What I Could Do

Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 12/16/12

Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 12/16/12

Dear Students,

You are not six and seven year olds, saucer-eyed, cherubic, believers in Santa Claus. And I am not a 27 year old over the moon with her first job. Or a principal who would dress up in goofy costumes to help students connect with the fun of learning. No. You are in your twenties, and I wear slacks and sensible shoes without worrying too much about whether that will help you wrap your minds around the ambiguities and instabilities of gender.

We will meet this afternoon for your final exam. It is the Monday after a mass killing in which twenty children lost their lives. It is eight days before Christmas. Early in our semester’s study of theories of literature and sexuality, we read a brief excerpt from Eve Sedgwick’s Tendencies, a chunk from the introduction usually referred to as “Christmas Effects.” In it, Sedgwick comes at the question, “What’s queer?” by examining the ideological force of heteronormativity. To help explain what she means, Sedgwick begins with a riff on “the depressing thing about the Christmas season” as a moment when all our institutions speak with one voice and seem to be saying the same thing. The languages of church, state, commerce, and media are all lined up in what she terms “the Christmas phalanx.” Among the examples Sedgwick cites to prove the tautological and coercively normalizing force of the holiday is this one:

[A]d-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question — Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas?

You loved this piece when we read it earlier in the semester. Sedgwick’s playful yet probing analysis of the tyranny of Christmas helped you see the point that queer is a way of describing more ragged and less depressing moments/spaces when everything emphatically does not mean the same thing, when things don’t line up neatly and march in lock step. Queer, says Sedgwick, is “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.”

I asked you to review these few marvelous paragraphs in preparation for today’s final. I promised to bring holiday cookies to the exam, a double batch of my favorite cookies from my own Christmas-effected childhood. I stayed up late last night, making the cookies and not getting through all the papers I had hoped to have graded by this afternoon. As I delicately rolled the buttery dough into little balls and lined them up on my battered cookie sheets, I thought of you, and all the work we have done together this term in the unlocked classroom of a wide open building. I thought of the umpty-ump people killed and maimed and wondered, not for the first time, if I would be brave and selfless enough to take a bullet for you, my students.

I cannot answer that question. No one can, in the abstract, know the answer to that question. One can only hope that in a moment of crisis one would be decent. And clever. I am reading your papers, slowly and with care. I marvel at your effort. I see the kindness in your faces. Try not to lose that, ever. I made you cookies. It’s what I could do. Yes, Eve, it is a depressing season. Let’s have a cookie and ride it out together.

In peace,

Your Teacher


  1. Okay…now you made the Cupcake Queen cry…beautifully written!


  2. We all ask those questions, I think, and the best I, too, hope for is to act decently. I’m not a particularly quick thinker, or particularly quick on my feet (two good reasons, among many others, for me *not* to be issued a gun in a futile attempt to make my classrooms safer), but I can be reasonably calm, and reasonably selfless, in a crisis. I’m not sure how much help I would be, but at the very least I think I could be trusted not to hide behind my students, or to feed their panic. We work with what we’ve got, especially when the situation is well outside our usual ambit.

    And a somewhat bright spot in an otherwise dark time: last week I had a student in my office whose behavior was odd enough (not threatening, but somewhat manic, somewhat paranoid, and generally mildly out of touch with reality) that I felt the need to follow the directions we now have for alerting the powers that be to a “student of concern.” I’m not sure whether that action had any effect, or whether someone else closer to him took action, but, in any case, I got an email from him today saying he’d spent the last few days in the local psych ward, and things were stabilizing (and could he still make up some work, about which I was, of course, flexible). I don’t have any illusions that the road ahead for him will be smooth, or that any program or system can prevent every outbreak of violence (other- or self-directed), but at least I had a much clearer set of steps to take, late on a Friday afternoon at the very tail end of the semester, than I would have a few years ago. That’s progress, I think.


  3. The haunting question of what we would do in this situation is one that we all hope we never know the answer to. But what you’ve done — and what we can do — is teach, giving our students some kinds of tools that help them think. On Friday, when my students came in to talk about their final papers, wrap up the semester, etc., I did what you did in your account: I linked my thinking about it to the things we’d talked about during the semester, that events matter, that change comes from particular events as well as general changes in ideas.

    If queering Christmas helps your students, or thinking about how change happens helps mine, that may be the best we can do in the classroom.


  4. First, kudos on the photo! The blood red centers, the target like cookies which are also breast-like, and the New York Times headline. Brilliant.

    Secondly, nice writing. It’s important to say that teachers at all levels care and care deeply about their students, that they see them as individuals and that they appreciate the potential, the talents and, yes, the flaws they possess. Teachers, good ones, know their students in a way that even parents never do, and the efforts that good teachers make on behalf of their students at all levels is never compensated in money, or tenure, but only in the great good hope that something of value will be created from the interaction of the two. Whether or not you throw yourself in front of a mad shooter to save their lives or simply stay up half the night grading their papers, the sacrifice is grand and it happens daily all around the world.

    Merry Christmas, prof, and have a restful holiday.


    • I believe these are the famous Moose’s Boob Cookies, are they not?

      Thanks for this post. I think we all feel so helpless and yet also eager to help.


      • The very ones, Historiann — Love them Boobs, though I have to confess I hadn’t thought about the blood red centers and target like qualities Dorothy notes above. I had planned to make them before the shootings, on account of they are the only holiday cookie in my repertoire.

        Happy holidays to each and all, and thanks for these lovely comments. Your students are fortunate to have you, every single caring, decent one of you.


  5. I’m reading this several days after you posted it. It is incredibly powerful. Queer is not only about instability, but about trying to make a co-shared quotidian, finding pleasure in the small doings and make-dos of everyday. The cookie shared during a final exam. The letter to one’s students. The heteronormative quotidian Sedgwick describes, while pervasive, also jostles alongside an equally queer quotidian that is just as necessary. Thanks for teaching your students how cookies matter–how a queer quotidian is lived.


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