A former teacher left writer Karen Houppert $75,000, and her meditation on the reasons why is a moving love letter to feminism, the spirit of collective action, and the impact a beloved mentor can have.
Marcia Carlisle was Houppert's professor at Bennington in the early 80s, and Houppert praises her "stealthy approach to teaching history, luring us in with novels and diaries and memoirs that brought an emotional understanding of the period and its hardships." Carlisle favored allowing her students to arrive at their own opinions — in the discussion of Virginia Woolf's "A Room Of One's Own," Houppert remembers that she "weighed in to raise a question or two, but otherwise sat tight, a sphinx having posed her riddle." This approach resonated with Houppert, moving her "from a dark swirl of discontent about the state of the world and my place in it to a systematic analysis of injustice." Later the two became friends, and when Carlisle contracted a degenerative neuromuscular disease, she asked Houppert to edit her essay on the illness. The essay, which was never published, sounds like a profound statement of collective spirit in the face of personal pain. Of her former teacher, Houppert writes,
For a while, despair consumed her. Then, she did what feminists have done all along. She took a hard look at her circumstances and considered her personal story in the larger political context. I am reminded of a passage in "A Room of One's Own," in which Woolf observes that, "[w]omen have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size." Marcia saw a similar desire to inflate oneself among the able-bodied — at the expense of the disabled. She began to move from internalizing her anger to placing it a historical context of oppression — insisting that Phillips Exeter add ramps to buildings not only to accommodate her but to make it an inclusive campus, to alter its "wheelchair access" buttons outside doors to read "universal access," and to end its practice of holding faculty meetings in inaccessible second-floor conference rooms. She was determined to teach her students to reframe their understanding of disabled.
Houppert doesn't know why Carlisle decided to make her the beneficiary of her $75,000 life insurance policy. She says,
Perhaps Marcia was playing the role of Woolf's aunt, bequeathing me a small measure of artistic freedom.
Or perhaps not.
In truth, I'll never know, and maybe that was Marcia's point:
How did we get here? she might ask. How did this happen?
If Carlisle's goal was to make sure that the conversation about disability — and larger questions of the place of the female and/or ill body in the world — kept going after her death, then she chose a worthy heir. Houppert writes affectingly of Carlisle's illness not in familiar terms of individual strength and struggle, but in political terms, and it's clear that she is continuing with the "systematic analysis of injustice" that her professor taught her. It's also clear how much this professor affected her. Houppert's piece isn't just a remembrance of a single woman; it's a testament to the power that teachers can have not only over our minds, but over the values that shape our lives.
It was impossible for me to read Houppert's essay without thinking of my own teachers. I will be grateful forever to the one who taught me that literary criticism can be like playing, the one who sweetly explained that my poetry made it clear I should be a fiction writer, and the one who told me what a rare and worthwhile skill it was to be funny. But more than anything else, Houppert's words brought to mind two incidents that happened when I was about twenty-two years old. Houppert writes of a conversation with Carlisle soon after college:
"I wanna do something that matters, that will make a difference in the world," I confided in a half-whisper, because I knew it sounded corny.
She could have looked at me with a softly condescending smile that said, This, too, shall pass. But she didn't.
"You can," she said.
I had just graduated and was working at my university when a fairly famous male critic came to visit. He asked me what I had studied, and I told him literary theory. He shook his head and said, "Oh sweetie, you'll grow out of it." I wasn't quite green enough to take his words to heart, but I might have been, if not for conversations like the one I'd had with my classics professor a few months earlier. I'd gone to her office to ask what I should do with my life, and I had told her I wanted to be "a public intellectual." She fixed me with a kind but appraising stare, and said, "Yes. I think you can do this. But you should move to New York."
What's ironic about these two interactions is that what I said to my classics professor was kind of callow and silly, while what I said to the critic was not. But my professor was the one who chose to take me seriously. She was the one who looked at a very young woman with more arrogance than experience and gave that young woman actual advice. I didn't move to New York for a long time, but I never forgot that someone had given me permission to claim a position of importance for myself. It's a permission that everyone deserves and that many of us — women especially — are often denied. But once given, it provides protection — against people like the critic (who, to be fair, may have been more anti-theory than he was sexist), against those who view public speech by women as shrill or narcissistic, and against anyone with a stake in making intellectual or political endeavor seem pointless or overweening or uncool. Marcia Carlisle, in sitting back and letting her students find the answers for themselves, was giving them this permission. Houppert clearly benefited from it, and now she is repaying her old teacher by sharing her lessons with the world.
A Room Of Her Own [Washington Post]