In July 2021, I received a crying emoji text that, in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have deleted.
It came from the spouse of a former boss. This person was hurt by a personal essay I had written. They followed up the image with a message indicating that they would reach out to me at some point in the future for a healing.
The essay was my account of years dealing with racial micro (and some macro) aggressions in higher education. From feedback I had received during Black History Month stating that programs I developed had not done enough to highlight white culture, to years of pay inequity and leadership failures, I had stacked up enough reasons to think my relationship with higher education was not working out. I wrote the essay as part of a big decision to take a step back and walk away from 16 years of full-time work in the sector.
With that personal essay published and some consulting gigs planned, I did just that — walked away.
Consulting work was fun and engaging. I taught part-time and got incredible fulfillment from that work. I also took much-needed time to address and care for my physical health. I did not save that crying emoji text and I did not feel a sense of duty to heal anyone but myself.
That year of living and working in a different way was well spent. Before then, my self care was a chore list at best and inauthentic at worst. I changed that in 2021. There have been hiccups along the way and, of course, disappointing things I thought were unfair. Being an entrepreneur meant I didn’t get to sit too long in those disappointments or quibble with people about what was true, fair or just in my work with them. I had to deposit the check, say my goodbyes and recognize that somewhere out there was another client waiting for me. It was invigorating.
I joined a small business development program for minoritized entrepreneurs and basked in the thrill of creating something sustainable as an independent scholar.
I also went back to mourning the unexpected and untimely 2016 death of my mother, which happened days before I was set to take comprehensive exams for a doctoral degree. I received the phone call about her passing while I was in the university library studying. While I did go on to earn that degree, the fact that this accomplishment was so connected to the trauma of losing my mother wasn’t something I had given myself extra space to process.
Perhaps most importantly, I dove deep into the work that has always been my home: writing. I wrote more about my experiences. I went to writing festivals and workshops in a variety of settings. I read whatever felt best in my soul and I reached out to the authors to tell them when something they wrote had taken up residence in my spirit. After all, books are what led me to this career in the first place.
What led me back, you ask?
Then in July 2022, almost exactly one year after I said goodbye to academia, I made a decision to go back.
Earlier that summer I had taught a program development course for folks who were working toward degrees that would solidify their already extensive praxis in community engagement. I enjoyed my time in that course so much that when an opportunity was presented to join the faculty full-time, I steadied my nerves through every keystroke of a CV revision and applied.
Concerned that my honest essay writing would have cast me as an antagonist, I had a lot of worries about reigniting this area of my career and I was not at all sure I would get an offer. It would not have surprised me if I had received a crying emoji in response to my cover letter. But I got an offer to return to academia and begin anew.
When classes started that August and the university geared up for a new year of curriculum development, administrative challenges, and calls for innovative solutions, I immediately felt my old self leaping inside. I knew I had made the right decision coming back.
I also knew that something had changed about how I was showing up. Was this the same hesitation one has after a breakup-and-make-up situation? Should it be?
I found myself rethinking the depth of my relationship with higher education, and the proverbial record scratched. Thinking about my career choice in this way was my original wrong turn. The words of Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom play over in my mind as I make this connection: “Institutions cannot love you.”
The reality: I could not break up with the institution of higher education, because it was never my partner. The breakup I needed was never with higher education. It was with the idea that progress is a static thing. Anywhere. It isn’t. If Coretta Scott King could feel this way and make a point of telling future generations that we would be faced with earning and winning freedom all over again, then I certainly should not imagine complete freedom appearing in my life.
Once I looked at things this way, I could begin building or re-building something beautiful in this space.
So, can you go home again?
As I slowly reconnect with colleagues, especially ones who showed me love in the face of all that roughness, I am noticing that where I expected a chastising or a smirking “I knew she’d be back” look, what I have gotten is gratitude, acceptance, and understanding.
I recently attended an event at a former place of employment that felt, at the time, like the epicenter of racial aggressions I had experienced. But all around me at that event were people working to push back against that racism. The energy I felt as I moved around that space and hugged former colleagues was something you might expect from a family reunion. One person asked me what I was doing now, and upon hearing the news looked warmly at me and declared, “That would make a great new story.” Point taken, friend.
So I have been an assistant professor teaching courses on community engagement, leadership and innovation for a little over a year now. I ask myself how well I’m doing at keeping those three themes in the forefront of my work here. I celebrate the fact that I am still a person who loves watching students have the best educational experiences possible. And I enjoy building relationships with people in ways that are focused on what we can accomplish, rather than lamenting the ones with people playing into the hands of disempowerment.
Soon it will be finals season, a point of high alert in the typical 16-week semester when many folks will feel like they have something to prove. Students proving the grade they want is the grade they should get. Instructors proving we have actually taught someone something, somehow. For me, too, this is a season of proving — not that I made a good decision, but that I still understand that the assignment was always to make space for listening, learning and freedom.
I haven’t heard from that spouse about the healing they wanted to have. I hope they got whatever it was they needed. I hope they, too, have a great new work-life story in which there are no metaphors of breakups, conscious uncouplings or disentanglements — just conscious commitment to personal and professional joy in the mission of higher learning.
Tahirah Walker is a writer and a teacher, creating her liberation story in the Pittsburgh area. If you want to send a message to Tahirah, email email@example.com.
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