisions and actions, then struggle to change myself and my beliefs.
Don’t think that the years following the explosive experience at Hyde have been a picnic. Instant self-realization did not automatically translate into instant self-reflection and self- actualization. There was doubt, hesitancy, denial, fear, hedging, rationalization, stumbling, weakening. Knowing deep down that I had to examine my value system was one thing; to actually examine it and admit that it had to be changed was quite another, more difficult thing; and to start changing it is still another more threatening thing. This process wasn’t some instant miracle in a revival tent where Brother Dan touched my head and said, “Heal,” and I threw off the crutches and freely walked off stage, arms outstretched, screaming, “Praise the Lord.” This was a long, arduous, painful program of spiritual, mental, and emotional rehabilitation of my beliefs.
My beliefs! Everything is a component of my personal beliefs. I believed in who I was; I believed in the effectiveness of what I did; I believed in the importance of what I did; I believed in the sincerity of what I did. I had to ask myself to honestly address all of those belief systems, to go to the very fiber of my being. I was on a terrifying journey into the unknown that I did not always like making.
I had prided myself on being a good teacher. My students felt I was a good teacher. Others felt I was a good teacher. And I have to admit that there was a lot of fun, laughter and comraderie with the students, especially during those heydays of the late 1960s and 1970s and with those who were most like me.
Yet I was humbled as I realized that starting in the mid- 1970s, I had a acquired a pattern of behavior similar to those teachers who had so brutally thrown Robby away and whom I had berated. As I had inflated myself, I had inadvertently diminished myself. Whereas I thought that I was always on the move, I was often just running in place. No matter what I did, with the exception of being involved actively in the civil rights movement and maybe protesting the war in Vietnam, I had to accept the fact that I was motivated as much out of selfishness as selflessness, as much out of feeling and looking important as doing something important, as much out of fear and compulsion as a joy of learning or persuasion. I saw that I was more concerned with my teaching than their learning; I saw how, when they ignored my “best” efforts, in self-defense I generally blamed them. I had to accept that I was not being a real person and treating others as real people, that while I talked of respect for students I kept so many at a distance.
It was hard pill to swallow. I had prided myself on being thoroughly taken with the students and discovered that I was far more taken with myself. I gloried in being a caring teacher and discovered that I cared far more for my needs than for theirs. I thought I varied myself to accommodate different students and saw that I was far more the same with everyone and less sensitive to the human diversity. I had to face up to the truth. I needed a greater understanding and appreciation of my “inner” strengths. I needed to learn how best to apply them to my “outer” works. And I worried whether I had the courage to remodel or abandon my past attitudes and behaviors.
When I was forced to look deep inside myself, and when I forced myself to continue looking inside, I wasn’t “cured.” I learned so much about life, so much about myself though constant prodding, provoking, probing, soothing, laughing, yelling, and consoling by myself and other people.
With their help, I started writing a “windows” program for my spirit. I constructed a box, if you will, into which I placed all of my hurts, resentments, fears, doubts, and worries. In another box, I placed all my hopes and optimism, as well as a catalog of my “inner” strengths, energy, creativity, imagination, sensitivity, and individuality. Over the last few years, I have obtained a picture and a vision of how I want to feel, the type of freedom I want to have, the experiences I want to initiate, the person and professional I want honestly to be. Slowly but surely that second box has expanded to become my life and profession.
Nevertheless, however the grip of the dark hand of the past is loosened and its weight is lessened and confined to that first box, it remains always there to be contended with. You never get over it; you never leave it behind. It’s always there. But I struggle to use that contention as something productive and positive, as a reminder that there always will be more of the mountains for me to climb, replete with the slips and scratches and even falls–and that each attempt to reach higher will get me closer to the summit, that each experience will make me stronger at the breaking points. There always will be so much more room for self-improvement, so much area for self-development. No, I am not “cured.” I just have acquired another set of problems, questions, issues to live with.
Robby simply offered me an experience to explore who I am and to get in touch with strengths and abilities I didn’t know I had, to see them differently, to use them differently, to see myself differently, and to become someone different. I found myself moving from old personal and professional patterns that no longer fit comfortably to a new way that felt intensely authentic and beneficial. I realized that I had ended up running after things like degrees and publications when, in fact, I ran past the students who could give me an inner sense of peace and contentment. I came to realize that the old values and things–salary, promotion, tenure, reputation, approval, recognition, etc.–that I thought were important no longer were important. I came to realize that students who were not as important were all that was important.
Once that occurred–once the quest for material success and approval that had acted as a weight on my psyche started lifting–I no longer felt stuck, running in the rat race, on the endless treadmill. The personal, social, and academic systems, as people call them, lost their heavy, tight grip on me. I was truly amazed at how easily I could re-enter the classroom and close the door behind me on publications, conference papers, projects, grants, and consultancies.
I had repressed myself in personal expectation as well as in social, personal and academic convention. I now slowly and painfully seized the intensive opportunity to explore what has emerged as a new authenticity. I slipped out from the public eye on my terms. I decided to stop playing the destructive publish-or- perish game, because while I was publishing, I was perishing.
To be sure, I would not be seen as the authority in my field, as the pathfinder in my area of research. But that’s okay. It’s now far less important for me to be cheered on or to be recognized for “great things.” I am coming to terms with the need to be needed, loved, seen, wanted. I am far less driven by whether the world knows about me or not. Curiously, there is not as much of an undertow of regret as I feared there would be. I redefined my perception of being important. It no longer means always being loudly and obviously in front of everyone. It now means following what’s true in my own heart and having the strength, courage, and conviction to face myself, to always question myself, and to be responsible for myself. It didn’t take the pressure away. But, the fear has certainly lessened. As that fear has weakened, I’ve started feeling such freedom. I feel more empowered to deal with whatever I need to deal with and find meaning in whatever I honestly find important, so that what I do counts for something more than selfishly feeding my ego, adding to my resume, increasing my renown, and guaranteeing an income.
Isn’t it strange: Susie and I had sent Robby to Hyde School to find himself–but I found that I was unexpectedly starting to find myself. By some quirk of fate, I got the opportunity to find a different place for success and inner peace in my life at the same place.
Make it a good way.
Make it a good day.