Saturday, April 13, 2019

"don't cross the streams"

I made this ridiculously heavy sculpture in grad school.  I made it in my dad's welding shop an hour and a half away from campus where it was to be installed.  I wondered how I was going to get it there and pick it up to anchor it into the ground and my dad said he'd just throw it on the big trailer along with the fork lift and we'd drive it over.  Then we'd have the fork lift there to lift it up.  Easy.  Or easy if you happen to have access to a big trailer and a fork lift.  (Re-reading that makes me smile realizing just how awesome my dad was.)

We drove up onto the front lawn of the well-manicured university.  We unloaded the fork lift, then the sculpture and had it installed in minutes.  This was all normal.  All my life I had been doing things like this with my dad.  I had been driving a fork lift for many years, just not on my college campus.  So while it was normal activity, it was not the normal setting for the activity.  And when my sculpture professor walked out to see the sculpture, it started to feel weird.  I introduced my dad to my professor.  They shared a couple of words.  I honestly couldn't get out of there fast enough.  

It took several years for me to understand this feeling.  I loved my dad and was proud of him.  I liked and respected my professor.  They both said nice things to each other about me.  But it was weird.  It was like in Ghostbusters when they keep saying all through the movie that you have to make sure you keep the two streams separated.  Never let them cross.  "It would be bad", Venkman said.    

This happened to one of my students recently and in conversation it sort of came up.  This time I was the professor in the equation but I could totally understand the student's perspective.  You move away and you have these two lives.  Your home life with your family and friends and your school life with your school people.  You decide when to leave one and go exist in the other.  It's weird when the two mix.  

As a professor, particularly a professor with a commute, this is still a thing I deal with from time to time.  I have a life at home with my people on nights and weekends.  And a totally separate life with my other people during the school day.  Text messages are pretty much the only way those two mix on a daily basis.  And that's a very controlled mixing. 

This time of each semester, my home family gets the short end of the stick.  On Sculpture Deathmatch day, I was at school from 8am to 11pm on a Saturday.  Blue had to attend the Film Festival that night, and he wanted to attend the workshops during the day as well.  This created an opportunity for the streams to cross.  From 10am until the after party, G, Blue and Violet were on or around campus.  During part of that time, one or all of them were in the studio hanging out.  I'm betting that seemed weird to some of the students.  I got a kick out of Nick showing me a text message from his friend Amber.  Everyone calls me "McAbee" and since they never have to address G in normal life...when the streams cross there's an awkward pause as they try to figure out what to call her.  Nick had respectfully referred to her as "Mrs. McAbee" in the text and Amber's response was laughter.  I get it.  It's weird.  G would have accepted "Mrs. McAbee" but only grudgingly.  She says it makes her feel old and she prefers Georgie.  But then that's weird for students who think the first name doesn't show respect.  

There have been other ways recently when the streams have crossed in one direction or the other.  A student was present recently when Violet and I got out of a car and walked down a street.  Violet's natural movement when walking beside me is to grab my hand and hold it as we walk.  To see the loud, skull-loving sculpture professor holding hands with his adorable daughter must have been a lot to process.  

My sculpture professor mentioned above, my mentor, was a loud, strong British guy.  He had a big presence.  On good days he'd commend you and tell you to get back to work and do even more.  On bad days he'd shout and maybe curse a little and tell you to get back to work and do even more...but he'd do it with that cool accent that made it sound better and worse all at once.  While I was in grad school, he and his wife had a daughter and the first time I saw her toddling around campus with him chasing after her, it was a life altering experience.  His voice was soft.  He was happy.  He was a dad.  It changed how I saw him as a human.  It also changed how I considered the things he said.  He was no longer just a teacher shouting instructions.  He was a human who knew things that I didn't know and he cared about me enough to yell at me so I didn't screw up.  

At the end of Ghostbusters, it turns out that crossing the streams is the solution to a very big, very marshmallowy problem.  It's not comfortable to cross the streams, but nothing worthwhile is ever comfortable, right?  Maybe it's good for teachers to see their students' other lives.  To see where they came from, what produced them.  To let professors tell parents how intelligent and talented their kids are.  And maybe it's good for students to see their teachers as humans with wives and husbands and kids and dogs and fish.  And for families to see the room full of lives their teacher-family member has the opportunity to impact in some small way.  Maybe it helps them understand the investment of time.  Or the sacrifice of time on their part. 

If you're a student, I'd suggest if you find yourself in such a position, that you address the kids, dogs and fish by their first names.  Maybe use a Mr. or Mrs. with the spouse and let them tell you what they're comfortable with.  If you ever run into my wife, she prefers Georgie.  I'm sure she's heard stories about you. 

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