This post was written by NCTE member Anne Elrod Whitney.
I attended two online NCTE member gatherings held in the early days of the Covid-19 quarantines and stay-home orders. By the second meetup, I had been away from school and university for three weeks. Each day seems to bring new and longer cancellations along with disappointment after disappointment for my students and my own children. I’ve been hanging on by a thread—and not a strong thread either: mine is a tangled, stretched, and rotting thread like you find in the old sewing box of a relative you lost years ago.
I’m sad, really sad, the kind of sad where you find tears coming to your eyes by surprise. The kind of sad where you think in slow motion, where it’s hard to get up and walk around, where to do anything normal seems like an outrage, a lack of respect for the gravity of the situation. With that kind of sadness, and under a heavier and heavier flow of emails, changes in policy, emergency meetings, requests for adjustments, requests for new plans, for online plans, for plans of succession in case I die, I carried on caring for my family, cooking food, cleaning everything, staring into space.
In each of those NCTE member Zoom sessions, Antero Garcia and Detra Price-Dennis asked us two sets of simple questions:
- Where are you and how are you?
- What do you need, and what can you give?
These are my new favorite writing prompts. These short, simple questions from made it obvious to me like it somehow hadn’t been to that point: I was not okay.
Specifically, it was the last part of the second question that penetrated my protective shell. I had nothing to give. Nothing. I was giving so, so much already. I was on Empty. I was tired, overwhelmed, sad, drowning. I felt like a fallen leaf, or like a leaf of this one oak tree in my backyard whose leaves dry and brown but somehow never fall; they just cling there all winter, shivering as winds pass through, as if they are too tired even to let go. That was me.
Meanwhile, others in the Zoom session were offering services like tutoring, making cloth masks, webinars, articles and resources for online teaching, words of encouragement, time to talk. I’ve been a member of NCTE for around close to 25 years, and this is how it always is with NCTE members, my professional siblings: they have many gifts, and they share those with generosity and grace. I’ve always tried to do the same, but now? Now I had nothing.
Yet I see now that THAT is what I have to offer. I can offer my honesty about how this situation feels and how little I can function like I did before. I function, I’m more OK than in those first days of shock, but I’m not “as usual.” This is not the usual. I won’t let it be, either. What I have to offer is not pretending. I can say, “I’m not OK. This hurts.” I can say “that usually works for me, but not right now.” I can say what now seems important, what now seems unimportant. I can reveal that I am in pain. What I have to offer is just my vulnerability, right out in front where you can see it.
I’ve been making this “offering” more and more. I tried it at the faculty meeting of my university department, a meeting in which my colleagues were so bravely, so responsibly carrying on, making needed plans and decisions. When the conversation turned to how our students were coping financially, emotionally, and physically, I interrupted. “I’m sorry, but can we talk about how WE are doing? I really want to know. I don’t know about you, but I’m not doing so hot at all. I’m really sad. And it’s so difficult to do this work with my kids home. I feel like I’m dying.”
Immediately others started jumping in, saying they were tired, worried, overwhelmed. My phone, email, and the Zoom chat exploded with colleagues reaching out privately to thank me for saying it. We still got our work done, but we also got to be less alone.
I tried it with my doctoral student, so hardworking and so capable, who now finds herself a month away from her dissertation defense but paralyzed to finish writing. She’s struggling to work under the weight of teaching online on a moment’s notice, caring for student teachers who now find themselves without schools or even without mentor teachers, and receiving emails informing her that the job searches she’s applied for have now been canceled. She’s embarrassed she’s not writing. She worries she’s disappointing me.
I can’t fix the world for her; I can’t stop time. All I can do is let her know she’s not crazy; I can’t write much now either. I can’t really fix any of the things that are troubling my student; her reactions to the current situation are normal and make sense. Her struggle is not a sign of failure, any more than mine is; it’s just a sign of being human. But: I can be a model of a senior professor and mentor, someone who leads, someone with power from her perspective, who nonetheless is sad and stuck and not that OK right now. I can just be an authentic, flawed, struggling human. (And I can postpone her defense date if she needs me to.)
I’m offering this gift everywhere now: to my children, with friends who call, in email and on the phone and in Zoom sessions. Yes, we go on, and yes, we do the work that has to be done. But I also just lay it out there: “I am having such a hard time with all this. How are you holding up?”
Instead of pretending all is well, I am assuming people are hurting, that nobody and nothing are quite well right now. Yes, we carry on. We’re beautiful that way. But our vulnerability is beautiful too. And since mine is now out front for people to see, it’s getting easier for me to see it in others—helping us both to feel more human and less alone.
I leave with this stanza from poet David Whyte:
Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.
Whyte, D. (2015). Vulnerability. In Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. Many Rivers Press.
Anne Elrod Whitney is professor of education at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research addresses how writing fits into lives—crossing disciplinary boundaries of composition studies, professional development, teacher education, and English language arts education.