When people ask/tell me: “If you don’t like your job/how you’re paid/ whatever, why don’t you just quit and go work in the private sector?” I am sometimes hard-pressed not to smack their smug faces.
I teach for the same reason people go into mission work: I was called.
I’m not a religious person–I have no affiliation and I’m outright suspicious of the orthodoxy I see in some Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Their way is the only way to live a good life, apparently; I just don’t happen to agree. I know many good Christians, Muslims, and Jews–people who live their lives with compassion, and practice kindnesses small and large. I just mistrust the motives of the people in charge of the churches/mosques/synagogues.
I’ve tried to follow the Buddha, but I don’t have patience. Yes, I know, I could learn patience. It just takes too much time.Though I keep thinking I will dig out my copy of Pema Chodron’s lovely book Start Where You Are and give it another go. I need to be more compassionate, with myself, if no one else.
Impact. A calling.
I felt called to be a professor. My undergraduate days were spent in the idyll that is Hiram College. I took classes in English and Philosophy (my two majors), and took other courses that sparked my interest.
One such class was in the spring of 1992, my junior year: a journalism class, taught by a professor who’d come to us by way of the University of Nairobi’s school of journalism. His name was Absalom Mutere. I signed up for the class for two reasons: I was contemplating a writing minor, and I wanted to take a class with an international scholar.
Professor Mutere was a fantastic teacher. Energetic, Socratic, engaged and engaging. We watched the aftermath of the Rodney King trial unfold in front of us and discussed the role the media seemed to be playing. Through it all, he remained objective, asking us probing questions and encouraging us to move beyond easy answers.
I took a second class with him in the fall, this one focused on media censorship. He helped us understand the consolidation policies of the media conglomerates and what it meant for journalism when corporate interests play a role in the reporting of news: reporting that is supposed to be objective, and often isn’t. We read the Project Censored Yearbook (“The News that Didn’t Make the News”) and had many discussions about the state of political coverage in the run-up to the 1992 Presidential election. I wrote a paper about our broken two-party system.
I feel fortunate to count myself as one of his favorite students. Due to my habit of procrastination, I was frequently sprinting across campus at 4:55 pm to hand in a paper due by 5:00 pm. Professor Mutere called me his “Eleventh-Hour Girl” for such tactics, but it was affectionate. He would invite students over to the college apartment he shared with his wife and two young daughters, and we would eat and talk. I got to meet other friends of his, including Lewis Odhiambo, who was at the time teaching at the University of Western Ontario–both he and Professor Mutere thought I would become a public intellectual (though I’m afraid they might be disappointed in me). The summer between my junior and senior years, I invited him to my parents’ house for dinner, and he accepted. They loved him. I loved him.
He coached Hiram’s club rugby team, and I remember watching him wheel around men 20 years younger like they were standing still. We just thought it was cool that the guy who helped found Kenya’s Mwamba RFC and had captained the Kenyan national team was helping out a bunch of mostly suburban white kids learn how to be better, more effective ruggers.
I had intermittent email contact with him over the years since I graduated in 1993. He had returned to Africa, and the internet had not yet caught up with my desire to reach out to him, to tell him what an impact he’d made on me. Then a search yielded that he was back in Kenya, back in Nairobi at the school of journalism. In 2007, Kenya was being shredded by ethnic violence, and I feared for the man I thought of as a mentor. I wrote to the address listed on the website.
He wrote back, and we traded stories of our lives. The last email I have from him is from early 2008. He was very happy to see Barack Obama in the running for President. He was worried about his country, but hopeful.
Thing settled down in Kenya, and my life got busier with the addition of a second child and the ramp-up of my [ultimately successful] bid for tenure.
This week, when I saw this video of young African men addressing Hollywood stereotypes, I immediately thought of Absalom. I ran a quick Google search.
The auto-filler said “absalom mutere is dead“. Once again, I sat in my office and cried.
He died in November 2010 in Zambia, and there is a hole in the world.
The professor I knew and the man that his Kenyan people knew–the man who agitated, at risk of his own life, for a free and democratic press for Kenya– is gone, and the impact he made can never be truly measured.
The pain in my heart is one way.
And I like to think that when I teach my students about argument through Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and through the film Food, Inc., that I am channeling the passion he awoke in me all those years ago to find ways to get the word out about the truth.
When I read student comments on the LMS about how utterly shocked they are at the industrialization and inhumane cruelty of our food system, and how they are planning to change the way they eat and what they buy–I am linked to Professor Mutere.
When one of them stops by my office to tell me that he lost 45 pounds in 4 months because he stopped eating fast food and drinking soda, I know why I teach.