Teaching started at UWI this week.
Students come to class with heartbreaking experiences of everyday violence, neglect, anxiety, pain and disappointment. Adult and young women come having left abusive relationships or still living in them. Both young men and young women sit in front of me having survived child sexual abuse and still in situations where they live with it every day. People come as single parents, having risked illegal abortions, as gays and lesbians fearful of homophobia, and from families with too many harsh words and too little listening or love. A few come without any home. Some are young and sheltered and ready for the world, many walk in with their wounds, fragile but steady.
As I stand looking at them on the first day of class, sometimes I want to abandon the course outline, the grades and the pressure because as we systematically explore power, domination, inequality and silencing, I know it gets too much for some. When I listen to their stories, the pores on my arms raise. Not because of the trauma they carry, but because it hits me how much wise and strong they are, beyond anything I can teach, and I’m humbled by how much I need to make theory useful for further healing their reality.
Once, one wonderful woman in her twenties came to find me. She had been left at an orphanage by her mother and had been raised by an adopted grandmother who recently died. After that, other family members began to deal drugs from the house, which is not uncommon in Trinidad and Tobago. She moved by an uncle who tried to molest her, saying sometimes there were things she would have to do. She had just experienced her second miscarriage, and been abandoned by the baby’s father. He had been concerned not only about her as a burden, but as a stain to his reputation because they had conceived out of marriage. Now he wanted her to hide her truths. She was staying with friends and had to move. Still managing post-partum depression, she dreamt her lost baby crying on mornings, experienced black-outs and was trying to find her feet on her own. She was in crisis despite looking young, polished and professional, and starting a new term of school.
When these are your students, what do you do?
As I stand looking at them on the first day of class, sometimes all I want is to push them to get the grades, pressure them to do the work, give them something to focus on and at which to succeed. In giving all to their education, there is a way they learn focus, discipline, acceptance and self-love. They learn to discard some of what has locked down their spirit. They learn that, although it is not easy, change is always possible, for each person differently.
I expect students to earn their degree and I’m prepared to give my all to them. I help them to learn to read critically, write analytically and understand how knowledge can change the world. More specifically, my job is to help them learn to apply and reflect on feminist theory and the lens it provides to their own and others’ lives. I’m focused on course content and assignments and I expect my students to be too. Yet, over the years, I’ve repeatedly discovered that that can just be too much.
It’s like this in schools everywhere in the nation. I teach the curriculum, but hope that each year my students also gain the power they need for both liberation and transformation.