What I Learned About Humans From the Professor Who Hated Me
How recognizing our limits helps us forge new openings
In graduate school, I had a professor who loathed me. And I mean toe-curling he’s-getting-hives-just-looking-at-me loathery. It was so very irrational but also so very deep. And, as is perhaps no surprise, the depth of the loathing was precisely correlated to the extent of the irrationality. His distaste for me was, in other words, not based on anything I had actually said or done.
I remember the moment this all became clear to me. It was the day he called me Martha in class. Given that he couldn’t possibly hate me any more than he already hated me, I felt freed up to inquire:
“Who the hell is Martha?”
Who the hell is Martha, indeed. He never did say, but from the look on his face, I’d go with: his estranged sister who shivved him with a serving fork that one Thanksgiving; his nun-nemesis at the Home for Lost Boys that he was perhaps raised in; or perhaps the girl in sixth period English who found his adolescent attempts at love poetry utterly lackluster. In any case, I am not Martha. But knowing that his psyche was playing out some down-with-Martha drama any time I entered his periphery actually made me feel better.
It still stung. But at least I was released from the sense that I had done something wrong. Which in turn freed me from some of the strategies I was pursuing to win his favor — for example, being more quiet in class did not work; being less quiet in class did not work; attending his office hours did not work; not attending his office hours did not work; etc. But more than freeing me from failing strategies, it opened me to a fresh space: Had I cared enough about the relationship (I did not), knowing his past was bewitching him could have led me to approach him in a new spirit of honesty that might well have opened new paths forward.
It’s impossible to know if I physically resembled Martha in some way, or if something else about me was the culprit. But one thing is certain: My teacher’s past placed a limit on his and my present and future. And it had very little to do with me. Or, for that matter, with him. Yes, it was his past. But as any good therapist, cultural theorist, or political…