Of Teachers and Students

February 2, 2016

I don’t know if he was there to kill me.

Monday night I was sitting in a hotel lobby in downtown Des Moines with my back to a wall of windows, my eyes fixed on the TV, my attention wholly focused on early caucus results. I didn’t notice until he was standing right next to me, much closer than is ordinary or comfortable. When he started he speaking it was like he was picking up in the middle of sentence, finishing a conversation we had begun earlier, but I couldn’t remember ever meeting him.

“…So what is it that you teach?”

“I am a professor of political science.”

“My wife is a professor of communications.”

“Does she teach here in Iowa?”

“What I want to know is how you got credentialed to be on MSNBC.”

I am not sure if it is how he spat the word credentialed, or if it is how he took another half step toward me, or if it is how he didn’t respond to my question, but the hairs on my arm stood on end. I ignored it. Told myself everything was ok.

“Well. It is not exactly a credential…” I began.

“But why you? Why would they pick you?”

Now I know something is wrong. Now his voice is angry. Now a few other people have stopped talking and started staring. Now he is so close I can feel his breath. Before I can answer his unanswerable question of why they picked me, he begins to tell me why he has picked me.

“I just want you to know why I am doing this.”

Oh – there is a this. He is going to do a this. To me. And he is going to tell me why.

I freeze. Not even me – the girl in me. The one who was held down by an adult neighbor and as he raped her. The one who listened as he explained why he was doing this. She freezes.

I freeze. He speaks. And moves closer. Is there a knife under the coat? A gun? Worse?
And I can’t hear all the words. But I catch “Nazi Germany” and I catch “rise to power.” But I can’t move. I am lulled by a familiar powerlessness, muteness, that comes powerfully and unexpectedly. It grips me. Everything is falling away. Until in my peripheral vision I catch sight of a ponytail, the movement of an arm, the sound of familiar young voices and I remember… my students.

My students are sitting just a few feet from me. I am not alone in this Iowa hotel lobby. I have traveled here with 22 of my undergraduate students from Wake Forest University. We are here on the first stop in a journey to understand the democratic process. I am in this lobby because I am waiting for them to come back from seeing their very first Democratic caucuses. Remembering them rouses me.

Instead of sitting still as he tells me what he is going to do and why, I jump up. I move. I put space – a table – between him and me. My friend jumps too. It is breathtaking how fearlessly – almost recklessly – she throws herself between he and I. Together we raise our voices and make a fuss. He turns. He runs out. He jumps in a car. He drives off. We try to explain to hotel security what has happened and how I receive hate mail and even death threats, how I have had people show up at my workplace, how this might be serious. They listen politely, but this is the Iowa caucus, and I am not a candidate, so they go back to their evening. And we go back to ours.

I don’t know what kind of harm he was prepared to do. Perhaps the only threat was a barrage of hateful words – or maybe he planned to do something worse. I have faced both. Both seemed plausible in this encounter.

I had little time to fret because moments later a dozen of my students came tumbling into the lobby, barely able to contain their enthusiasm, literally bursting at the seams with stories of what they had seen and experienced in their caucus locations.

I don’t know if he was there to kill me. I know they were there to save me.

It was seeing my students out of the corner of my eye that broke the trance of survivor submission into which I’d slipped earlier. As he’d invaded my space with angry, incoherent cruelty, I heard a voice in my head roar, “Not in front of my students!” I did not think, “No! Get away from me!” I thought, “Not in front of my students!”

Ridiculous though it may be, my dominant fear was that if this man maimed or killed me my students would fail to achieve the learning outcome of the Wake the Vote program, which is charged with helping them hone tools of democratic deliberation, perspective-taking, conflict resolution, and civic engagement in diverse settings. It was the fear of a ruined lesson plan that propelled me out of my seat and away from the potential attacker.

It is not an exaggeration to say my students may have saved my life.

Teaching is the great calling and privilege of my life. It has saved, redeemed, reset, and transformed me repeatedly through the decades.

Most don’t know any of this happened, because as soon as they returned we got down to the business of watching returns, discussing results, predicting strategies, and learning together.

Teaching is the great calling and privilege of my life. It has saved, redeemed, reset, and transformed me repeatedly through the decades. Looking for a path for a student, I have discovered new trails for myself. Hoping to stoke their enthusiasm, I have uncovered hidden joys. Students have challenged me because I was wrong and I have had to change. They have pushed me when I was exhausted and I have found new energy. They have been bored and I have had to innovate. They have succeeded beyond my imaginings; thus I share in the accomplishments of hundreds of lives and am not bound to the achievements of a single existence.

Monday, just hours before my students performed their unknowing act of heroism, my university bestowed a breathtaking title of honor. Wake Forest University has named me the first Maya Angelou Presidential Chair.

Dr. Maya Angelou came to Wake Forest University in 1982. A decade later I took my first course with her. That same year she invited me to work in her office, responding to fan mail. In that role I had a front row seat to history when she delivered her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning” at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton.

I was 18 when I met Dr. Angelou. I knew nothing, and I didn’t even have enough sense to know I knew so little. She simply could have graded my papers and sent me away, but instead, she made me her student and she became my beloved teacher.

For her students Dr. Angelou’s generosity was unparalleled and her expectations were unyielding. Her door and her hand were always open. From her students she accepted no mediocrity and among us she found all comparisons odious. She taught us seriously and laughed with us uproariously. She loved us enough to let us fail and had enough faith in us to show us her own failings. She never judged us as harshly as we deserved. And it is because of her that I believed it was possible to be a teacher and a writer and a parent and a public intellectual. It is from her that I learned that responsibility of a teacher to keep making new horizons visible so that your students can chart a course for shores even you have never reached.

Now, I carry the name of my teacher. Always, I am carried by the gift of my students. It is all I ever want and hope to have. I strive to be worthy of it every day.