What The Students Teach Us Every Day

Photo by Brett Jordan/ Unsplash

It's not my habit to write about readers' hate mail, which is as much a part of daily life as toothbrushing, and just as boring.

Hate mail comes with a columnist's job. After 18 years of doing this, I know that nothing riles a certain percentage of readers — universally right-wing and white, and usually male — more than a woman who is paid to give her opinion. Social media has magnified their voices but not their credibility. There's no masking uninformed rage, which has always been the hallmark of the intellectually lazy.

Since 2016, I've seen an uptick in my hate mail directed at university professors. This coincides with the year I began teaching in the journalism school of my alma mater, Kent State, where I am a professional in residence. As dots go, these connect themselves.

For three years, I ignored this mail, except for those fun letters in my campus mailbox that look like ransom notes. These are wobbling sentences of words clipped from various magazines and newspapers and pasted to the page. These missives are ugly and yet pretty, colorful collages of hate bobbing upon the waves.

This deadly pandemic closed down campuses in March, and most of us have been teaching remotely ever since. These emails hit me differently now. Not because they're attacking us "liberal professors" — what a tired trope — but because of the assumptions they feel entitled to make about our students.

On Tuesday, a woman from South Carolina did not like my column blaming President Donald Trump's willful incompetence for our soaring numbers of infections and deaths from COVID-19.

More than 250,000 Americans have died, and public health experts warn that, if we don't take the necessary precautions, tens of thousands more will lose their lives in the coming weeks. Trump has been virtually silent about this since the election.

Nevertheless, Trump will always have his apologists and his defenders, and so many of them are self-declared Christians. To abandon him now would be to admit they were wrong to have supported him. Too many of them, it seems, would rather betray their God than the president who has betrayed our country.

This reader in South Carolina made clear her faith and launched the usual factless defense of Trump. Then she pivoted to my role as a teacher.

"Professors such as you outnumber conservative professors 9-1 according to most sources. You are indoctrinating our students to the point that they have become what many have referred to as 'snowflakes' who can't deal with stress or fend for themselves."

This was a lie too far.

You can hate me, I told her, but do not ever malign our students.

This week, I met one-on-one with each of my 41 students via Zoom. In preparation, I read their pandemic journals, which they have been keeping weekly during this semester. I doubt that even the people who love them understand how much their kids are enduring because they want to learn, even during this pandemic.

Many of my students are the first in their families to go to college. They will likely straddle two worlds for the rest of their lives. Even the most devoted parents can struggle to understand what's so tough about work hitched to books and computer screens.

Virtually all of my students work at least one job, many of them two, so that they can stay in school. Many are helping to support their families. My students are hourly wage earners, and they are often at greater risk of infection because of customers who refuse to wear masks and bosses who won't protect them.

They're not worried about what happens to them if they're infected, they tell me. They're worried about giving the virus to parents and grandparents who live with them.

Some of my students are helping far younger siblings with their virtual classes, often sitting side by side with them throughout the day. Sometimes, a student's camera suddenly flicks off during class, and I know it's because a little brother or sister needs help.

And yet, not once has a student used family responsibilities as an excuse to miss a writing deadline.

Not once.

Week after week, I watch my students respond to one another with kindness and respect. Even in our most spirited discussions, they are unfailingly kind. They care about one another and the world they are inheriting from us.

In this pandemic, students like mine across the country are teaching people like me that our future is in good hands, even if we don't always deserve it to be.

You'd be lucky to know them, I told that woman in South Carolina. Lucky like me.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University's school of journalism. She is the author of two non-fiction books, including "...and His Lovely Wife," which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. She is also the author of The New York Times bestselling novel, "The Daughters of Erietown." To find out more about Connie Schultz (schultz.connie@gmail.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.


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