Not a robot: On health and academia

When I used to be a classroom teacher, my students on occasion would ask me about the status of their grades on an assessment that they had taken, perhaps, the day or two before questioning me.  I would show them my pile of grading and say things like, “It’s in the pile”; “I’ll get to it”; “We will both know by the end of the week.”

Sometimes, I would say this:  I am not a robot.  I do not live in this school.

What I meant by that was that I allotted a particular amount of my focus and energy to planning, innovating in lessons and projects, crafting assessments, leading students and leading with peers.  After a certain time, I would shut off, exercise, make and eat a healthy dinner, maybe go out for a drink or a date or just to read at a cafe.  My life’s work is as an educator, but teaching is not my life.

That’s a complicated thing to write.  There are many folks who I know who talk about activism, counseling, teaching, writing, creating music, whatever as life.   I differ.  Yes, many of these commitments are part of my life’s work, what I feel called by spirit and purpose to do, but there is a limit to that.  Perhaps this is where an individual urgency in self-preservation comes in; it’s also a lesson in self-care that I am starting to learn and continually relearning.

Recently, I was talking to a colleague in academia about health.  She told me about a particular health concern that is affecting her own fertility, that she had been thinking about the need to tell others about what was happening with her.  I responded

honestly, I think we all in academia need to be more transparent about our challenges as human beings and to recognize the need for barriers, boundaries, the self-care of saying no because of a recognition of our humanity.  We are not inanimate objects, robots, or repositories of knowledge divorced of experience.  If there’s anything that I can do with helping to make the day go by easier or whatever, let me know.”  


I wish I had realized that long ago, the importance of transparency as self-care and as engagement in one’s own healing through mobilizing of the collective.

When I was first diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, no one did an allergy test, though I literally begged for one.  It took me years to get a test for environmental allergies to discover that I’m allergic to over 40 environmental factors, many of them severe.  It was so shocking to the doctor, at the time, when he returned to the room some 10 or 20 minutes later, and my back was covered in a thick plaque of hives.  He asked why I hadn’t called out; I told him that no one had told me what to expect.  I was a dancer; I have a skewed relationship with pain, persistence, and tolerance.  The battle was internal; it wasn’t something that I could draw someone else into.

It took me about 4 years to find a doctor who would do an allergy test for food on me.  That’s how I discovered that I was slowly killing myself.  Because of my iron depletion – I was in the bathroom up to 20 times a day at one point, I spent some class preps sleeping in my chair due to dehydration and blood loss – I craved anything that would give me iron. Peanuts was one of those things; I was insatiable.  I kept a huge jar of it in my kitchen and would have to replace it once a month or so.  I also craved ginger, eating an inch of raw ginger a day.  The ginger, I realized, may have saved my life with its clarifying properties.  I lived this way a year, with abdominal migraines and pain so crippling I couldn’t walk and couldn’t stand to teach, but if you asked my peers, most wouldn’t have known.  They thought I was happy and healthy and exuberant in energy.  My students thought I was a robot.

As an educator and as an academic, there need to more spaces to be human.  I’m not a walking book, spouting out facts and research.  I am not a flawless robot, operating according to a particular system mandate.  I am a human being (individual), engaged with the world (community).  Both human and world are flawed and constantly in flux.  This realization also offers incredibly opportunities.  We must provide spaces for individual self-care and the mobilization of the collective for healing.  Transparency in strengths and limitations is a part of that trajectory towards wellness (individual and collective).

We live in times of tumult and turmoil, I say a lot these days.  We live in toxic days with instability, stress, and xenophobic pathologies, among other ills.  What would change if we saw our own illness, were transparent and communicative about these struggles as illness, and treated illness through a collective network of supports geared towards cultivating individual and communal wellness and strength?  I’m thinking that it must also be a part of the reification of patriarchy and oppression of marginalized peoples to believe in the lie that necessitates silence over the complex aspects of our humanity, that there is a part of this silence that facilitates dehumanization, that in the resistance of this and the sharing of the counternarrative of complex bodies and spirits, that there is an act for collective good in that.  

#twt, #30of52, #52essays2017

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