30 October 2009

You Can't Get An Education From Anyone You Don't Trust Or Who Doesn't Trust You

I am thinking again about yesterday. Perhaps that's not a productive thing to do, but I'm prone to that sometimes.

Anyway...I find myself reflecting on what I've been learning during these past few months. So much of it comes down to trust. And now I realize that the trust I'm learning is not only toward those who can actually give me the care and education I need. It's also a trust in myself.

When you don't feel whole, complete or simply right-- whatever that means to you-- how can you trust yourself? What can you trust if your body is lying to you and in order to survive, you have to tell-- or worse, perpetuate-- lies of one sort and another? And how can you hope to get an education of any sort if even your name is not your own?

James Baldwin once wrote that a child cannot learn from a teacher who despises him. That's more or less right. But I think that it would be more accurate to say that no one can get an education from anyone he or she does not trust, and who does not trust him or her. All you learn is a sort of defensive deception: You lie, dodge or commit whatever other subterfuge is necessary in order not to be harmed. And, of course, if someone is telling you the complete truth about something, it cannot be anything but a falsehood in such circumstances.

You go to a doctor because you think you've cracked your ankle in a fall. If the doctor, or his or her screener, asks if you've felt depressed, you say "no" because you want your ankle fixed, not to raise suspicions that you harmed yourself on purpose.

Something like that happened to me. And to practitioners I've previously used, I've said that I had sexual fantasies about women, and even talked about wanting to marry one or another, just so that I wouldn't get locked up somewhere that couldn't offer me what I needed, much less wanted.

How many times do we get through a situation, a day or a period of our lives by saying what someone else wants, or seems to want, to hear? Or worse yet, what we wish were true?

When I saw Mom back in August, I said that my years at Rutgers, where I was an undergraduate, were the worst of my life. She asked what I would have done differently: Would I have gone to another school? Studied different things? Or delayed going to school?

I might have done all of those things, I said, but I probably still would have been miserable. She cringed when I said that last word. "Oh, you were!," she said. "I haven't seen very many people who were more unhappy than you were in those days."

I explained that I was, by any definition of the term, deeply depressed. I felt as if I had nothing in common with anybody at the college. In part, it had to do with the fact that when I was young, I tended not to make friends among my peers. What friends I had were, for the most part, women older than I was.

Also, I felt more hostility toward who and what I am than I ever felt in high school, or before that. For many years afterward, I accepted the standard explanation: that I was noticing it more. And, being the sort of person I am--one who just wants to live her life--I trusted other people's opinions before I trusted my own experience.

The thing is, the higher you go in education, the more you encounter that mentality. If you experience something, it doesn't count for as much as what some "expert" says about it. I have come to realize that such an "expert" is more than likely to be self-appointed and gains his or her authority because so many people are, for whatever reasons, too cowed or indifferent to challenge it.

But there was another dimension to the conditions that made me so unhappy: I was in a residential college. So I was living with other students, whom I saw every day. They included various jocks or jock-groupies and frat guys. Living among them meant that I had to keep my acts and my defenses up at all times. I played the drinking games with the guys and feigned more interest in "banging" women than I actually had. Worse, I not only went along with the "fag" jokes, I made a few myself.

And, because I engaged in such mendacity, I came to despise everything about the college, college generally, the people in it and what I had to do to keep myself there. Today, of course, none of that surprises me--or, for that matter, the people who've heard this from me--because I had, by that time, learned to so thoroughly despise myself.

I fell into such an awful state because I could not articulate what was happening to me. I tried to fit into the labels: I was "straight;" I was "gay;" I was "bi" (whatever those terms mean! ); I was a guy with a "feminine side." And, of course, I kept that side as far from view as I could.

The result was that I never did anything more than half-heartedly. I was present only physically in my classes and in other college functions; when I reached out to others (Yes, I got very lonely sometimes!) I could only do so from behind a wall. And even in that relative safety, I was still in a mask and costume, whether or not it was Halloween.

So I could never ask the sort of questions I wanted to ask, or do anything that would allow me to get the sort of education that stays with a person: that which teaches a person by expanding his or her self-definition. This means helping that person to learn how to do what he or she is capable of doing, and to expand that person's range of what is capable.

Maybe this is the reason why, in spite of all the time I've spent in a classroom as a student and teacher, I have never quite trusted Education (with a capital "E"). Even when I enjoy teaching (which, these days, is most of the time) and otherwise helping students, and when I enjoy an exchange with a colleague (a more frequent occurrence these days), I still sometimes feel as if I cannot trust it. Perhaps I am still carrying a lot of residual damage.

I am interested in helping people gain an education, whatever that means for them. And most people go to school for that, and we are--at least in theory--charged with that role. But I often feel that my own education bears only an incidental relationship to the time I've spent in school.

In brief, I felt a little sad after leaving Dr. Jennifer's office yesterday for the same reason that I shed tears upon leaving Marci, Nurse Phyllis, Robin and all of those other people I met in Trinidad: From them, I was finally getting an education--a real education.

Now I'm wondering whether it's the only education I've ever had.