By: Jeanne Cameron
In June, I hiked Bent Creek Trail at the North Carolina Arboretum, my imagination captivated by two wonders. The first were the thick and knotty wild rhododendron that lined the banks.
Branches reaching across the water to their sisters on the other side.
Shaped by time and wind and rain and sunlight.
Messy and imperfect.
The second wonder was a trout, all golds and browns and greens lit up by the play of sunlight on water, disappearing and reappearing from the shelter of a blend-with-me rock. Can you find it in any of the pictures?
We use language to name our experiences, to give them – and by extension, ourselves – weight and meaning. We use language to arrange our experiences, to situate them within and against the experiences of others. Like those majestic rhododendrons, we are hungry to connect. We reach our branches across the water – Are you there? Have you ever felt as I do? Is your life as messy and imperfect as mine? And sometimes this yearning to connect brushes up against another hunger – to be a rise-above rock in the creek. That fish, we sometimes tell ourselves, can find shelter somewhere else.
On July 26th, Kevin Bacon and his band played a venue about a mile from my house. Earlier that day, as I was mowing the lawn, I thought about six degrees of separation, noting that only one degree would separate the evening’s concert goers from Bacon. Later that night, my former student, Erin, posted a picture of Bacon on stage, captioned: One degree of separation. Because of Erin, two degrees separate Bacon and me.
The night Bacon’s band performed, another former student, Jenii, took a Greyhound from the 42nd Street Port Authority to Cortland to visit me. Erin once read an essay made from Jenii’s writing and mine, read it so closely she imagined how the text should be woven into white space. Do two degrees separate Erin and Jenii, or does Erin’s imagining make it only one?
In 2012, I flirted – for a single wanton weekend – with Prezi, creating and arranging slides with statistics and quotes, trying to illustrate juking the stats, a conceptual preoccupation Adam and I share. Nestled among the slides were Adam’s observations about teaching in Baltimore County Schools and nestled among Adam’s words were Jenii’s observations about learning at Dewitt Clinton, a public high school in the South Bronx. White teacher, brown student, each speaking on the distance between political rhetoric and education practice. How many degrees separate Adam and Jenii, who have never met? Is it the customary two, or does the conversation I created with their words close the distance to one?
Adam took introductory sociology with me in 2002, six years before Erin showed up. At the time, he was thinking about teaching in a city. He stopped by my office one day to ask if I thought he had what it takes. Was this a crazy idea? White boy from Dryden, NY, thinking he had something to offer kids whose experiences were so unlike his own. I loved that he was second-guessing himself. Loved that he wasn’t cocky about it. Loved that he didn’t think he could sail in and set things straight.
Jenii first appeared in one of my classes in 2010, eight years after Adam, and two years after Erin. She opened her first formal essay for me with one of her Dominican mother’s consejos – cada cabeza es un mundo/every mind its own world. In this essay, Jenii uses the techniques of repetition and listing to trouble stereotypes about black and brown students in neighborhoods like Mott Haven, where she grew up. How do you make school a priority, she asks, when you have to worry about being robbed or shot on your way to school? How do you make school a priority, when you haven’t eaten since yesterday’s school lunch? How do you make school a priority…
The list continues.
In 30 years of teaching, this may be the most effective use of language I’ve encountered in the opening to an undergraduate essay. The arrangement of her words would have impressed M.L. King. And here’s the thing – I would come to recognize King’s rhetorical artistry only after I had experienced Jenii’s. Sometimes extraordinary people shape our thinking, but more often, in my experience, it is the words and actions of ordinary people that give my world its weight and meaning.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Jenii, and me. How many degrees separate the three of us?
About a year ago, I stopped at Adam’s parents’ house to pick up a box of books he’d sent north for me. Multiple copies of D. Watkin’s The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America, that he’d once read with a group of students. Nearly every copy is filled with underlines and annotations.
I gave three copies to graduating students as gifts, reducing the degree of separation between Adam and them. A few weeks later, Lyndon, one of the book recipients, texted – “I’m almost done with the Beast Side. Took me like 3 days to finish it. It is an AMAZINGGGGG book. I’ve never took interest in a reading like that before. Can you recommend anything similar?”
Lyndon is a soft-spoken, fully present 22-year old from Brooklyn, who always asks, “How is your family?” He took his first class with me in 2015, five years after Jenii, eleven years after Erin, and thirteen years after Adam. He’s read both Jenii’s and Adam’s words in classes, and he’s benefitted from everything all three – and countless others – have taught me. And the students who follow Lyndon will be similarly blessed by all I’ve learned from him, like remembering, always, to ask about one’s family.