Sunday, December 14, 2014

An Open Letter to My Students

A lot of you know that up until Friday I worked for two universities: my alma mater, a state school, and a tiny private Bible college. In January, I will only be working at one of these institutions. What follows is an open letter to the students I’m leaving, as it is important to me that they know why I can’t be there for them in January.

Dear Students,

Now that you’ve turned in your finals and we’ve wrapped up all of our debates (Resolved; the installation of toilet paper is not a good argument paper topic) and played our last round of grammar trivia (did you spend all of your homework passes?) it’s time for me to share the news that this is the end. When you return from break, I won’t be there to complete in Comp II the work we began this semester in Comp I.  I won’t be there for the dozen of you who made it through my Basic English this fall, to help you find your voices and become strong academic writers.

What you didn’t know was that late this semester I was working my way through a process to leave the ranks of adjunct teaching to fill an imminent vacancy for a full time English professor. A real one-woman show. These were the days when you were asking me questions about why you didn’t have access to better research sources and why the course sequencing didn’t follow a logical path and I told you—barely able to mask the excitement in my voice—that things were beginning to change.

This was the time you saw me a bit more around campus and some of you ate with me in the dining hall or sat with me in the lounge and you told me how cool it was that I was “starting to hang out” with you. I thought it was cool, too. In fact, I was already mentally decorating the office where we were going to enjoy weekly coffee bars, tutoring sessions, and a revolving open door ethos of conversation and encouragement. It was an exciting time.

Then something went wrong.

I was told that one of the last steps in the hiring process was to read and support a recently drafted marriage and sexuality statement. And that’s how I became a happily married suburban mom who was denied employment over an issue of sexuality.

When a tiny Christian school determines that the time has come to issue a statement on such subject matter, they want to make sure the result has some muscle; that the verbiage was crafted by people who know black from white, and are adept at spotting the taint of grey when they see it.

These statements are typically thorough, with a tendency to read like a who’s who list of sexual deviance; a catalogue of possible ills. Words like “repugnant” are bandied about.

I read this particular statement with a sinking feeling that settled in the depths of my gut. I didn’t need to think it over because to my eyes the document—literally a black and white treatise—appeared as one big blob of grey.

They were expecting wholehearted endorsement, to stand with them in confidently labeling the entire catalog of variant human conditions as sin. But I couldn’t. See, every item listed represents the state of a struggling human; someone dealing with issues I do not know enough about to simply judge with a nod of assent.

So I gave the only true answer I could.

I said I didn’t know.

I said that in a world where genetics has changed to the tune of one in 100 births (about the same incidence as the birth of a redhead) resulting in some variation of gender difference beyond the male/female lines with which we’re comfortable –that I don’t know where the line is between “holy” and “unwholesome.”

I said I didn’t know if someone who was born female, looks female and feels female is doomed to a life of celibacy when a routine marriage blood test turns up a (surprise!) Y chromosome.

I said I don’t know exactly what God expects from someone who was born ‘clearly” female but sprouts testicles and a penis in adolescence.

I said that not only did I not know—I was OK with not knowing because God didn’t give me the job to know, but to love. I said that my job was to guide people closer to Christ so they could work the details out with him.

Everyone assumed I must have misunderstood. After all, no good Christian mom sending her own son through Bible College could really “not know” her stance on such a key issue. So they spent some time “exploring” the issues with me, and asked me to try again.

I said I still didn’t know.

And because I don’t know, I can’t be your teacher any more.

I can’t learn from your stories (because, statistically, even at this tiny, tiny school, some of you are dealing with issues from the Catalogue of Ills, alone, in pain, and desperate for a listening ear).

Because I don’t know enough about your specific deviation from the norm to label and judge it, we can’t sort it out together. I can’t bring you into my office and give you a cup of hot chocolate, and tell you that it’s going to be okay, that I know it will be because God made you and loves you just the way you are. I can’t tell you that even though I don’t know exactly what God wants for your future, I know that if you seek him first with all of your heart you will find your answers and whatever they are they will bring you joy.

I can’ t offer you this type of comfort and support because everyone is afraid.

Your school does not know how to handle these realities, so they are joining the stampede of Christian organizations pounding a path of retreat from issues that challenge our traditional understanding of sexuality and fortifying themselves behind walls of impenetrable statements.

But this very wall is the thing that makes me not afraid any more. I know that as more and more Christian institutions succumb to the pressure of issuing formal statements of stance, that it is unlikely that I will ever work in a Christian environment again. I reek now of compromise, of weakness. I represent The Thing everyone is running from.

Please don’t misunderstand: your school did nothing wrong in not hiring me. I support their freedom to hire or fire on the basis of anything they deem important: I vehemently support that right. What I am saying is that I find it very sad that this is the issue they have chosen adopt as a line-in-the-sand-you’re-with-us-or-against-us matter of policy.

I am sad for you, and I am sad for me, because we are all lesser for it.

And there’s nothing I can do but work outside the system, now, as a voice who now knows, first hand, the pain of being refused employment for something I just can’t change.


Joanne Tanner said...

Gut-wrenching to say the least. I am so sorry that you're going through this. I have experienced MANY of these same situations, except most of mine were centered around whether the Bible excluded me from any sort of ministry because I wasn't born a male. Nevertheless, I am thankful that God has placed some of these "grays" in my life because they have made my life that much less judgmental. Sadly, Christians have all-too-often been taught to, and perpetuated the belief of, exclusionism. Thank you for being inclusionary. You're so beautiful.

Cynthia Davis said...

Thank you, Joanne. Grey (and I'll always spell it in the British way due to my childhood literary influences) is a real color. I am not afraid of it.


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