At the end of each semester, I require my writing students to evaluate in essay-form both themselves and my class. In evaluating themselves, they consider such criteria as their attendance, their grades, their participation and the new knowledge they’ve learned that semester. In critiquing the class, they judge the quality of the day-to-day life in English 11011. Did they like the textbooks? Did they appreciate the workshop format? Did they enjoy and learn from the assignments?
In doing this, I’ve been called many things by my students. This semester one student called me a “brilliant professor.” Another called me “atrocious.” But the judgement that stood out this time was “humble.” One student said I was “very humble.”
I had no idea I was projecting humility, but in hindsight, if I am modest, I know why.
Living with bipolar illness since 1991 made me humble.
Before I came down with manic depression, I used to shout my accomplishments to anyone would listen and to some who wouldn’t. I was vain because I still had my looks. (Psychotropic meds hadn’t wreaked havoc on my body, and I was still 120 pounds.) I didn’t have much time for the marginalized or the disenfranchised. I was young, beautiful, successful, and going places. My goodness, I was a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop!
Then, in 1991, things changed.
Spending two weeks in a psychiatric ward would knock anybody off her lofty tower. I’ve been hospitalized for my mental health issue only once, but once was enough. I entered the hospital pretty out of touch with reality, but as soon as the doctor gave me lithium, I returned to normal.
What can I say… the place was scary. There were no locks on the doors. I knew I was harmless, but I didn’t know about the other folks. In a word, the hospital was quite a downer.
Next, having to rely on medication also produces humility in a person. When 9:00 P.M. rolls around and it’s time to take my meds, I often experience sadness. And bitterness. I question why my life had to contain this twist. Medication reminds me that I am fallible and utterly, humbly human in a flawed way.
Finally, dealing with the stigma of having a mental illness is extraordinarily humbling. In fact, I never bring it up in conversation. People are polite enough not to bring it up as well.
But what is the most leveling of all is that despite dealing with the highs and lows of this disease I’ve managed to carve out some kind of a life for myself. I’ve been a writing professor for 30 years now. I’ve been married to a peach of a man for 21 years, and I’ve been a mom to a brilliant child for 14 years. Oh, I’ve been a freelance writer for about 10 years.
People in my family tell me that they would never want my life because it’s been much too hard and riddled with difficulty. This is true, but it has been completely and utterly my life. It’s been unique and, I guess, humbling.
If bipolar illness wasn’t enough, damned if I didn’t go and get cancer. Twice. Cancer is also a leveler.
For one thing, it can kill you.
For another, the treatment is excruciating. The chemo makes you sick; the radiation burns your skin, and the mastectomy takes away your womanhood.
Finally, cancer is never your friend.
At times, I’m grateful for my bipolar illness because it enhances my creativity. But cancer doesn’t enhance anything. Except maybe humility.
I guess my student was right when she pegged me as “humble.”
The quality of humility is a good one to have as a teacher. I never look down on anyone. I don’t pry into the students’ personal lives. I give students second and third chances.
I try to avoid labeling students. I treat the students as individuals. And my favorite students are often the marginalized ones.
My illnesses have made me a much better teacher, I suppose… I say this in all modesty.