Reflections on Identity

An Incomplete History of My Teaching Body

Arley Cruthers

My summer pandemic semester was very successful, except that I lost feeling in the left side of my face. Tingling spread from my temple, down across my cheekbones, across to my jawline. A static in the message. But though it didn’t get better it also didn’t get worse; I could still smile and raise my arm above my head, so my doctor chalked it up to stress.

The semester had been a flurry of parenting and grading and lesson planning and playing “Johnny, Johnny, Yes Papa” for the millionth time because I just needed to get one more paper graded and webinars and conferences and committees and extra projects and why did I say yes to that and how did I think I had time for that and iced coffee. I spent my teaching life saying words like ‘grace’ and ‘patience’ and ‘community’ and ‘care.’ I typed those words at 5:30 am alone in my living room: the side of my face tingling, distracting me as I tried to tell a student that I was sorry to hear they weren’t feeling well, and of course, take the time you need with the assignment.

Me: I pared down my course to emphasize slowness and reflection and care. I designed it to ensure that all students had access and choice and agency.

Also me: And I didn’t take a day off in 5 months to do it.

Teaching fully online, my body has never existed less in the minds of my students, and yet here it was: inserting itself into the conversation, refusing to be ignored.

***

When I started teaching, my difference was written all across my body. Students could hear the cadence of my crutches as I walked down the hall. When I wrote on the board, they hung off my forearms, clanging against the chalk ledge and jolting daydreamers awake. I literally wore my disability on my sleeves.

It was not possible for me to be a floating head, a disembodied voice projecting knowledge. I was a body first and foremost: a walking (crutching?) Laurel and Hardy routine. I knocked over coffee, left chalk handprints all over my black pants, tripped, fell, and picked myself back up again. This physicality found its way into my pedagogy. My first foray into experiential learning came because I couldn’t stand up long enough to lecture.

I couldn’t forget my body, and in doing so I seemed to remind students of their own. My office hours were full of students grappling with their own physicality: everything from weight gain to broken bones to sexual assault. Maybe my disability humanized me. Maybe they simply thought that a woman who knocks her coffee over more days than not was in no position to judge them. Whatever the reason, my disability appeared to be a way into my students’ lives, and I was grateful for their trust.

In fact, teaching was perhaps the one place outside of the wheelchair sport community where my disability was an opportunity to build connection, not to stand out as a mark of difference. This visibility was not usually a gift. When you have a visible physical disability, you become a magnet for other people’s stories. I walked on crutches, had one leg that pointed backwards, was over six feet tall, a Paralympian who could bench press 245 pounds. It was not possible to hide in a Midwestern college town. Mostly people just wanted to talk. They would stop me on the street to tell me that they’d broken their leg once in 1993 and they knew how I felt, or that they had an aunt with MS, or there was a girl in a wheelchair in their class — did I know her? — or that they had arthritis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder. They would just blurt it out in the grocery store aisle, and I would be left holding this fragment of a story in my hands.

I did not know about pedagogy, but I knew that I was a place where students brought their stories. And I knew that my background as a wheelchair basketball coach made me think about writing in a physical way. I planned my lessons the way I planned my practices. When students did in-class activities for fun in my classroom, their voices rang out. But then I’d get their final reports and the verbs would be dried out: all passive voice and airless nouns. Something got lost from my classroom to the page. Somehow, the confidence I had tried to build in them withered when exposed to genres.

I knew the feeling. When I graduated in 2009, I couldn’t fit myself into a genre either. I was a Paralympian turned MFA student turned teacher turned coach. A Canadian in America. A disabled woman poised to have the hip replacement that might change her life. A wheelchair athlete leaving the career that sustained her for over a decade. How do you put that in job materials? How do you turn it into a pitch?

So, I came back to Canada. My surgery went wrong and I lost the ability to walk. After my second novel came out, my writing voice turned to dust. But I was still a quick writer, a collector of stories, a person who’d spent years trying to explain my sport to my academic friends and my academics to my sport friends. And so I turned myself into a communications and marketing manager for wheelchair sports. I could not write my own stories, but I could tell those of others. I could disappear into other voices for a while.

***

When I acquired a disability at age 11, I became grade-obsessed. I hated the slow, syrupy way that people would talk to me and I was mortally offended that the school assigned me an aide. I did not need help, I told anyone who would listen. I was a straight A student. I was a Very Smart Girl. Gifted and talented, in fact. I found a copy of a Grade 12 biology textbook called “Investigating Aquatic Ecosystems” and made a point of taking the book everywhere, noting that, uh, excuse me, would a girl who needed a teacher’s aide be able to tell you the difference between freshwater and marine ecosystems?

Grades were objective, I thought. Grades did not discriminate. I graduated with one of the highest averages in the history of my school, winning full-ride scholarships to every school I applied to. It escaped my attention that my quest for perfection had not changed how people saw me. Everyone saw the wheelchair; no one saw the GPA.

Wheelchair basketball seemed to be the only society-sanctioned way that a disabled person could get respect, so I forged myself into the perfect supercrip.  No one I knew used their disability as an ‘excuse.’ I didn’t want to be one of ‘those’ disabled people. When I fractured my spine during exam season of my third year at the University of Victoria, I dragged myself to class. I wrote my final papers in a haze of Tramadol, but never thought to ask for an extension. I didn’t need anyone’s accommodations, thank-you-very-much. Paralympians don’t need accommodations.

I kept going.

I pushed through and through and through.

I was comfortable with being uncomfortable.

During graduate school, my femoral head collapsed and a hip subluxation sent me to the emergency room; I went to my graduate seminar with the hospital bracelet still on my arm. I was in agony, and when the professor asked me to pass her some papers, I slid them down the table so I wouldn’t have to stand. She complained to the department head that I’d “passed a piece of paper to her in a disrespectful manner,” and I had to have a meeting with her. No professor or administrator had cared that I’d been in the hospital, that my femoral head had collapsed, that before I went to sleep I had to hook one foot over the other and tie them together so my hip didn’t sublux while I slept. The minute my body didn’t perform as expected, I’d been punished. That’s just how academia was.

When I started teaching, my feeling was that if I could go to class after my femoral head subluxed, no one else had any excuse. I had strict attendance and extension policies. The more my body projected vulnerability, the tighter I held on to power. It doesn’t matter if you tell students about your hip replacements if you won’t give them an extension because they didn’t contact you within the window of time you specified.

***

After graduate school, I left teaching and collected jobs: too many jobs. Previously, I’d excelled at playing wheelchair basketball, getting good grades, and writing novels. Those were all gone. My desire to prove myself remained. I worked at Paralympics, World Championships, Canada Games, Para-Pan Am Games. I did communications, marketing, public relations, crisis communications, major games communication. I loved wheelchair sports. I loved writing. I loved writing about wheelchair sports. My new job had all the adrenaline and stamina of my wheelchair basketball career, but I could do it from the bleachers.

I loved and loved and loved.

I worked and worked and worked.

I pushed through and through and through.

And eventually, I burnt out.

***

As I molded myself into a parasport communicator, I was also hard at work on another project: passing as able-bodied. I had surgery to revise the failed hip replacement, then did extensive gait retraining. I tried pilates, body sculpt, weight training, hiking. I flailed away to “shed and shred” workout videos. Every time I walked, I thought “heel, toe. Heel, toe” until one day, I could do it without thinking. My cane spent more and more time in the trunk of my car, and eventually collected cobwebs in my parents’ basement. I even did two half marathons.

The half marathons felt like a success story, but they were really another form of burnout: a relentless carving of my body.  But through those years, my limp became hardly noticeable. People stopped telling me stories. One day, I caught a glimpse of myself in a glass storefront.  I saw an able-bodied person staring back. I still felt disabled, still had chronic pain, but it was secret now, submerged under my skin. In this new body, I returned to teaching.

***

Though the Paralympic movement is often framed as one that empowers disabled athletes, my former teammate Danielle Peers notes that Paralympism actually “perpetuate[s] the power relationships and social contexts that sustain disability” (Peers, 2012). In their discussion of supercrip representation in Paralympic sport, Silva and Howe note that “supercrip narratives may have a negative impact on the physical and social development of disabled individuals by reinforcing what could be termed “achievement syndrome”—the impaired are successful in spite of their disability.” (2012). In fact, Ian Brittain and Aaron Beacom cite a study that was done after the London 2012 Paralympic Games by the charity Scope, which found that 22% of disabled people said that discrimination against them had actually worsened because people held them to the standard of Paralympians. (2016)

Just as seeing Paralympians ‘overcome’ their disabilities appeared to make the British public less sympathetic to disabled people who did not conform to this ideal, my Paralympic sport experience actually made it more difficult to empathize with the differences I encountered in my students. Both academia and Paralympic sport had taught me a model of humanity that was hierarchical, that those whose minds and bodies could not conform to the system deserved to be excluded from it, that you could only become excellent by besting other people.

When I returned to teaching, students had no idea about my history unless I told them. For the first year, I didn’t say anything. I was aware of how much easier my life had gotten since people had begun to see me as able-bodied. Would I have been hired if I’d still walked using forearm crutches?  It was hard to say. But I was precariously employed and basking in my newfound abled privilege. Besides, I was supposed to be teaching business writing, not sociology, not disability studies. My office hours were emptier. I could no longer rely on my body to do the job of projecting vulnerability, so I would have to think intentionally about how to create a classroom dynamic where students were comfortable sharing.

I began by creating a small assignment called Question of the Day, where I would post a question on the learning management system five days a week. The goal was to get students to do more low-stakes writing, to play with words. There were questions like “Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not?” or “Tell me about a time when you did something brave.” To encourage them to participate, I answered every question myself. I began to write about my chronic pain, my wheelchair sport career, my hip replacements. Slowly, my students responded in kind: with stories about their car accidents, their decision to remove their hijab or wear one again, their experiences surviving terrorism attacks or dealing with the death of a parent. And gradually, my office hours began to fill up with stories again.

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes “When education is the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess…When professors bring narratives of their experiences into classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility that we can function as all-knowing, silent interrogators.” (p. 21). When I present as disabled, my body confesses. It shares that there is a story to me beyond my “all-knowing” academic persona. But my Question of the Day activity was virtual: a place where my body did not exist at all, and I got to write it into being. I still tightly controlled the image my students had of me.

Many of the stories I told during Question of the Day were the ones I used when I was a wheelchair basketball motivational speaker. I’d learned from wheelchair basketball that the only story about my disability that people were interested in was the one where I acquired a disability, got introduced to wheelchair sports, then won a Paralympic medal. Anything else was whining.  So, the small moments of vulnerability I shared during Question of the Day perhaps encouraged students to trust me more, but they did not unsettle any hierarchies.

My academic career, coupled with my career as a Paralympian, had taught me that my body was something to be overcome. I believed in rigor, and by rigor I meant meanness with an academic face. I believed that every unkind thing I did to my body was honing me into a true academic, an elite athlete, someone who deserved to be at the front of the class or the top of the podium. So, my disability was therefore a site of pedagogical tension. My disabled body projected vulnerability, but my lived experience as a Paralympian made it hard to turn this vulnerability into a pedagogy of care.

***

I was lucky to attend Digital Pedagogy Lab in 2017, just as I’d spent a year softening my stances. I was ready for a shift in my pedagogy. In part, I’d been reading more about the pedagogy of writing instruction and I realized many of my stances weren’t defensible. But I was also in the middle of a rough pregnancy. I constantly had to leave class to throw up. For the first time, I couldn’t punish my body into submission. Once, I just stopped the class and said, “I’m sorry, I am pregnant and sick and you all will have to bring the energy today.” And they did. It was one of the most productive class sessions I’d ever taught. That first true moment of vulnerability opened the door for more.

Creating a pedagogy of care required unlearning many of the lessons I’d absorbed about disability. It required thinking not just about my own body, but the systems that police our bodies, that exclude, marginalize and enact violence on some bodies. It required me to see grades not as objective, but as deeply subjective. It led me to ask my students more questions and to be open to the answers, even if those were uncomfortable. And it led me to see all of the assumptions wrapped up in the word ‘rigor.’ In An Urgency of Teachers, Jesse Stommel writes:

It seems easier to far too many teachers to imagine that students do work the way machines do — that they can be scored according to objective metrics and neatly compared to one another. Schools, and the systems we’ve invented to support them, condition us to believe that there are always others (objective experts or even algorithms) who can know better than us the value of our own work. I’m struck by the number of institutions that for all intents and purposes equate teaching with grading — that assume our job as teachers is to merely separate the wheat from the chaff. (2019, Kindle Locations 578-582)

Academia and Paralympic sport had combined to teach me that success was about conforming to a standard that had been set in advance. In most parasports, athletes are ranked by a classification system, which seeks to ‘level the playing field’ by assigning a number to each athlete based on the impact their disability has on their ability to compete. In wheelchair basketball, athletes are ranked from 1 (for most impairment) to 4.5 (for able-bodied or ‘minimally disabled’) and a team can only play 14 points at one time.

I had seen the problems with trying to sort people with wildly different disabilities and experiences with disability into static numerical categories, but it took an introduction to critical pedagogy to apply this logic to grading. I began to imagine a class where students could show their learning in multiple ways, where they could play a role in designing assignments and shaping the direction of the class, where the hierarchy between student and teacher was not to be reified, but reimagined.

For most of my teaching career, I’d puzzled over why my students’ writing lost its vitality when they wrote reports and essays. But when I began designing with students, I learned that they were trying to leave their own voice behind and leap into the language of reports and memos. They could not imagine themselves being enough, so they had to put on a suit of business-ese. Now, I can design assignments that say your experience is welcome, your voice is welcome, your perspective is needed, you are enough.

***

“You are enough,” I write to my students at midnight, my To Do list beside me up to 56 items.

“You are enough,” I whisper to my daughter as I kiss her hair.

“You are enough,” I tell my coworkers. “This job is hard. You’re doing so well.”

“My apologies for the delay in responding,” I begin my emails. “Sorry for the hold up!” I rub my jaw, feeling the strange tingling. Pedagogies of care, I say. For whom, my body responds.

Am I practicing pedagogies of care or am I trying to be the Best Teacher Ever: doing away with grades for other people, but still chasing that gold star myself?

There is the unlearning, and then there is reimagining. I have done the former.

My body has shifted in and out of disability, I have shifted in and out of the academy, my pedagogy has shifted in relation to my students, but what hasn’t shifted is my insistence that the only way forward is working hard: that with enough energy and effort, I can excel despite. Despite a body in pain, a pandemic, not enough childcare, not enough, not enough. Compassion is something I offer to other people.

In Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha defines disability justice, in part, as “insist[ing] that we organize from our sick, disabled ‘brokenbeautiful’ (as Alexis Pauline Gumbs puts it) bodies’ wisdom, need, desire.” (2018, p. 21)

Sustainability is one of the tenets of disability justice:

We pace ourselves, individually and collectively, to be sustained long term. We value the
teachings of our lives and bodies. We understand that our embodied experience is
a critical guide and reference pointing us towards justice and liberation. (p. 26)

My numb face: stress sanding away my body’s edges. My white, cis disabled body existing in the academy doesn’t liberate anyone. It doesn’t challenge the system. It burns itself up for the chance to be included. Cripping my pedagogy is the only way forward.

Piepzna-Samarasinha again:

This is about some of the ways we are attempting to dream ways to access care deeply, in a
way where we are in control, joyful, building community, loved, giving and receiving,
that doesn’t burn anyone out or abuse or underpay anyone in the process. (p. 33)

***

This is an essay without an ending, written at 2 am. This is an essay subluxed, shifting, which makes sense because one of my ribs is subluxed right now. The muscles around it tug when I breathe deeply. This is an essay that tugs towards the body, that resists wrapping up neatly. This is enough, it begins to say. This is enough. You are enough.


References

Braye, S., Gibbons, T., & Dixon, K. (2013). Disability ‘Rights’ or ‘Wrongs’? The Claims of the International Paralympic Committee, the London 2012 Paralympics and Disability Rights in the UK. Sociological Research Online, 18(3), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.5153/sro.3118

Brittain, I., & Beacom, A. (2016). Leveraging the London 2012 Paralympic Games: What Legacy for Disabled People? Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 40(6), 499–521. https://doi.org/10.1177/0193723516655580

Cherney, J. L., Lindemann, K., & Hardin, M. (2015). Research in Communication, Disability, and Sport. Communication & Sport, 3(1), 8–26. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167479513514847

Silva, C. F., & Howe, P. D. (2012). The (In)validity of Supercrip Representation of Paralympian Athletes. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 36(2), 174–194. https://doi.org/10.1177/0193723511433865

hooks, bell. (1994) Teaching to transgress :education as the practice of freedom. New York : Routledge,

Michalko, R. (2001). Blindness enters the classroom. Disability & Society, 16(3), 349-359.

Peers, D. (2012). Patients, athletes, freaks: Paralympism and the reproduction of disability. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 36(3), 295-316. doi:10.1177/0193723512442201

Piepzna-Samarasinha, L. L. (2018). Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp
Press. Kindle Edition.

Stommel, J. and Morris, S. M. (2019). An Urgency of Teachers: the Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy. (Kindle Locations 1992-1996). Hybrid Pedagogy Inc. Kindle Edition

 

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Voices of Practice by Arley Cruthers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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