by Prof. Janet C. Mendoza Stickmon,
On paper and voicemails, I identify as a professor. Professional interactions–a professor. In the classroom–a professor. I’ve found that identifying as such is so important for us as people of color who have students who have never had a professor of color…it becomes important to recognize our title while at the same time not turning it into such a big deal that the title alienates me from my students. This is tricky. In everyday speech, I speak of myself simply as a teacher. Teaching is one of the most selfless, prophetic professions one could ever undertake. I put it up there with the nurse, the doctor, the therapist, the minister, the curandera, the babaylan, the griot, and other healers…like crossing guards, ice cream truck drivers, and tow truck drivers. Any qualities I claim to embody as a professor is because of the people that I have emulated. Teachers, priests, nuns, indigenous healers, counselors, homeless men and women, the anonymous fellow passenger sitting next to me on a plane, friends, family, and other loved ones have all had a hand in my development as a human being and consequently as a teacher. If I am ever complimented on my teaching, I have no choice but to remember that I am a direct reflection of the loving people I have come in contact with throughout my life. When my mentors have come out to support me, I learned surprisingly that my success was their triumph. My beauty was their splendor. My happiness, their rapture.
Teachers have the potential to be healers. Not saviors. Not omnipotent leaders. But humble healers who know that whatever liberatory catharsis is experienced by our students as a result of our teaching, that this is because we are instruments of a greater power. The gifts we share with those we care most deeply for are bestowed upon us by the Divine. This is a tremendous responsibility and one must not intellectualize it too much otherwise one might miss the beauty of it, the mystery of it and collapse from the enormity of it. There are things that I do in the classroom that I cannot take credit for. Like the perfect thought that comes at the perfect moment… and I am left surprised by my own words. The impact we have on others, even on the days we don’t feel good about ourselves, is fascinating to me. Such things can only be explained by the Divine. It is vital to call upon the universe, God, the gods, the ancestors, all to reconcile the interstices that bind our greatest expectations to our greatest disappointments; that bind our greatest lack of understanding to our greatest revelations.
When my daughter was born, this identity as teacher/professor was tested. Hyacinth was born on March 26, 2008. I was with her for 5 months before I returned to work. And when I stepped foot into the classroom, I didn’t feel like a professor or a teacher. I felt like I had never taught before. I was lost in my own classroom. I stumbled over my words. My old lesson plans seemed outdated and I felt clumsy trying to teach from them. I was painfully ashamed and considered ending my career as a teacher. I couldn’t figure out what had happened to me. I thought that it had something to do with using baby talk for five months straight. But I felt it was much more than that.
In the past when I’ve been in these awkward, painful transitional phases, I knew this signaled a new exciting beginning. So I waited and rode the wave. Eventually, it occurred to me that I couldn’t possibly expect myself to be the same person, the same teacher, after bringing a life into the world. I had changed permanently, and what was painful for me in that moment, I imagine runs parallel to the trauma Hyacinth felt when she was born. Perhaps, the Goddess is in the transition phase right now, preparing to give birth to a new me. And I need to get out of my own way to let that birth happen.