Along with my fellow graduates in other areas of study, I looked forward to striding across the stage this spring to be awarded my master of arts in presidential spousedom. Coursework completed, thesis done!
Believe me, that degree has been a long time coming. But because of the coronavirus, the commencement ceremony was canceled, so I missed the chance to joyfully fling my mortarboard into the air. Instead of planning the celebration, I’ve spent an uncommon amount of time in isolation, exploring random thoughts about my journey and assessing what I’ve taken from this 24-year learning experience that’s winding down in such an unexpected fashion. In a way, the re-examination has been like replaying one of those old movies recommended by film critics to help occupy excessive amounts of downtime at the present moment.
It’s been alternately comical and absurd to revisit the beginnings of my venture into the realm of presidential spousedom. What assumptions I nurtured! What smug expectations! It was as though I, a committed swimmer who revels in warm water, had cannonballed into a totally unfamiliar pool, absolutely confident the temperature would be to my liking. I should have been wearing a beanie, the way freshmen customarily did in the old days to certify callowness.
I thought I was about to enter a predictable domain where choices would be all mine. I could opt to be either semianonymous, avoiding university environs as much as I chose, or selectively active. A blend of the two seemed practical, too. Having no official responsibilities, I’d be positioned simply to observe what went on and offer practical suggestions at times I thought they’d be helpful. After all, I had been a longtime teacher in my previous life, and once embedded, the compulsion to help lead others to the light is almost impossible to eradicate.
So, I reasoned, I could be a resource, available to offer assistance to anyone in need, anyone aware enough to know where to find help. I liked that idea because I’d be contributing to the cause of higher education but doing so in an unofficial capacity, which suited me fine. In short, I’d remain professionally active but set the terms of my engagement with the university myself.
A Public Figure
The weakness of that construct, of course, was the anonymity part. I failed to realize how, as a semiregular part of the campus community and, especially as the spouse of the president, I couldn’t help but be regarded differently by different people. Their impressions would be inevitably influenced by various connections and associations with the university. Experiences other people had had that I knew nothing about -- and obviously had no control over -- would help brand me. For example, the way I harmonized, or didn’t, with the rest of the campus would be compared -- pretty much unconsciously, I think -- with the actions of past presidential spouses. However predictable it was, that idea never occurred to me. See what I mean about being callow?
I was generally content with how things gradually played out. As long as I did nothing conspicuously foolish, as long as I left unspoken what was better left unsaid, I was made to feel welcome by most of campus society. I had no problem adhering to those common-sense restraints on impulsive behavior.
But I’d also failed to factor in another element influencing how people reacted to me. All campuses contain a relatively small number of disaffected individuals who, whatever the bases of their frustrations, try to capitalize on any real or alleged misstep of a spouse in order to get at the university president. In my case, one instance involved the university pool. After routinely checking the temperature with the lifeguard one morning, I started my workout. A faculty member who had lurked on the periphery eavesdropping on our brief conversation later told some cronies that “the president’s husband threw his weight around and demanded that the water be warmed immediately!” Later, when I became active in professional organizations, I found that sort of misstatement to be a common occupational hazard for those in my position. Most universities, unfortunately, have a small subculture of mean-spirited gossipers.
I finally got rid of my beanie when I understood that deliberateness should characterize my interactions with the campus community. I had no choice about whether I wanted to be regarded as a kind of public figure. By being visible and identifiable, I simply was one.
Reluctantly, I must admit, I became more thoughtful about my role as presidential spouse. The concept of “role” turned me off initially, because it implied artificiality, a variety of playacting. It seemed to require crafting an occasional pretend self that would necessarily be at odds with the real me. In short, I was disturbed by the seeming hypocrisy of playing a part. But little by little, I surrendered to its advisability, and on three distinctly different campuses, that capitulation to common sense has proven wise.
A few years ago, well into this, my final stop on the long journey, a faculty friend happened to ask casually, "Well, what have you learned since coming here?" The question caught me off guard, so I gave it a more superficial answer than it deserved.
But it stuck with me and has stimulated much probing and interpretation of a past that I feel shouldn’t be allowed to slip by without honest review. Because of my never-slumbering inner teacher, though, I rephrased the question: What have I learned that might be beneficial for new spouse-partners to consider?
The experiences that helped me develop resulted fundamentally from the fact that, once on campus, I, too, became a student. Yeah, this guy who had taught for years at every level from kindergarten to grad school -- the guy who basically perceived himself sufficiently worldly to deal with most challenges -- was still open to being a beneficiary as well as a dispenser of education.
Without being really cognizant of what was unfolding, I mingled, I observed, I interpreted and so, ultimately, I was able to connect countless random pieces in a pragmatically coherent manner. What emerged bears little resemblance to what I so confidently anticipated 24 years ago. I’m happy I didn’t have to live in that simplistic world of my own construction.
The various people who help make the campus run are undeniably proud individuals, but they are parts of something greater than themselves. There are times, this moment a particularly painful one, that require subordination of the individual to some greater good. At the beginning, I hadn’t appreciated all the symbiotic relationships that power a well-functioning university, with the distinct segments making up a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Efforts of its many components -- the facilities workforce, catering employees, campus police, faculty and staff members, and administrators -- intersect with and enrich each other.
The processes of education gain from unfolding in an attractive setting. I relish the striking natural beauty of the campus carefully tended by the facilities workforce. Not because of nature alone does it remain lovely. Public university students deserve a beautiful place to study. The campus is truly a uni-versity, with everyone working together for the common good.
In my apprentice days, I wanted to tailor the campus in ways that would be congruent with my personal style. But along the way, I met students, faculty members and administrators who incrementally made clear in practical, not didactic, ways the real purposes and values of higher education. As a teacher, in practical ways, I deeply understood the values that derive from a university education, essentially its reason for existence. This concept was best evidenced by the mentoring relationships I developed with individual students.
Early on, I found many students to lack confidence and to be understandably tentative. Their growth during the years of their attendance lifted my spirits. More effectively communicative and more self-confident, they became better equipped to contend with challenges. Most important, they understood that a lifelong commitment to learning was prerequisite to continued growth. However busy we are, those purposes and values deserve frequent revisits because they evolve. Indeed, they’re being modified at this moment in ways we never thought would be necessary.
I saw the value and felt the satisfaction of refocusing, of tailoring my efforts to what would benefit the university. I tutored students, I conducted occasional workshops. I fit comfortably into multiple roles without having to pull and tug to adjust to them. The well-being of the university connected with my own sense of well-being. Contrary to my original expectations, I did not come, see and conquer. I came, saw, appreciated and integrated.
The highlights of this rerun have reinforced the feeling of satisfaction that’s built over the last quarter century. I wouldn’t edit the narrative at all, even to improve the early performance of that newbie spouse. He was simply one of those often-cited “works in progress.” Along the way, as an erstwhile English teacher, I worked on redrafts of him. I added, deleted and reconceptualized. My expectation was that each new draft would improve over its predecessor. The final draft, as I used to tell my students, is never perfected. Still, it’s bound to be a lot better than early ones.