Sunday, September 29, 2013

We Sounded Like Ourselves

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When I first started teaching online in 1995, there was still a lot of hesitancy when it came to signing off at the end of an e-mail.  My students and I—and all of my colleagues—pretty much knew how to end a letter, but what were we supposed to say at the end of an e-mail?  It seemed that all business and order had gone out the window in favor of smiley faces.  I clearly remember the day when I sat in one of my last apartments, going over a kind and generous e-mail from one of my more advanced friends who already knew the difference between :) and ;).  How could she know all of this, and where had I been?  How had this new language escaped me?

It only took a couple years before one of my online students slipped and signed off her homework with, “I love you, Lisa.”

I e-mailed Lisa back: “You are an excellent student and I so appreciate that!  You’re doing very well in this class and I couldn’t expect more.  However, I’m pretty sure you don’t love me.”

We can only imagine the physical and mental contortions that Lisa might have put herself through after realizing the unintended intimacy of her e-mail signature.  She quickly wrote back, “I always write ‘I love you’ when I send notes to my mom!  I’m just used to it!  I’m so sorry!”

What an easy forgiveness that was.  What a lucky mom.

By now, 18 years later, Lisa is probably a mom herself, and I send my regards to her mother, who obviously raised Lisa well.  I have been thinking of how we represent ourselves and how we want ourselves to be known; there are so many tools to be picked up and used to those ends, many more than before.  It’s easier to make mistakes now, with all the new ways to be vulnerable.

Which is why I valued my first less than three heart from a student today, as she signed off on her homework.  Was that a reflection of me and my teaching, or just a soft moment in all the hard times?  How did less than three become part of our vocabulary?   

I could not help but send a less than three heart back, unfortunately with a C+, which everyone knows is not exactly teacher love, but from me, it comes close.  While I haven’t been formally trained to teach and assess and monitor, these skills have found me, like the love usually does.


My own mom calls long-distance on the phone and visits with me like a trooper until she cocks her head—and I can see her doing it because I know she does it—and she says, “Kathryn, you don’t sound like yourself.”  In the next two seconds of silence, wars could have been won, poverty overcome...statues to my father built.  None of this matters to my mother, not if she perceives me as not being myself.

Ma,” I whine.  I throw my head back and my hands in the air.  I still wonder how the five of us kids and our dad came to call this woman “Ma” when it all started as “Mom”.  “Why!?” I say, beating myself with a walking stick my dad made.

My mom takes a long pull off her e-cigarette.  She’s wearing my dad’s denim coat and I know she’s in the garage.  My mother is always right, and she always knows just how to be.

“I’m just worried about your sister,” she says, rubbing her nose. “I guess you sound okay.”

Rivers flood and the sun sets on the lightness of my mother’s hope.  I would go outside and dig a ditch in the middle of my backyard if I thought it would help.  I would facilitate a new language if I thought it would move my family farther down the road.

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