Eighteen years ago, I officially became a presidential spouse, but not without a degree of trepidation. I had recently retired from teaching, a profession I’ve always loved, so that my wife and I could relocate anywhere an enticing presidency beckoned. When that did happen, I unexpectedly began to have some serious doubts. I wondered whether I would find satisfying outlets for my professional energy.
While my wife dealt with university issues like curriculum revision, tenure decisions, contract negotiations, and deferred maintenance, would I be relegated to mowing the lawn three times a week? For lack of some engaging pursuit, would I feel isolated in the midst of a culture pulsating with activity?
When we arrived at our new university, I controlled my impatience to get involved immediately, even if only as a spot player, until I had looked closely at the campus for promising opportunities. Not surprisingly, I concluded that my background equipped me to assist students needing extra help in speaking and writing, a group larger than I would have expected. Therefore professional disengagement, an unsavory prospect, seemed unnecessary. The prospect of becoming active again, this time largely on my own terms, grew very attractive. I liked, among other enticements, the idea of flexibly scheduling meetings with students around other activities I would be involved with.
A few months ago, before conducting one of those sessions, a writing workshop for a small class of juniors and seniors, I asked them, as I always do when working with a new group, for brief self-introductions. While I had capsule summaries, I had always found the details they chose to share to be helpful. One young woman, smiling uneasily, hesitated, then began, "I’m just a housewife and a mother … ."
I had prepared an efficient instructional sequence, emphasizing how opportune choices of diction and syntax strengthen a piece of writing. That plan suddenly disappeared as I contemplated the telltale word. An innocent but revealing expression of diminution—"just"—surprised me more, I suppose, than it should have. Why was I dismayed that she obviously saw herself diminished as a person by the crucial roles she undertook within her family?
She had succumbed so evidently to the stereotype of the negligible importance of the "little woman" at home. Had we somehow been catapulted back into some Twilight Zone time warp? Was this 1974, not 2014?
While I had been neither a victim of nor a front-line participant in the protracted struggle for gender equality, I had been spiritually and philosophically on its periphery. My wife and our daughter had refused to capitulate to both overt and subtle gender discrimination encountered on their ways to becoming leaders in their fields of education. Their success assured me that ability and performance were systematically becoming the predominant measures of a productive person.
In addition, I had served as English-department head at an urban, all-female high school. In my 20 years there, I noted with great satisfaction the students’ vitally important progress in enhanced self-perception. Illustrative of this advancement was their growing eagerness to lead as opposed to mindlessly perform as members of some vast, dutiful "ladies auxiliary" in traditionally male-dominated enterprises.
Possibly my close association with success stories had led me to become complacent. That may have accounted for my being blindsided by a simple four-letter word uttered by an intelligent young woman obviously underwhelmed by unmistakable indications of growing versatility.
I told my student that I saw nothing "just" about being a wife and mother. Academic achievements she’d already made, combined with her ambition for the future, it seemed to me, promised to blend harmoniously with her family roles in a highly productive, multitalented individual. I tried to frame my response lightly but decisively; deep inside, I felt like an old crusader abruptly hauled back to duty to fight an opponent I assumed had been pretty much immobilized.
When the session ended, I told my new acquaintance privately that because she had given me something to think about, she could return the favor by mulling at her leisure what I had said.
Now, when I occasionally encounter her on campus, she greets me with a variation of, "Here’s your favorite housewife and mother!" Her satiric tone indicates, I think, a serious rethinking of her old attitude. In any event, we both laugh at the episode now.
Since the workshop, she’s earned the distinction of becoming a Lincoln Laureate, an honor awarded annually to one outstanding student at each state college in Illinois. While I had no part in her achieving that honor, the news elated me. I like to believe that she’s more appreciative now of her essential wholeness as a person, that she understands the symbiotic relationships that nurture her various roles.
Going into that particular tutorial session, I had no idea how it would develop. At this point in my career, the option of judicious improvisation is a major lure. It’s compensation for years of being indentured to an obdurate syllabus designed to serve a "standardized curriculum." Now I can shift focus when necessary, knowing I’ll return to the original plan at the next session.
Unlike some more-public ventures as a presidential spouse, working with students allows me to be relatively inconspicuous, which suits my style. Collaborating with them, I prefer to establish an informal learning environment. Since I’m not invested with grade-giving authority, our conversations can be both impromptu and targeted, encouraging a productive give-and-take.
More than ever, I know now how frustrated I would have been with pacing the educational sidelines. Being able to engage practically and purposefully with my students at so crucial a time in their lives has enriched me and, I hope, them.
A formal background in education isn’t a prerequisite for this type of involvement. Having and wanting to share a skill that would help students are the essentials. I recommend this kind of campus involvement for other members of my cohort who’d like a useful, largely under-the-radar affiliation with their campuses. I can’t imagine anything better than helping add value to the future.
Mort Maimon is a retired educator and full-time writer. His wife is president of Governors State University.