The other night, I went to a retirement party. I almost missed it, but remembered about it at the last minute, and managed to get my ticket and figure out an outfit and show up. That’s the best kind of timing for me: not enough advance warning to get anxious about it, but just enough time to make sure I have a clean bra and to polish up my boots.
I first met the new retiree, John, when he taught a few of the undergrad Conflict Resolution Studies classes I took through the U of W. I liked his teaching style, but what I really appreciated the most was how strict he was with my papers. I am a wordgeek who loves researching and writing papers. A well-crafted endnote is a thing of beauty. And a well-placed semicolon? Well, that’s better than ice cream.
Ever since I first started handing in papers in grade school, I have almost always received the highest marks. In university, while I may not have always done well on tests and exams, I don’t think I have often received less than an A for my papers. I’m usually a bit surprised if the paper isn’t marked A+, actually.
John gave me the grades I had come to expect in school, but his comments were pickier than what I usually received. He would nitpick about fine points of grammar or punctuation. For example, while he and I are both proponents of the Oxford (or serial) comma, I will sometimes drop the final “and” in a serial list as a stylistic choice, for effect. “We spent the summer riding our bikes, roaming the back lanes, breaking into people’s cars to find loose change.” The “and” is sous-entendu, just understood from the context. I think I developed this style because I wrote poetry long before I ever wrote papers, and so the “and” would have been conveyed by tone of voice, line breaks, and pacing.
But John called me out every time, not only on this, but on other issues (such as paragraph length—no ultra-short paragraphs purely for dramatic effect!). This is not appropriate for an academic paper, he would write. I felt he was trying to whip me into shape. I was astonished and insulted at first; it had been years since anyone had made that sort of comment about my formal writing. I tried harder. I did better. I worked my ass off to make sure there was nothing to nit or to pick. By the time I got my third or fourth paper back from him, I was curious to read his comments in the margins. It was exciting to have a prof not just be relieved at coming across a well-written paper (anyone who has been a marker-grader knows exactly what I mean here!) but who took the time to push me even further to do my very best.
On the other hand, I think I was not always an easy student in the actual classroom The courses were being taught through a faith-based college attached to the U of W, and I am not a faith-based person. Also, the CRS courses all privileged non-violence over violence, and I come from a background of “might makes right” and domestic violence and an authoritarian childhood, so violence seemed like a normal / natural / inevitable tool to me. And so on, and so forth. So when John asked me to stay after class one day, I was apprehensive about what I might have said in that particular class. Imagine my surprise when he offered me a job as copy-editor of an academic journal! I worked with him on that for eight years, until he recently announced his retirement.
Anyway. This is the long way around to what I actually wanted to write about today. I went to the retirement party (wearing, among other things, the aforementioned clean bra and polished boots). It was held at the college, and attended by many of John’s family, friends, and colleagues. After the formal program, they asked people (freiwillichers? Not sure how to spell that but it sounds almost like vrijwilligers—volunteers—in Dutch) to share some things about John. People stood, introduced themselves, and spoke a lot about what a good, generous, kind, wise, gentle, diplomatic, sincere person he is. That he loves his students, his family, and his god. That he has made the program and the world a better place. That he works hard. That he is a wonderful mentor and a trusted friend. That he has touched people deeply.
It was lovely. It was more than lovely; it was beautiful. John is one of those rare people who is the real thing. It took me years to figure that out, and in some ways I still don’t quite believe it. I have not lived a life that allows me to believe it, not really. But here is a person who is genuinely and authentically good, who grapples with the horrible things in the world and tries to make a difference, who is honestly kind to and interested in others, and who is obviously—judging by the speeches people gave—beloved.
But after a while, the speechifying started to feel too unified. I know that I was not the only “outsider” in the room. But we were mostly white, educated people (my B.A.-and-a-half probably put me at the bottom of the pile). Many were there as part of a hetero couple (which isn’t definitive, but is definitely normative). Most seemed to be Mennonites or other Christians and there was a base assumption of faith as a common ground. And it kind of felt like everyone was simply agreeing with each other, which was fine and probably perfectly appropriate, but just so… seamless, somehow. Too whole. The only interruption was when another of my former profs (for whom I also have utmost respect and affection), rose and said that as a feminist, she appreciated that John was so able to express vulnerability to his students, and what an excellent role model that made him, particularly for his male students. Despite all of John’s work in overexploited countries, and despite all of the difficult areas involved in conflict resolution, this mention of gender roles and gender-role modelling was the first interruption of the smooth story. There was no other interruption to talk about racism, or classism, or ableism, even though I saw over time how John addressed inequality and oppression in his classes. I do not like a seamless whole. When there is no disruption or interruption or difference, I get uncomfortable. It always feels not quite real to me, not quite authentic. So despite the fact that I hate speaking in public, I decided it was my turn.
Once I had gathered enough courage and taken a few calming breaths, I stood up and said, as far as I can remember: “I’m Nissetje, and I’m a former student here, and I see a lot of my old profs here tonight.” (I stopped to take a deep breath, because my heart was already hammering.) “I started coming here because I really wanted to take Conflict Res courses.” (Everyone is nodding because obviously every person of discernment would want to take courses there.) “But. As a feminist… atheist… queer person…” (slowly and emphatically) “I had some concerns about attending a faith-based college.” (Little bits of laughter here and there.) “I was prepared to be challenged, and to be challenging. But in John’s classes, he always made space for a different voice and a different perspective, and he made me feel this was not just allowed but also welcomed. And I am grateful for that.”
I sat down. I had wanted to say a bit more, especially how grateful I have been to have those conversations not only in class (in public) but also in private over the years, and through our work together on the journal. But I had reached the limit of my ability to talk, so I sat. Some people applauded, and that made me a bit sad, because I assumed that in a way, I had just reinforced the dynamic I was trying to interrupt; how wonderful that even an outsider loves our John! I felt like what I said had been absorbed into the dominant narrative of the evening.
But two things: One, I said it mostly for John. I wanted him to know that even though my basic stance toward the world and toward authority is usually confrontational, disobedient, and cynical, I appreciated that he engaged with me rather than dismissing me. And two, during the dinner, I had been speaking with some others about the “nudge.” You don’t always have to have the perfect argument to change someone’s mind completely; in fact, that is seldom even possible. But you can nudge people, just a bit. That nudge stays with them, and maybe makes them more receptive to the next nudge, and eventually, their balance changes. So by standing up and saying atheist, by saying queer, I not only interrupted the narrative and nudged that room, I also created a space in which anyone else in that room who was atheist or queer was not alone. On one hand, it’s a little thing, a small moment, quickly over. On the other hand, it is a breathtaking risk to speak up, speak out, stand up, be heard—and maybe let others know the words can be spoken.
John and I are never going to meet in the middle. There is no compromise on some of our beliefs and identities. But that doesn’t mean we are in conflict. I have so much respect for him, and I hope he does for me as well. I’ve enjoyed working with him on the journal, and striving to meet his exacting standards (and, nerd alert, I actually read the first third of the Chicago Manual of Style during that time).
I feel that meeting and working with John has been a gift. Even though we are so different, we like each other anyway. We have not tried to change each other, and we have been tremendously respectful of each other, particularly in the places where we differ. It has been a pleasure over time to discuss ideas and craft words together.
Often, my social anxiety makes it easy to avoid these types of events, and then I’m all regretsy later. I’m really glad I was there. For one thing, I had no idea how much my collaboration on the journal had meant to him until I heard his speech, and that was a pleasant surprise. But mostly, I really like John. Births, deaths, birthdays, funerals, anniversaries, retirements, and all the other markers of changes and events and transitions in people’s lives are important. I tend to avoid them, but I almost never regret it when I emerge from my nest to be part of the celebration.