Now what? Reflections on My Final Four
Today is Tuesday. But it doesn’t feel like any Tuesday. I’ve been through something, though I’m not yet sure what it is. I’ve been through it with my wife and family and friends, with my students and colleagues, and — through this blog and social media — thousands of strangers.
It’s sunny and springlike here in Oberlin, though it’s threatening rain later. Someone is blowing leaves outside. And occasionally a semi rumbles down OH-58, Main St., on the street below my window. But otherwise it’s quiet. I have work to do: a class to prepare for tomorrow, some papers to grade, some bureaucratic forms to fill out. It’s like any Tuesday, with the sounds and feels of any Tuesday. But I’m disoriented by the clash between the excitement of the experience I’m still trying to process and the realization that, by all appearances, the world around me is just going about its ordinary Tuesday business.
I never imagined my letter to Chris Webber would take off the way it did. The letter came to me last Wednesday as I was completing my ordinary Wednesday drive from Oberlin up to Ann Arbor to teach my classes. I wrote it in about 20 minutes in my office at school before class, posted it to my blog, sent links to it out on Twitter and Facebook and figured it would be seen by about as many people as usual when I post something here. Maybe 50-100, or a 100-200 on a really good day. And that’s how it was looking until Wednesday evening, when suddenly the numbers started doubling every 15 minutes. By Thursday night it was up over 20,000. And by the time of last night’s tip off: over 45,000 people had read my letter. For a professor like me, even one who blogs, that’s a lot of readers, a lot of comments, a lot of attention.
I found it generated a confusing and thrilling mix of emotions.
I felt angry at strangers who would send me comments or e-mails calling Chris Webber and the other members of the Fab Five “trash” and other more hateful things. As I said, I don’t know Chris, but I’ve met Ray, and I know Jimmy very well, and they are two of the most generous and authentic men I’ve known. (Even as I write this one of these comments comes into my inbox.) Though they were the clear minority among those I received, I wound up trashing all those comments, laced as they were with sarcastic bitter resentment. I wanted my letter to be about love and reconciliation. I figured that today there is no shortage of venues for them to express their feelings and saw no reason why I should feel morally obligated to give them platform on my blog.
I felt irritated by what seemed to me the narrowness of those who suggested (including journalists in print) that the current team doesn’t care about the Fab Five and that drawing attention to the Fab Five was unfairly robbing them of their own moment. I know the players on the current team, at least I know them as students in my class and I’ve never known them to be anything other than excited by and proud of the Fab Five, with that excitement and pride being one — just one — component of their pride in wearing the Michigan uniform and representing the school. And, knowing them, I also know that nothing — nothing — could rob them of the thrill of their own moment.
I felt hurt and indignant when some wrote impugning the integrity of my class or of my academic credentials. I may not teach a conventional topic, and I may not teach in a conventional style, but I teach, by which I mean to say that the vast majority of my students will say that they learned in my classes, and, even more importantly to me, that they had an educational and life experience of impact in my classes. I’ve worked hard and I’ve sacrificed to be the kind of teacher I am, the best teacher that I can be, to show my students that I care about them as growing human beings and I couldn’t believe that people who’d never met me, let alone been in one of my classes would presume to say otherwise.
I felt warmed and softened by all those who through comments and tweets and facebook likes and e-mails expressed their gratitude to me and told me that I’d expressed what they’d long felt. One person wrote that I was loved. And while I certainly feel loved in my daily life, I was surprised by how moving it was to feel loved and valued by strangers. As a writer, I’d never really experienced that before, but I guess that in some way it showed me that it’s important to me – to strike a chord, to express a feeling I share with others in a way that maybe they couldn’t express, or at least haven’t expressed, themselves, and to have that resonate and return to me in the form of gratitude.
I felt ashamed of my narcissism, and of my excitement in the fantasies I had that Chris Webber would read my letter and because of my letter would show up at the game. The reflexes of believing myself capable of healing conflicts and rifts I learned in a deep way as a child so that they are woven into the tissue of my being. I know myself pretty well. I know, and knew when I was writing it, that this was part of what I was acting out of when I wrote and posted the letter. When CBS showed Chris getting out of his SUV and entering the Georgia Dome on Monday night, and my Twitter feed and Facebook page exploded with friends telling me that “I had done it.” I felt excited, of course, because he was there and that is what I had wanted, but I also felt with a kind of secret shame that I had done it, even though rationally I believed that my letter had had nothing to do with it; and from there back then again to the intense, childhood desire to believe that I had done it. I felt again ashamed of the intensity of that desire.
I liked being “famous,” to a degree I’m a also little ashamed of. I have more projects and more things to say and I admit that I hope that what happened to me this week draws attention to those projects. I love writing and I love communicating and I love the feeling, which I was given this week, that I have communicated and that the act of my writing has mattered. But I’m also afraid of the attention. Afraid that I won’t know what to write next. Or that it was never really about my writing at all and so that everyone will go away. That’s what it really is, if I’m being honest. I’m afraid everyone will go away.
I watched the game, like every fan, rising and falling with every play, thrilled and exhausted by the pace, astonished at the ability, moved by the fearlessness and courage and will of my students (and of the students of Louisville professors). As the final seconds ticked away, and my own hard hope melted into a kind of flatness, I was surprised not to feel sad, or even actually disappointed (which is not to say that I wouldn’t have felt elated if Michigan had won).
I just felt so much pride in my students, so much tenderness toward them, and really just some kind of love for them, even the few that I haven’t met or taught. I’ve come to feel as a kind of sore spot in my heart — an ache — the disparity between their celebrity status and the objectification that goes with it and the experience of them I have as young people in my college classroom, trying to pursue their extraordinary dreams while retaining the dignity of their ordinary — and so extraordinary — humanity.
I don’t know what we’ll do in class tomorrow. I imagine that the other students in the class will want to talk about the game, and, being the great people they are, will want their returning classmates to feel celebrated and appreciated. At the same time, I imagine they will be concerned not to put their classmates on the spot. As for the students who are also players: I imagine they’ll be tired, but fine. They are young and resilient. And they’ve certainly been nothing other than exceptionally generous and open in sharing with their classmates the experiences they’ve had of the culture of basketball.
I’m a professor of the humanities. That term usually refers to a collection of disciplines (literature, philosophy, the arts, etc.) that study and pass on knowledge of the works of human culture. But for some time now, I’ve thought of it primarily as meaning that my job is to cultivate my own and the humanity of my students (in part, yes, by exposing them to the works of human culture whether these be the Book of Genesis, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Dr. J’s FT line dunk in the 1976 ABA All-Star game), which is to say to nurture their ability to be open and connect with themselves and one another.
Whether they learn about particular authors or literary works or the history of basketball always feels less important to me than that they get to practice being genuine human beings in my class, with genuine emotions, and the capacity to think, and to express themselves in an authentic way with one another. I figure the world needs more well-adjusted, compassionate, intelligent, authentic human beings more than it needs experts in the short fiction of Julio Cortázar (not that I think one excludes the other).
So I guess that tomorrow, like I do on a lot of days, I’ll just show up in class and try to model that honesty and nakedness myself, and hope that they respond in kind. They usually do. I’ll let them talk to me and to each other, guiding them the best that I can.
Man, Oberlin is so quiet today. It’s like nobody out there knows.