It’s the last week of classes, and my course announcements, as usual, have stacked up like this:
Due to travel hazards/laryngitis/an ongoing family emergency/my sick cat, I will be unable to attend class today. As such, I will record a lecture in advance of our meeting time and hang out in the chat room during class to field any questions you might have about the material. As always, you can email me directly with comments.
Also featured are stories of delays: #NJTransit and #PennStation have trended at least twice this month due to massive breakdowns, delays, and crowd control issues. After a NJTransit train derailed on Monday, April 3, damaging switches and rails, train delays and cancellations, platform crowding, and overflow trains infected the entire week, including the Tuesday and Thursday I commute to Rutgers for a 2:2 course load. At Penn Station, Amtrak, LIRR, and NJTransit were all affected. That’s hours of delays, jostling shoulder to shoulder on the platform, followed by a standing-room only commute for an hour on the Northeast Corridor.
Thousands of commuters were doing this, so I couldn’t say it wasn’t doable. But I didn’t do it. I cancelled my Rutgers classes that week, citing only my concerns that I wouldn’t arrive on time, and we wouldn’t be able to hold class anyway.
This was true, but it wasn’t the real reason.
Coincidentally, after I returned to campus I heard from a former student that I have a reputation for canceling, and I’ve been trying to dismiss my concerns about it because I’m not sure I get to be defensive. Like a good faculty member, I am dishonest with my students about my reasons, despite insisting they be honest with me about theirs. I lie because, as long as I can power through without dying mid-lecture, the truth sounds like an excuse. I’m in pain. I’m exhausted. I just can’t.
Academia perpetuates this kind of hypocrisy. It’s close to the notion that we encourage our students to seek us out for help, but we are supposed to deny ourselves and our colleagues that same sympathetic ear. We are supposed to be stronger than that. We’re supposed to manage our anxiety, our impostor syndromes, our suicidal tendencies, our earth-shattering family emergencies. It’s no secret I used to self-injure when I was younger, my visible scars disclose this for me, and I’ve served, often and gladly, as the sounding board for students who are self-injuring or suicidal, to persuade them to try counseling, to suggest I’m proof it gets better. I’ve had students come to me over the deaths of family members, or sexual assault, or poverty and homelessness, physical injury, undisclosed physical or learning disabilities, ongoing illness, and so on, and I forgive the absences and offer an extension every time. I preach to them about the importance of self-care, but today, the last day of classes, here I am hypocritically reconsidering it for myself, because NJTransit is yet again crowded and suffering delays, but I have two back-to-back classes and I’ve already canceled so many and it’s evaluation period and what if this is the cancellation that finally kills my career?
At its worst, fibromyalgia makes me perpetually late to my own classes, forever rescheduling meetings, or canceling, forever dreading the day I’m called into the department chair’s office and bluntly told, “You’re no longer capable of performing your duties as a teacher.” (When I was first undergoing diagnostic tests a decade ago, I was in fact called into the assistant director’s office and told, I’m sorry you’re in pain, but if you can’t attend all the teacher training meetings, we’re going to have to let you go.) We bear all the marks, still, of disciplinary power in the classroom and in our ranks, despite knowing it and naming it for what it is. Stand up tall and sit up straight. Walk around the classroom while you moderate discussion. I’m in the market for a cane because I can’t abandon the podium, not because I read from it, but because without something to lean on I sometimes worry I’ll collapse. I don’t excuse myself mid-lecture to use the bathroom, even when appendectomy-related scar tissue swells like a hot bellows, because who does that? And as much as I talk about the depressing nature of the political landscape, emphasizing that that enables me to conceal the other major source of my depression, the one that will not change even if the world improves, the ongoing family emergency that sounds as clinical and doable as I need it to sound. Look at me, I’m stoic. I’m not falling to pieces because I’m losing someone dear to me who shaped my entire life. I’m waking up in the morning, and putting on professional clothes, and quietly coping with painful commutes, and if my eyes are glassy and distant all day, at least I’m teaching my class.
This week, today is the day that will break me. NJTransit is yet again delayed and crowded. I have disclosed my disability to my entire 4:4 load but I wish I could find it in myself to stop making up excuses that sound believable, that justify canceling a week’s worth of classes and making them up online. I wish I had said, Chronic pain means I can’t stand for an hour’s commute, if I’m bumped on that crowded platform I’m going down and I’m not getting back up, delays mean I have to sit with this pain and the pain will last weeks. Even now, I’m sitting here planning to inform my class that I’m late because of NJTransit, which is true, but also because of the sheer paralyzing dread of having to face that commute today. It would be a relief to be transparent about my reasons, to actually model for students that truth-telling, if you’re ready to embrace it, can be a powerful, empowering move. It would be a relief to know that I too can take care of myself without risking my career.