Faculty Life Family

Navigation Lessons: 1

On the wall in my home office is a frame approximately 4 feet by 3 feet that contains yellowed paper. From a distance, most assume it is a map, but the crinkled chart shows no countries or continents, no North and South Poles, only points drawn and connected by compass and ruler. It’s a navigation plot my dad made when he and his ship were literally lost at sea during World War II. The encouraging inscriptions from his shipmates are now faded and almost indecipherable, but the chart reassures me. And although it isn’t beautiful and doesn’t really go with my office decor, I keep it as a reminder of how to get back on course when I feel somehow “off the map.”  

Our University has been in uncharted waters for almost a year now, sometimes straight on course and sometimes seemingly adrift. I think frequently of a book called “Canoeing the Mountains,” which explores the Lewis and Clark journey as a metaphor of what it takes to move through an unimagined landscape. That expedition relied on canoes to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. But when the expedition approached the Rocky Mountains, their canoes did them no good, and they were forced to use other tools and training. In many ways, life at UNC has been like that. In my roles on this campus, I have had to learn what skills and tools are useful and which to leave on the shelf. 

In my first internship, still a “baby” social worker (I was 22), I began learning what it meant to really listen. Like most lessons that actually stick, it was born out of a mistake. A second-grade teacher in the elementary school I was working in was frustrated by a child in her class who would not stop crying. I desperately wanted to prove that I was useful and could help her bring her class back to a steady state. 

The student, all of seven years old, accepted the puppet I offered her. After a little warm up, I asked good open-ended questions: What is the classroom like? Tell me about crying in school. Can you tell me what has made you unhappy in school? I was expecting to hear about bullying classmates or difficulty with the teacher. So focused was I on my own assumptions that I completely missed what she was talking about: a missing bed and a dog puppet that needed a doghouse. She kept on with the dog and his missing furniture, but by the end of our time together, I still had no clarity, no strategy to fix the situation and was as frustrated as the teacher. Several days later, when the child had not come back to school, I learned her family had been evicted and dispersed to who knows where. The dog actually had no doghouse. The bed was actually missing. I was devastated and ashamed when I realized I had missed her message completely, listening only for the literal, looking for a quick fix answer to give her teacher.  

In addition to missing the symbolism of the child’s play, I failed to see myself as working for the student; I saw myself as working for the teacher. The teacher’s concerns about classroom management were foremost in my mind, and though I remember being moved by the child’s tears and concerned for her, the real empathy that undergirds deep listening was not there. She was a problem to be solved, not a person to be heard. 

After that, I began to listen differently, to discern more than one layer of meaning at a time. I got clear on who I was serving and comfortable pushing back against those who thought I should be working for them instead. Little by little, I also learned to notice when I was missing something, some message that because of my personal blind spots or other challenges eluded me. Another lesson, this time in the form of a teenage girl, taught me to pay attention to any gnawing sense that something didn’t connect and to take action to find the missing link. 

About four years after the puppets, I was working with teenagers in Baltimore, many of whom pregnant. I remember a young woman, maybe 16, who wanted to continue her pregnancy. She lived with her brothers and her grandmother, who had accompanied her to the clinic and were affectionate and supportive. I helped get her to a prenatal clinic and thought that was that. Except that she came back – not once, not twice, but three times to sit my office and say virtually nothing. By this time, I was not such a baby social worker. I knew exactly who I worked for; I was not trying to please her family or the medical team. She was the center and I paid attention.  

“What have you been thinking about since you last came in?”    Nothing.  

“Still feeling like you made the right decision?”         Yes.

“Want to tell me about the father?”             No, just a boy I know.

I made statements hoping she might have a reaction to them. 

“Some girls make a decision that they think they’re happy with but then they change their mind and they don’t know what to do.”           No response.

I asked questions that were completely leading. 

“Did someone do something that you didn’t want them to do?”  Absolutely not.

I told her I was here for her and to call or come back whenever she wanted.   Thank you.

She would leave, only to return a day or two after that. 

I knew I was asking the wrong questions but couldn’t think of what else to ask. I called in reinforcements – a psychiatrist who had 20-some years of experience to my two or three. She went back to the beginning as I listened. Who did the young woman live with? Grandmother and brothers. Where was her mother? (I’d never asked that question.) Dead. How long? 18 months. How did the young woman feel? Terrible. She wanted to be with her mother. How could she do that? By killing herself. With what? The gun on her grandmother’s closet shelf.  We hospitalized her that afternoon. 

I was wracked with guilt that I’d missed a basic and critical question. In the community where I was working, many children and teens were living with their grandparents, their parents lost to the crack epidemic. It was so common that, as long as the grandparents were involved and caring, I sometimes didn’t ask about the actual parents because I thought I knew the answer and because I wanted to spare people having to discuss something many considered shameful. This young woman, who went on to have a successful pregnancy and birth and later brought her little girl to visit me often, might have lost her life to the grief and depression that enveloped her because of the assumptions I made and the questions I failed to ask.

As I second guessed my abilities, my colleague was gentle and understanding. She trusted you. She knew you’d find a way to help her if she kept coming back and you did. You learned something. Next time, you’ll know something that you didn’t know this time. This is what happens to those of us who “practice on people” as we develop in our careers. You were right to ask for help.  

I’ve learned a lot since I was a 22-year-old MSW student. It has taken many years and mistakes—fortunately most of them less dramatic than these examples—to learn how to connect, listen, seek help, and stay focused on who or what really matters in any given situation. I still stumble and seek out guidance and encouragement when I feel challenged. But now I know that when I am in deep water and off the map, there are no leadership tricks or gimmicks that will truly illuminate the way. When crisis comes, I will, as the saying goes, default to my training, leaning hard into those formative moments, remembering those early teachers and tough lessons. When I do this, my own version of rulers and compass emerge, the tools I need to chart the right course.

My boys covet my father’s navigation chart, seeing it as a relic of war, adventure, and heroism. Some day they will decide where it should hang, but for now it belongs with me. Like my sons, I think of my dad as a hero too. He saved his ship when it was lost at sea. It seemed miraculous, but it was the product of preparation; he had taken his training seriously, not knowing exactly when he would need it most. He had practiced those calculations, learned every constellation in the night sky, aimed the sextant at the horizon day after day. When it became clear that his superiors did not know what they were doing and the ship was in peril, his actions were not extraordinary, although his grace under pressure probably was. He simply defaulted to his training, used the tools that had been with him all along, and found his way.  

Photo Credit: Mimi V. Chapman

Faculty Life Miscellaneous

A Room of My own: another Virus Diary

The first time I had my own apartment was in graduate school in Austin. I remember the feeling of organizing the space to my, and only my, liking. My very small kitchen with magnets holding “quotable quotes” that I did not want to forget, a kitchen table where I could drink as much coffee as I wanted, a refrigerator to fill with food that I wanted to eat. My desk in the window bay that looked out on no view whatsoever, a bedroom decorated with cheap prints of my choosing and piled with books I wanted to read. Exhilarating. 

When we all came home last March to live and work, I set up shop in our bedroom. I already had a small desk there next to a window overlooking the backyard, where I might write thank you notes or manage my father’s affairs when he was alive. I could close the door and be undisturbed. That seemed the logical space to locate my work life. By July I had added a second desk, a ring light, some filing baskets, and a new office chair. When my husband began scheduling a 20-minute interval between my morning zoom calls to take a shower, I found myself thinking about the proverbial room of my own. Perhaps the guest room? But for months, I put it off. Too much trouble, what if someone wanted to come visit, did I really need it? It had been so long since I had “my own space” outside of my office on campus, just the idea felt self-indulgent. 

When I was younger, I had a few other apartments of my own–one in Washington D.C. had the Rear Window effect sans the courtyard and the missing dog. There I bought the first furniture I ever chose for myself, an impractical white love seat and an IKEA dresser with its dreaded pictorial directions and the little wrench. There was a woman who also lived there and sat in the lobby for much of the day talking always about how she was from New Hampshire and the state we call home is “the most important thing.” Later, there was the relief of moving into my own apartment here in Chapel Hill as I separated from an ex, someone who wanted to control everything from the temperature in the house to whether or not we could buy a blender. I was so thankful just to be warm in the winter, to have the thermostat and the appliances under my own control. 

So when a friend texted my husband saying he’d seen our bedroom on the local news (after I had given a Zoom interview from my desk there) and I realized the last thing I saw before bed and the first upon waking was work, I told my husband I thought I should make a change.  Apparently, he had thought it was a good idea all along; he started orchestrating the move upstairs to the guest room that afternoon.

With hardly any effort, this room looks and feels like so many that have been mine throughout my life. The walls are an off-white with a slightly pinkish cast, a butterfly quilt made for me by my grandmother covers the bed, my mother’s Florentine night table is here, along with two shelves filled with books that range from my great grandmother’s “Book of Spells” that I discovered in an old trunk when I was in the 8th grade to poetry I came to know in a favorite college class. There are a few mementos of my father’s, offerings from my children, and a mug my husband brought me from a long-ago trip now filled with pencils. Once again, the pictures on the wall are of my choosing. There are fresh flowers in a vase and I’ve taken to burning a candle while I’m working to add calm in the midst of the daily storms.

I’ve not had “a room of my own” since my children were born, almost 20 years ago now. Every morning during this pandemic, I wake up thankful that my children are no longer small. The idea of managing their schooling, changing diapers, keeping them entertained, as well as clean and fed all day, every day while maintaining a demanding career would send me into despair. As much as I loved my children when they were little and as much as I found them delightfully round and funny, if given the chance, I would return to those days for only a sweet hour or two. Those years were so hard even with lots of great babysitters and a great partner. My husband has been a fully engaged parent since day one. I remember conference calls while pushing one son in a swing, being called to pre-school to take my other son home because he was a biter. (BTW, don’t worry too much if you are the mother of a biter. Your child is not a serial killer in the making.)  I remember my husband and I trading off a feverish little person so that we could get the grant in, teach the class, or show our faces at some all-important meeting. I really cannot imagine what parents of young children, and particularly mothers, are enduring right now. In academia, the current state of affairs threatens progress for women for the next ten years.

Like everything else, the pandemic has exposed the ways in which so many of us scramble to make our lives work. Everything goes perfectly, as long as everything goes perfectly. And now we are far, far away from perfection. 

Men who contribute to parenting are seen as heroes, but not so for moms, even though they are most often the default for sorting out their children’s schooling, meals, the doctor, the dentist, the therapist, the elder care…I’m sure there’s more I’m forgetting. There is always more. And we are told in ways subtle and not so, that we are not to ask for too much more. Over the years, more than one person has said to me that when I spoke of the complications of working while having children or caring for elders that I was implicitly “devaluing other people’s stress.”  These comments were made by people taking care of no one but themselves at the time. I’ve been “affirmed” by highly productive men whose wives stayed home with their children, explaining to me how they understood exactly what I was going through, though not for a minute adjusting their expectations for productivity. Over time, I made two choices in response: to always mention whatever was going on with my children so that people could not pretend that I and other women colleagues existed in a vacuum where motherhood was somehow conveniently managed out of sight. I also chose not to “complain.” I did not want to give anyone an excuse to write off reality because they had decided I was “too difficult.” I still don’t know whether or not these were the right choices. 

There is a picture I keep on one of the now three desks in this room – not of my family – but of me as a senior in college. My dad kept it on his desk next to a little koala bear I had given him for father’s day that year. It is not something I would ever keep in a professional office, but I keep it here. In it, I see both who I was and who I am. The mix of objects in this room grounds me in the midst of complicated choices and difficult days, acknowledges the expectations I’ve had for myself and those put on me by others. 

I am lucky to have a room of my own. I see it as such a gift, a necessity and a luxury all at the same time. I am thankful that I have it and I wish it for other women, perhaps especially for those who are juggling so much right now. For years, I have been making space for other people. But this room has been here all along waiting for an occasion for me to claim it. The pandemic has given me permission to do that. Did I need that permission? Apparently so, but I wonder why.

While I figure it out, I’ll light my candle and do my work, smile at the memories that surround me, wish for more time to return to those poetry books, and mark my new space as a win during this pandemic, a gift I’ve given myself out of necessity, but one I should’ve claimed a long time ago.  

Current Events Faculty Life Family

Hey 19

Road maps, off ramps, anxiety, hope, trust, and distrust in equal measure characterize the current mood at UNC. Even as we believe our colleagues in epidemiology, virology, and infectious disease, when they tell us that strict masking, distancing, and hand hygiene can allow for a residential semester on campus, we are deeply distrustful of 19, my shortcut for describing our undergraduate students, most between 18 and 21. They come from all over the country, not merely to get a degree, but to transform and, in so doing, to transform us.  What happens on a college campus is a sort of magical alchemy when the classroom combines with other active elements: the dorm room conversation, dinner with friends in the dining hall, the walk across campus with a classmate, the after class conversation with a professor, or a late-night talk under a starry sky. I well remember 19.

Passport photos, when you were still allowed to smile!

At nineteen I saw my first glimpses of who I would become. I was a sophomore in college and on a lark volunteered for an afterschool program for kids living in nearby housing projects. It was my first recognition of systemic racism, although it would be years before I knew or understood that term. The experience interacted with a sociology class I was taking about social stratification. Because of the classroom, I saw my volunteer experience differently. The head and the heart began to intersect in ways that would lead me to my later career path. That same year, I fell in love and when I took that young man home to meet my parents at a special restaurant for dinner, I had glimpse, although fleeting, of what it would feel like to be part of a grown-up couple equal with my parents, friends instead of subordinates.  By that summer, still 19, I studied abroad, after a heart break from which I thought I’d never recover. I had no enthusiasm for the trip wanting only to wallow in my misery. Yet, as I headed toward the gate, luggage checked, passport at the ready, my mother told me I’d never be the same. She was right. That summer I learned that the world is big, wonderful, and curious. My professors, ostensibly teaching me Spanish, taught me that I was following a “good girls’ script” when I regularly deferred to my male classmates in class discussion. They urged me to find my voice and use it. I’m still working on the Spanish, but the other lesson, I’ve learned pretty well.

James Chapman, Officer of the Deck, LST 222

My father was 19 when he went to war. Upon receipt of his draft letter, he requested and was admitted into the V-7 program that allowed him to finish college as long as he took courses that the Navy required of him. At 19, my dad had never left his home state of Missouri except to cross the Arkansas or Oklahoma border on occasion for a basketball game. His family meals consisted of whatever was fresh on the farm and the catch from the nearby river where he and his brothers loved to fish. At midshipman’s school at Columbia University, he met a fellow 19 in his barracks. An Italian, Catholic boy from Brooklyn whose family invited my father home for a meal so foreign, yet delicious he remembers it to this day. After a send-off at Riverside Church, he marched down 5th Avenue and was sent on to join the Pacific fleet.  He and his shipmates and the Marines they carried, would secure the Marshal Islands while under fire for two years. They would repair their bombed ship with whatever they had at hand.  As 19 turned to 20, my father took full responsibility for navigation when it became clear that the ship was dreadfully off course and that the head navigator could not do the necessary calculations to figure out, quite literally, where in the world they were. Together with so many other 19’s, 17’s, 18’s, and 20’s, they secured your freedom and mine.

Then there is the 19 that currently lives in my house. When we all came home in March for the lock down, he spent the first few days irritable, hard to be around. I remember breathing deeply and contemplating what a long quarantine it was going to be. I should know by now that these moods in my 19 generally mask a deep worry. Finally, he spoke. “Mom, if you and dad get sick and are in the hospital, how do I take care of C… [referring to his younger brother.]” My moody 19 was not grousing about the days lost with his friends on campus. He feared his ability to meet the moment if he had to. A few weeks ago, he announced his intention to protest the murders of George Floyd, Ahmad Aubry, and Breonna Taylor. My husband, who has taken our son to marches since he was 5, was livid. How could our 19 choose to risk our safety this way in a pandemic? Let’s take his car. Drain his bank account. Make him sleep in a tent in the backyard. As mothers do, I stopped my own yelling and jumped, figuratively, between son and father. Remember 19, I said to my husband. He only sees the need for justice. He can’t see your fear. He knows this is his generation’s moment to stand up and be counted. Try to be compassionate toward him.  He’s just 19.

In some ways what I’ve written makes the case that so many of my contemporaries have put forward. We cannot rely on 19 to understand risk and to behave in ways that mitigate it, wear their masks, social distance, and skip the big party. But in other ways, 19 sees what 45, 55, 65 plus cannot. Nineteen sees the future that should be, nineteen sees that the generations behind them have missed the mark. Nineteen sees that unless they carry the torch no one else will and it is then that 19 steps up, in protest to tell us we must be better than we’ve been, in kindness and concern for the responsibilities they may have to carry before their time, and to use the knowledge we give them on campus perhaps to save us all.  Two nights ago, at dinner, my almost 14 said something silly about wearing a mask.  It was 19 that piped up and told him, “Wearing a mask is an act of altruism. You do it because you care about other people.”

Well said, 19. See you on campus.