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  • Not, of Course, Their Mothers
  • Jessica McCaughey (bio)

Last night, a female student at my university fell out of her ninth-floor dorm room window. That's what the student paper and the local news said. Fell.

I hesitate to say that my students are young, but this is the first year they'll get to vote, and most of their parents still pay for the cards they swipe to buy banh mi and soft pretzels. Last summer they still had to be home by midnight, had to beg to go to the beach overnight with Angie and Laura.

In my first semester of teaching, back when I was in graduate school, I had a student whose name was not Meredith but who I'm calling Meredith. On the first day of class, Meredith sat in the back row on the far right, next to the windows that looked out over the library lawn. She was short, and her hair hung like a black sheet over half of her face. I didn't pay much attention to her because I was agonizing over my outfit and shoes and making notes in the margins of my lesson plan that said things like "Smile!" and "Remember: focus on process!" Within a few weeks, I was a little less worried about my shoes, and Meredith had mostly stopped coming to class. When she skipped our one-on-one conference about her first essay, I decided not to contact her because I wanted to be a very authoritative professor and not chase them around and not offer second chances and not be a pushover.

In their first year, my students take mostly very large, lecture-style general education courses, sometimes with more than 300 other students. It is possible that I am, with my 17-seat writing classes, the only person in this city over the age of 20 who knows their name. [End Page 121]

Two days after the first paper was due, Meredith wrote, "I don't know where the Eng. Dept is, so I'm pasting my paper into this email. Hope that's ok." I said it wasn't.

Last May, I attended a faculty program, and my table happened to be made up entirely of female professors, and we began talking about what it's like to be a woman in academia. Everyone on the internet had been talking about this a lot too. And with every article I read, I thought, Yes, it is unfair that we do so much more emotional work. And Yes! And Yes! One professor spoke about her course evaluations and how furious she becomes when students write that she is nice. Another professor agreed and said, "They want us to be like their high school teachers, coddling them." And another said, "Yes! Like mothers, really. They want us to be like their mothers." She laughed and added, "I'm not your mother, kid! I don't give a shit if you do your laundry—do your work!" and then we all laughed. And we're not, of course, their mothers. But their mothers also aren't really anywhere to be found.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in college students, just after car accidents.

It was parents' weekend, three weeks into my own first year of college, when I received a call on my shared dorm phone that a boy, a friend, from home had died. Sometimes, in the months before I left for college, this friend and I would sneak out onto the roof of his mother's house and kiss. I wept over a French dip sandwich downtown, and then over pretty much every other meal and can of Icehouse and biology textbook for months. And then I stopped crying and mostly stopped talking and stopped going to classes some days and wrote letters to everyone who had known the boy to try to figure out if and how they were breathing still. I don't have the letters I sent, but I do have all of the replies. Most of them begin with some variation of "I am so sorry that you are so sad."

I am a...


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