Disability, Graduate School, and the Sweet, Spring Trees

Stephen Kuusisto, Letters to Borges

It was early May and oak trees were filling with green smoke the way they do when, like me, you can scarcely see. The world was achingly provisional, discomfiting, as I was a graduate student whose needs for accommodation were poorly understood. I required help but in 1983 I couldn’t get it. The ADA was far away. I was being consistently traumatized by faculty who believed education was entirely about speed. One professor said: “If you need extra time to read you don’t belong in my class.” I wept. Outside my little TA office the trees stirred between blue and yellow. I was being told I didn’t belong in academe.

If my exceptionalist prof had been a solo act I’d have shaken him off. There was too much beauty all around me to become mired in ableist contempt. Besides I knew all about such people: hadn’t I attended public schools where teachers hadn’t wanted me in their classrooms? Hadn’t I been banished from school activities? Hadn’t I been instructed to go away over and over? Even at twenty five I knew the wisdom of the “good witch” in the Wizard of Oz who says to the mean witch: “Be gone, you have no power here!” I understood as all outsiders must that strangers or acquaintances cannot harm you without your permission. The trees were stunning. I wasn’t giving my permission, even though by year’s end I had three discriminatory professors on my hands. But you see, it’s harder to shake off oppression when it’s tacitly approved. With three dismissive English professors who were righteously opposed to working with my disability I went to the Dean. His Dean-ship said he’d look into the matter. He did. Called me into his office. Said; “the faculty think you’re just a malcontent.”

The trees of Iowa were absolutely heartbreaking in their loveliness. The paper birch, choke cherry, red elm hickory, they were vying for my attention. Alone and sad I pressed my face against the cool trunk of a hackberry tree. I was genuinely unwelcome in higher education. It was a revelation, really, as I’d been a gifted undergraduate, latin praises, high honors, no faculty complained about my need for extra time when reading variorum editions. What had happened? I wasn’t more or less blind Hadn’t gained or lost intelligence. What had transpired I saw while leaning against my tree—what had occurred, was nothing more than a matter of commercial space. I was presuming to enter “the profession” as my rebarbative and utterly ableist mentors like to call it. English, the study of, was a race. Though there was lots of talk about “close reading” no one believed in it. I was, in my halting need, the proof.

I took to walking alone late at night. It was hard to find solitude in a college town but I did it. I had a place by the railroad tracks that the local teens hadn’t discovered and I knew exactly when freight trains loaded with corn sweetener would or would not roll by. I had no suicide in me but I liked sitting in a ruined place. I knew it was necessary and proper to refine my life. Of course I’d retain a lawyer, for even pre-ADA there was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. My goal would be to teach the Dean something essential about inclusion.

Disabled students in higher education should no longer have to face the kinds of obstacles I endured almost 35 years ago but they do. Just a cursory look at recent lawsuits filed against colleges by students provides all the evidence one needs to see how the “you’re a malcontent” aggression narrative still endures across the US.

Do I still press my face against cold night trees?




Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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