I teach writing and Women’s Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Yet if I am honest with myself, my true passion is to teach life lessons—hard, painful, gut wrenching life lessons that have taken me well over forty years to learn. Every day on campus I see young women who are experiencing the same doubts and fears that I suffered twenty-five years ago as a young undergraduate. Yet they have a difficult time recognizing and identifying their pain. They don’t see it in the mirror each morning as they painstakingly apply their makeup and do their hair. They can’t recognize it as they exercise to exhaustion and choose a plate of lettuce for lunch. They don’t realize it when they are plied with drinks at the bar or nearest fraternity house. Often I wish I could just download my own difficult lessons learned straight into their brains. If I could only do this, perhaps they could avoid some of the pain. Instead, I try to do the next best thing. I teach these lessons to them.
When I was an undergraduate, Women’s Studies was not offered as an academic discipline at my college of choice, James Madison University in Virginia; even if it had been, I was not aware—or awake—enough at the time to consider it, so I started out as a Sociology major before switching to English. I changed majors after the comments made by one of my professors helped determine the path my career would take. This woman became such a positive influence in my life at a time when I had very few strong female role models. Acknowledging the importance of such women is a key point for those who are on the path to self-realization and actualization.
Her boots were the first thing a new student noticed. They were rubber rain boots that reached almost to her knees—an accessory that most students would immediately poke fun at. Yet there was something about the way this professor carried herself that made one hesitate to snicker, even after discovering that her name was Professor Poindexter. Her flame red hair was always pulled back in a loose bun at the nape of her neck, and she spoke in a slow, deliberate manner with just a trace of a southern drawl. She learned the name of every student in her class, but unlike any professor I have ever known, she called her students by their last names only. I was “Zazzali.” Not Miss Zazzali, or even Ms. Zazzali. Just Zazzali. In the second semester of my freshman year, I entered Helen Poindexter’s classroom for the first time. I was taking her Survey of Prose Fiction class as an elective. Although I had always loved to read, I hadn’t considered English as a major course of study. After all, I had no interest in teaching, and what else could I do with a major in English?
Professor Poindexter never explicitly interpreted literature for her students, or even suggested that there was only one way to interpret a novel or story. Instead, she asked probing, open-ended questions that allowed her students to truly examine their own ideas—ideas that she considered as valid as her own. It was this approach that led to many in-depth class discussions and a process of active learning that I had never before experienced in the classroom. There was true give and take between students and teacher, a refreshing change from being spoon-fed information that I was then expected to regurgitate back on exams.
Knowing that I was expected to share my own interpretations, I didn’t panic when it came time to take the first in-class essay exam. However, when she returned my work, self-doubt overwhelmed me. At the top of my essay, she had written, “Please See Me” in bold red ink. I hesitantly approached her after class, and my stomach flip-flopped as she began, “Now Zazzali…why aren’t you an English major?” It was that question that changed the course of my four years at JMU, and led me to graduate school. Now, all these years later, whenever I enter the classroom to begin another semester, I give a silent nod of appreciation to Helen Poindexter. I can only hope that the passion I have for women’s literature, for feminism, for telling our own truths, comes close to hers, and that I might be able to spark that same passion in the students who enter my classroom.
It is so important that we learn from those who came before us, and we need to pass those lessons on to those who are coming after. We have an obligation to ensure that today’s girls and young women have the support and the education they need—the life lessons of all of the women who have walked the path before them—so that they know they are not alone. They can turn to any one of us, and we will guide them. Telling our own personal truths, no matter how painful a process, will change our social history and will impact future generations, but only if those truths continue to be told and aren’t lost through neglect or silenced by others. It is up to us to ensure our voices are heard.