Woody the Woodpecker

by NotDownOrOut

Woody the Woodpecker. That’s what my hair looks like now. The sides are still very short, but the top is about two inches long and determined to stand up straight. There is no longer any pretense of laying down to cover the wide part on the left side of my head. What’s on top of my head is as light and fluffy as baby’s hair and standing up straight. I fuss with it constantly, but every time I think I have gotten it to lay down it springs up again.

My niece Maureen suggested that I dye it a cheerful color. Pink would be cheerful. I still remember the cancer survivor at Stroger Hospital with her scarlet plumage. My fear is that the law school faculty might find me too stodgy.

I went to a faculty event this evening–with hopes of introducing myself to the dean, who never did answer my last email–but the man made a brief thanks to the adjunct faculty for being the bridge for students between the academics and the profession and departed before I could meet him. He did not make the rounds and introduce himself.

I cannot blame him. He most likely had no idea who I was as I stood in my new dress and the first high-heeled shoes I have worn since my surgery. Many of the adjuncts are alumni. I am not, but, if I were, I would also be interested in meeting him. And, if I were the new dean at a law school, I would view every unfamiliar face in the room as one to which I would like to put a name. People willing to work for inadequate compensation might be sources of future contributions to the university. Alas, the dean was not interested in meeting people.

I did see Susan, the woman who terminated my teaching/reassigned my class while I was in surgery in October. We actually exchanged brief smiles and nods and she met my eyes. That’s a hurdle behind us now. It was painless for me. I think an apology is in order for what happened, but lawyers are not good at apologies. Lawyers call them admissions against interest.

I went tonight hoping to meet the dean. I wanted him to put a face to my name. That did not happen. But I showed up. That’s more important. I am putting a face to what it means to be a cancer survivor. I show up. I have been showing up to my classes since I returned from surgery. I have been showing up at as many lunches of legal writing instructors as I could make when I have been teaching a class that ends forty-five minutes after the lunches begin. I am showing up for office hours when students want to meet to discuss their concerns. I am showing up because, contrary to the prejudice of one of my supervisors, some people in my situation don’t let others down. She wrote to me:

I sincerely hope that you recover from the surgery immediately, but it has been my experience that people in this situation always have slower come-backs than they anticipate. I had no way to hedge against the risk that you might return to teaching this week and then right away, or a few weeks later, find yourself simply unable to continue.

I have continued.

If I were a betting woman, I would bet money that I will continue to teach.

I am reminded of my first day of law school at Catholic University of America. Professor Harvey Zuckman called on me in Torts class. I stood to recite my brief of the first case. Professor Zuckman quizzed me as if we were in court. I had prepared meticulously for class because I intended to treat school as a job and be prepared for every class.

The questions came one after another. Thanks to the wonderful coaching of my former debate coaches from college and high school, I was having fun.

At the end of his examination, Professor Zuckman said to me, “If you mean to continue law school the way you began it today, you’ll do very well indeed.”

To this day it is a memory that spurs me to prepare for every class I teach the way I prepared for that first class. And the echo of that encouragement is there when I read a student’s paper and write, “I like this. Write more like this.” It is in the back of mind when I must criticize someone’s work that no doubt called for the student to work long hours. I never use a red pen because I must be honest about weaknesses, but I try not to draw blood with my own pen strokes.

It is a good day when my criticisms are remembered as fondly as a compliment. One former student wrote to me:

I kept the email that you sent me after my appellate oral argument in my “Atta girl!” file and I pull it out when I’m having a rough week to remind myself to just keep swimming.  It really meant a lot.

Another student wrote:

I want to thank you again for your tutelage. I remember receiving a low mark from you on some cite-checking assignment. You wrote in your remarks that although the work might be tedious, a good attorney challenges himself to excel. I credit your comment with forcing some much needed introspection. From that point on, my GPA went from a 2.6 to well over a 3.5. The work sometimes remained tedious, but I pushed through!

I love my job and I am so lucky to be able to keep doing it. One of the reasons I got through the events of the last seven months was that I had classes to teach. Let me say that with the precision I require of my students: I survived the events of the last seven months because I had students to teach.

For anyone out in the world who thinks people in my “situation” will let them down, I am going to respond like Woody the Woodpecker. It was Woody, with his zany plumage and his relentless enthusiasm for his mission who said, “Ha-ha-ha-HAA-ha!” Some of us continue because all of us handle this as we see fit rather than as others might expect.