EL PASO — I was privileged to be a UTEP faculty member for 21 years. My students taught me nearly everything I needed to know about teaching and a lot about many other things. What they took away from my classroom probably had less to do with sociology and more to do with life. In retrospect, that’s alright with me.
A couple of years ago, I had lunch with what I called “the border patrol wives’ club.” Three or four students were present. Ruby was married to Mike, both students of mine about ten years earlier. Ruby told me how she and Mike never got into debt like other couples they knew. They lived in a home they could afford and drove used vehicles. It was something I taught them. Something I said…not about sociology, theory or statistics. Something about how you couldn’t be free when you owed people money.
George, another student from that era recalled 9/11 when I told students to go home and treasure the people they loved, that life was short and unpredictable, and we should never get so caught up in our silly worlds that we forget what is really important.
I taught freshman seminars for a number of years. One semester a former student called me from New York where he had gone to become a dancer. It turned out he was in a graduate program and planned to work with elderly AIDs clients. I lamented the cluelessness of my new freshmen. Michael reminded me how we all felt our first hard days of kindergarten, the last easy days of elementary school, first hard days of middle school, last easy days at high school, etc. I took this insight to heart with my freshmen; we are new and scared and inexperienced many times in life.
One assignment I often gave was to interview someone in the community. For various classes over many semesters, students found people who did not fit the stereotypical gender box, people who were not Hispanic, people who were but didn’t speak Spanish, people who looked Hispanic but weren’t, people who recycled, who rode buses, who were military spouses, who went to garage sales, comedy clubs, Korean grocery stores…and on and on until the diversity of El Paso was revealed. The students, representing UTEP mostly with grace and dignity, encountered a community far more complex than they imagined. They also encountered tape recorders they forgot to turn on or put batteries in, people who didn’t want to be recorded at all, businesses that were suspicious, and the various things that can and do go wrong when trying to do research.
I am treasuring the last vestiges of my employment; maybe two more graduations and then there won’t be any students left who have had me for a class. I will never forget those who gave me the opportunity to work and learn with them, maybe their names but never their faces or their aspirations. I know them by where they sat in class. I am confident there will always be a moment in a grocery store, at a gas station or an event, when a former student asks, “Is that you, Dr. Howard?” I’m counting on it.
Editor’s note: Dr. Cheryl Howard is Associate Professor Emerita in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Over the coming months she will be introducing you to more of her students and giving you a glimpse of how a retired UTEP professor spends her time cooking, gardening and crafting. Photos from former student and Borderzine contributor, Raymundo Aguirre, will accompany some of the blogs.