Years before the word “woke” became so divisive, a teen mom shared the following evaluation on a course I was teaching: “It was good for the part I was woke.” Considering the timing of the evaluation and the place at which I was, in all probability, it was written because she was an exhausted and overwhelmed young mother who had to sit through a very dry and boring course and not a response to social justice issues. As being woke has become a polarizing discussion point among politicians and representatives from mainstream and social media outlets, it has caused me to revisit that long ago critique.
At the time of receiving it, I was a registered nurse working as a patient educator for a county hospital. I was 30 years old, single, and living alone in a comfortable one-bedroom apartment. My residency was nestled in a mix of multi dwelling-complexes and individual family homes occupied by young married and single professionals. I was within walking distance of a myriad of dining, entertainment, and shopping venues. This was in stark contrast to the neighborhood of my 15-year-old student. She lived in a decaying part of Fort Worth, TX where crime, substance abuse, and many single-parent households abounded. She was part of an initiative by the county hospital and local school district to support teen mothers in their parenting role while finishing high school. For one semester, I taught the weekly class on various health topics related to infant care.
In retrospect, I am ashamed to admit there was little I knew about her. Despite her faithfully attending the class and sitting in the front row, I knew her name and propensity for dozing during class. Although the end-of-course evaluations were anonymous I recognized her distinct loopy scrawl from previously written assignments I had graded.
During those weekly sessions, it never occurred to me to inquire about how she and her baby were faring or even what her baby’s name was. Instead, I simply focused on delivering the information I had prepared. While lingering after class might have afforded opportunities to become better acquainted with her and her classmates, I had an assortment of reasons to avoid doing so. One is the frequently cited and vacuous excuse of being too busy. There were always pending appointments or time constraints because of other assignments.
Another reason was my fear of exposure for not being a content expert. My then-decade-long nursing experience consisted of attending to adults with medical and/or surgical healthcare needs. Thus, my single qualification, having an open time slot for the weekly class, was in contrast to two qualified colleagues both having scheduling conflicts. As any good interloper does I showed up weekly, followed my carefully scripted lecture notes, and promptly bolted from the room the moment class ended. The quick departure prevented any free-flowing conversations which could have unmasked my guise.
A third more compelling reason was having limited emotional bandwidth related to a broken engagement occurring shortly before the teaching assignment started. After five years together and within 10 days of our wedding, my fiancé abruptly ended the relationship after meeting his soul mate in a bar. Notifying the 150-plus guests and canceling all the wedding plans left me emotionally spent. As the semester wore on, my bandwidth continued to be stretched as I became consumed with figuring out my future now that it was going in a divergent direction from what was hoped and planned for.
Eventually, the final day of class arrived and my time with the students ended with no fanfare — only a hurried goodbye. I never saw the young mom or any of her classmates again. The passage of time permitted for regrouping and refocusing. I relocated to a different city and transitioned into an assortment of healthcare positions including teaching nursing in academic settings. Subsequent course evaluations from students over the ensuing years have been a compilation of the helpful, positive, and puzzling. However, the one by the teen mom remains my most amusing and unusual one. Except for occasionally sharing this evaluation as a humorous tale, I spent little time thinking about the critique or wondering what ever happened to my former student until recently.
First, I am astonished by how fluid language is, for within a short span of time words take on a different context. Explanations of the social and scientific process of how words evolve and change are best left to linguists and those knowledgeable in social engineering. What I appreciate is how once mundane words like “woke” evolve into ones capable of provoking fear and anger, even becoming weaponized. It makes me appreciate how the fluidity of the meaning of words is linked to our perceptions, mindsets, and shared experiences as a community.
Recently, social and mainstream media have broadened my connections with the word “woke” in considering its context in reference to social justice. Thus, I no longer think of it as limited to the dictionary definition of arousal from slumber or being used by a bored and overwhelmed teen mom to provide an amusing description of a very blandly taught course. Just as I was unqualified to teach baby basics all of those years ago, I have no expertise to resolve current social justice concerns. For optimal outcomes, that is best left to those who have education, experience, and strong convictions to resolve. Yet, something about the word woke — regardless of the context — might be helpful to encourage positive interactions with those around us. What opportunities — not only in that long-ago classroom — but in the years since have I missed out on gaining new understanding and insight into someone when our paths intersect? Opting to cease focusing on the task at hand and be too distracted with my own life to pause and become more aware of others’ situations, thoughts, and circumstances might be an enriching experience.
One benefit is recognizing commonalities shared by individuals. A superficial conclusion made all of those years ago was that a chasm instead of commonalities existed between the teen mothers and me. We differed in socioeconomic situations, backgrounds, resources, and age. But in recent reflections about the time spent in that long-ago classroom, I identified an overlooked commonality. Specifically, we shared the experience of feeling your life trajectory is now totally blown off course. This is a commonality and not a comparison of one person’s circumstances being more compelling or having more challenges to navigate than someone else’s. It is instead recognizing that although someone’s circumstances differ from your own, there can be shared emotions, concerns, and fears. Whether the cause is a broken engagement, unplanned pregnancy, or a multitude of other reasons, there is something unsettling and scary when finding yourself in a place you never expected to be. I regret the lost opportunity for making a connection that may have helped my young students and me to be encouraged and feel less alone. Although nothing rectifies a lost chance, I can choose from this point forward to intentionally look for commonalities with those whom I share time and space with. This entails deciding to not be so absorbed with affairs within my own life. Plus, I can resolve to take more than just a precursory glance before deciding I have nothing in common with someone.
Taking the time to search for commonalities with someone could result in the identification of some of their remarkable qualities. Thinking back, I overlooked the generosity and leniency expressed by the teen mom in her critique of my lackluster classroom presentation style. Despite my unenthusiastic approach and subject matter inadequacies, she managed to put a positive spin on the situation. Although it is years too late to discover other remarkable qualities of my favorite evaluator or of those of the other young moms from that season, I can start this practice henceforth with others’ whose paths I cross. This needs to include those I feel differ from me in circumstances, backgrounds, and/or beliefs. Instead of thinking of all of the ways we differ, what if I choose to notice and applaud someone’s enthusiasm, boldness, and passion for what they believe in — even if it is radically different than mine?
Identifying commonalities and remarkable qualities of those whose lives intersect with our own requires a willingness to pause and listen. What if I had chosen to linger a few minutes after class, willingly listened, and showed interest in my students as opposed to hiding behind reasons such as busyness, fear of exposing inadequacies, or limited emotional bandwidth? Did I miss out on being encouraging and supportive of those during a challenging season of their lives? Also, what lessons might I have learned about tenacity, resiliency, and other amazing attributes if I had taken the time to really listen and learn more about the young women in my classroom? In the years since, where have I missed out on gaining insight into someone’s thoughts, beliefs and actions because of failing to pause and listen?
Although the class ended years ago, it is equally humbling and enlightening to pause and reflect on what is garnered when revisiting long-ago experiences. The lost opportunities for connecting with and conveying a genuine interest in those students are an impetus to acting differently towards those encountered in my daily comings and goings from this point forward. Whether future encounters are limited to a few minutes or are on a recurring basis, each potentially is a chance for making amazing connections with others; especially those who at first glance appear to be so different than me. This plan begins with taking time to show interest and genuinely listen. Perhaps nothing will come of the encounter except allowing the chance to communicate that they matter and what they have to say matters. Still, in doing so, I may just find my perception and understanding of the world around me is widened just a bit more.•