“No swimming” by Antonio Byrd
Snow, Ice, Boots
In the morning I wake up with emotional pain–the feeling of inadequacy, fear, and hopelessness from the start of an event that happened in December. I thought I would feel better during my holiday break, and in some ways I am, but in January a pang stays in my heart. The pangs are leftovers of my self-care three weeks ago and they are a reaction to the event because it’s still ongoing. I worry and think too much about what led up to the event and the possibilities the event could lead to. I hope my pain is acute; I hope I’m unreasonable. Yet each day I believe a little more that its chronic. I can’t bring these pangs into class today. Today I must bring enthusiasm, positivity, joy, so I run on a treadmill and shower.
Outside the snow drifts again. I quietly descend into my ritual to protect myself from the tundra. It begins with moisturizer. My skin is sensitive: it heals slowly and peels easily. My skin has been this way all my life, but it’s especially sensitive to the arctic air. During my first winter, I was frightened by how much damage the air had down to my skin; I thought something was terribly wrong and my Phd career would end.
When I think of my skin I mostly think about its health. I am an African American teacher yet I feel comfortable standing in front of a class of 19 European American students. I’m too busy performing as an excited and well-meaning instructor to think twice about how they see my skin. After class or during one-on-one conferencing I do think of how different I must be to their conception of what blackness is, that I don’t embody whatever stereotypes of African Americans they have garnered, that I am probably the first African American they have interacted with, and it’s a good first experience. I can’t help but take some pride in this, as if I am responsible for showing them that Black America is diverse. But these thoughts fizzle out quickly and I rarely relight them during the semester as I dive back into performance. Plus, I don’t like to make assumptions about my students’ experiences with people of color.
I walk to the dorms where my class is this semester; I enjoy walking in the snow and ice, hearing the falls of my boots against the pavement and in the snow. Movement and sound help me think through my teaching, research, writing, and life. I pretend that these things are invulnerable to my lack of self-care even though if I remove the layers of clothing I’ll freeze death, and everything I think about would be for nothing.
Sleep, Pajamas, Hygiene
My class this semester is in a dorm building. My students wake up in the morning and take the elevator downstairs to my classroom. For this I am grateful. They don’t have to layer themselves and strap on boots and walk in the snow and ice to see me, although many of them are Wisconsinites and have lived in the tundra all their lives. I risk myself and come to them. Still, never leaving the warmth of a building comes with its own restrictions. The perception of professionalism. What a student should look like.
I don’t police their appearance. A student is more than his or her clothes. I tell my students that they come to class in their pajamas, especially if they plan to go back to bed after our 50-minute meeting. I caution them jokingly that they will sit in small groups and talk, so they should at least come to class with brushed teeth and deodorant. I mean they could come to class as they are but at the risk of being that classmate with the bad breath and the sweaty armpits. Some students laugh and nod.
I know it’s early in the morning, and they were probably up last night working on a project for another class or finishing a reader response for my class, so I tell them that I’m lenient on tardiness. Five minutes late is okay, but they should know that not everyone tolerates this. Most people would insist you take care of yourself and be responsible. I am willing to let them oversleep a little because sleeping is a form of self-care. They must learn the value of sleep and the value of going to bed when the body demands sleep. I hope my students feel the tug between class and bed and that they two are forever linked.
I bring my students food once a month. Last semester it was candy; this semester I bring doughnuts. My students think it’s because I want to be nice and they are my favorites (they’re my only class, however). And they’re right. I want to be nice; I do like them. But I also bring doughnuts to celebrate their work. Most of the time their only reward for doing well on assignments is mental relief and triumph. As teachers, we do not give grades to bodies.
What I want is communion. I want to break whatever stiffness some lecture halls and discussion session cause. The body is not all brain. Food releases tensions in the muscles, wakes everyone up from sleepiness and the boredom of the day. I see it in their faces–the excitement and motivation to talk during discussion and work. This is probably my favorite activity–sitting down with friends, laughing over a good meal. It’s amazing how much someone can talk with food in their mouths.
As teachers we put things in our students’ minds about writing and what counts as writing, what writing does and doesn’t do. But writing is a social activity and an embodied practice, and we focus directly on the social while we treat the body on peripheral. We’re not trained to care for the body or be concerned about the body and our students don’t think about their bodies in a writing course.
But maybe it doesn’t take training. Maybe we just need common sense and compassion.