You Called the Wrong Number, Sir

I am writing this post because I am furious.  So furious my stomach hurts and I wish I had something to throw.  But I am in my office so the most I can do is clench my jaw, complain to colleagues who are unfortunate enough to be in my path, and I can write. 

My life at the moment is a constellation of activities related to teaching and learning.  I am so lucky to work in an environment dedicated to teaching and learning, which are to me, deeply sacred acts.  From observing my 5-year old son in kindergarten to helping new university faculty become skilled and reflective teaching practitioners, these sacred activities are my heart and soul.  When teaching and learning go well, they are transcendent.  When they go awry, they are tragic.

My first teaching job was as a TA in a remedial English writing program at a very non-elite institution; it was reflective of typical university thinking: put the least experienced teachers with the students who need the most help.  But I loved it.  I loved watching someone who could not write three sentences learn to write the proverbial five-paragraph essay.  I loved conveying my heart-felt belief, certainly at that time with more enthusiasm than skill, that writing is power and discovery and connection.  Learning to write makes you more you.  I loved believing that anyone who was willing to make a good faith effort could succeed.

I still love that and still believe it, despite the myriad complexities it now entails, being at a very competitive and diverse state institution.  Which is why, when the parent of a prospective student called to ask about admissions criteria, and then, based on my explanations about access, and how we calibrate our admissions data to give all applicants an equal chance at admission, launched into a rant so uninformed, so absurd in its scope, and so morally irresponsible, that I literally felt my chest constrict.

The issue was that this parent’s offspring was brilliant, talented, privileged and highly rated, and, after all of his hours of study, all the sacrifices of “fun” activities for “resume building” activities, and all of his innate moral goodness, DID NOT deserve to be compared with “some minority kid from the south side of Chicago,” or a rural student who had “studied something ridiculous like Plato’s ‘Republic.'”  His kid earned his 4.9 GPA; he didn’t get it by being in a “special program” or taking “useless classes like English or philosophy.”  This parent did not want one of those other inferior people graduating from college and going out to build a bridge, or, God forbid, to “operate on him or anyone in his family.”

Things would have been okay if he had stopped there.  In my job, I’m very used to anxious, aggressive, scarcity-minded students and parents who believe that there is not enough prestige to go around.  And this is not really their fault; that is the nature of prestige and status and any type of grading system: in these systems, there really is only so much success to go around, and if someone is at the top, there sure as hell will be someone at the bottom.

But he didn’t stop there.  Oh no.  No indeed.  He went right on down the “institutions of higher learning are only for the best and brightest” road (everyone else can go to community college); then he barreled straight into the political arena and blamed Obama (the man who went to Harvard) for the country’s “movement towards mediocrity,” and for “progressive, socialist labor unions whose kids are getting accepted into schools where they don’t belong.”  He made a short detour through social and cultural mores on creativity with the query: “Do you think Steve Jobs came out of a system like this?” (actually, Steve Jobs and his many co-creators came out of a system exactly like this).  Until finally he landed in the middle of local politics with a few words about Illinois’ financial crisis and state leaders : “And now you have Ramin (sic) Emmanuel there, and that other one with the hair (Blagojevich, I assume).  It’s a joke.”

There was so much I wanted to say.  Two weeks ago I heard an amazing talk by Michael Crow, the visionary president of Arizona State University, in which he made an irrefutable argument for the need of state institutions to refuse to play the “access vs. elitism game.”

Academically, economically, politically, socially, and morally, institutions of higher learning must be accessible to everyone who meets their criteria, not just to the thin slice of elite students whose parents have taught them how to “play school.”  Capacity to learn is not the same as high ACTs or a list of AP classes, or a 4.9 GPA.   And being a decent citizen, university, state, country and human being means to stop pledging allegiance to a system in which only some special people get the chance to play.  And your kid, sir, yes you, Mr. Obnoxious East Coast parent, is not worth more than any other human being who applies to this particular institution.

But none of that would have mattered.  Because that parent wasn’t just angry, he was scared.  Scared that he and his kid won’t get their stake in the game.  Worse than that, actually–scared that some less-deserving person will get what was supposed to be theirs.  Scarcity Mentality 101.

I am the advisor who refuses all requests to drop required courses (I don’t care why you failed your mid-term); if you come into my office saying you were sick and need to take a make-up exam, you can bring me your doctor’s note or leave; inferior efforts in my class are met with poor grades and sometimes, disdain.  Stupid people really get on my nerves.  But I’m also the advisor who will sit with you for as long as it takes to figure out how to get help if help is what you need; I’ll answer the same question five times if that’s what it takes for you to understand it, and I will explain anything that you need to have explained if you are making an earnest effort to do your best.  When students in my class don’t learn, I worry about what I’m not teaching.  The point is that I know it is indeed possible to strive for excellence but still accept confusion, failure, and inadequacy without believing them to be signs of poor moral character or human worth.

I’d be in big trouble if it were otherwise.  I bet you would be too.

The irony of Mr. My Kid Is Better Than Yours’ rant (or, I should say, one of the ironies) was that he went on and on about all of the “community service” his kid has done.  I just love it when people tell me that they do good things because it will make them look better than others.

I love to teach and I love to learn.  Today I got to do both and it sucked, but I know for sure that I will be better for it.  Just for you, my East Coast friend, a Plato’s cave inspired poem by American poet (and current Minnesota poet laureate Joyce Sutphen).  I sure hope you like it.

“From Out of the Cave”

When you have been
at war with yourself
for so many years that
you have forgotten why,
when you have been driving
for hours and only
gradually begin to realize
that you have lost the way,
when you have cut
hastily into the fabric,
when you have signed
papers in distraction,
when it has been centuries
since you watched the sun set
or the rain fall, and the clouds,
drifting overhead, pass as flat
as anything on a postcard;
when, in the midst of these
everyday nightmares, you
understand that you could
wake up,
you could turn
and go back
to the last thing you
remember doing
with your whole heart:
that passionate kiss,
the brilliant drop of love
rolling along the tongue of a green leaf,
then you wake,
you stumble from your cave,
blinking in the sun,
naming every shadow
as it slips.

Joyce Sutphen

10 thoughts on “You Called the Wrong Number, Sir

Add yours

  1. Sorry to hear what happened here, it’s a real downer to get lectured about anything, but especially when it is accompanied by hubris and ignorance. I sometimes think that what people have done to institutions of higher learning is the same that’s been done to religion. Manipulating the true intent of becoming a wiser, more educated, tolerant and compassionate human being that I think both religion and education espouse is unfortunately lost on too many people. Personally, I never understood how so many students in my classes, even at a non-prestigious public university, only cared about their GPAs, learning so well how to game the system but nothing about anything that matters beyond status and money. To me, taking these classes and learning about and becoming an engaged participant in the world was so much fun, I didn’t even have time to worry about grades. I understand that for some folks it’s a matter of pride and survival to get high scores, and I wouldn’t want to take that away from anyone, but for those who are already so privileged and started out on 3rd base it’s just sad to see how your entire life can be dedicated to such superficial, and frankly greedy, endeavors. I would remind them of what it says in the bible, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”


  2. Yikes ! Just got home from playing golf with the guys. Seems like you had a very bad day, and I’m sorry for that since you are so passionate about what you do. I know you are absolutely right about Mr. East Coast and I feel sorry for his kid. In the meantime, I think I’ll wait to call you for a little while. Best to Martin and the kids, especially tonight.


  3. I was at UHS Academic Awards Night and saw your handsome and very fashionable son ( also obviously a good student without a parent like the ogre you conversed with today). It was so lovely to see Noah and he was extremely polite, even shaking my hand. Hope to see you and Martin around there some time. Our daughter, Ellie, is a sophomore.


  4. Sounds like you need a movie night!

    And as a mother of a young man about to go to community college (because obviously he’s not good enough for a ‘good’ school), I feel sorry for the young man who will never feel true acceptance for who he is, as opposed to who he is supposed to be.

    Love ya …


  5. I’m proud of my kids when they give 100% of all they have into everything they try, if that makes them top of the class in some subject and fair to middling in others then so be it.
    I’d be FAR prouder to turn out kids who are well rounded human beings :who know the value of the things in life that matter, that money doesn’t buy happiness, that if you love and are loved by the people around you then you have achieved greater success than many people ever manage, that “giving back” should mostly be done in secret, that crowing about your achievements is only worth anything if done by outsiders, that having “enough”, is OK and a more simple lifestyle is an excellent idea and that pride in a job well done to the best of your ability each and every day matters more than the job title at the top of your resume.
    Better a warm heart and a clear conscience than a cold heart fixated on the transient and transparent lure of material wealth and someone who “best” lesson from their parents was how to climb to to top over the backs of others to get to the top of the pack.
    I pity these kids, they learn so much but actually they have learnt nothing.
    They have to negotiate the rat-run of life, they don’t “get” that the point is NOT be become one of the rats.
    The words “to much has been given, much is required” can either free you or come back to haunt you… accountability has no time limit, who you are will catch up with you eventually. Then maybe they will find themselves to be paupers in the things that really have value.
    Worthy rant… shame on today’s society that it was needed.


  6. I love passionate rants. Shhhh… I’ve been known to write one on occasion.

    I once had to sit through a call wherein I was informed (because of our then governor) it was a mistake to give women the right to vote and ‘allow’ them to be in politics. I had yet to transition, and he thought mine would be a sympathetic ear. I bit my tongue, and when the call ended… of course, at that time I was in the midst of a serious meltdown, so i’m one to go calling out another, eh?

    Rant on!


  7. I, too, enjoy reading your blog, Leslie. I particularly appreciate your insight into the “fear” t- he is scared, that this man’s anger is attempting to mask.
    My parents wanted me to have good grades in school but more importantly be kind. Of course it is possible to have the grades and be kind. I recall their surprise and my own when I was nominated to National Honor Society. It sounded good but we did not know what it was or what it meant so we had
    to research it. Years later, I fully realized that their ignorance and inattentinon greatly benefitted me. My own two children did not receive such awards but they are just as bright and kind. I also like the manner in which you illustrate the myth of scarcity and how it drives many of us. Thanks for another well written and thought provoking essay, Leslie!


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