Friday Philosophy: A Letter and a Response

On Tuesday I received a letter from a former student at the University of Central Arkansas, where I transitioned from 1992 until 1994 and where I taught for six more years after that.  From time to time, people from that spacetime contact me.  There are other people at Daily Kos who have been faculty or students at UCA.  The memories of there/then are bittersweet.

It took several days for me to formulate a response.  I’d like to say that I was just too busy to write back immediately since it was Finals Week here at Bloomfield.  

The truth is rather that it was too difficult to come up with any quick response…and that the letter deserved a more thoughtful response than what I could immediately come up with.

I’m not even sure if the response I finally came up with is appropriate or sufficient.  But it is what I have.

Dr. Serven,

I have often wondered where you landed after your time at UCA. Although I was never what you would refer to as a good student, I had the pleasure of having you as an instructor for [deleted] different courses, none of which I did well in by the way. I look back on my time at UCA and my time in your class with shame. I am ashamed that I did not do more to enlighten my classmates about some of the struggles that you faced on a day to day basis. I almost hate to admit that my father was right when he said that I would become much more intelligent as I aged. I wanted to contact you today to tell you that I am sorry for being silent. I always felt as if I was tolerant, but now I realize that my silence when listening to others disparage you was the greatest and maybe the most hurtful kind of intolerance.

I hope that this email finds you well. I also hope that it finds you happy. Please do take care, and may you have a wonderful holiday.

I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me for my silence as you struggled to simply live your life. I am a father now, and I would never want my children to have to suffer cruelty that I know you had to deal with when you were in Conway.

Best wishes and kind regards


Dear T______,

I have to admit that it has been rare to hear from people from Arkansas since I left.  It has happened, but certainly not often.

I have not found it easy to figure out how to respond.  “Mixed feelings” certainly becomes the expression I would use to describe the moment.

Sixteen years in Arkansas did mean something.  Eight of those years were after my transition.  And that meant something very different.

I did not expect that other people would understand at all.  I did not expect that people would react well.  Quite frankly it would not have surprised me if someone decided I needed to be dead and took action towards that outcome.  What I was doing was threatening to men.  And that is hugely dangerous in many parts of this world…and especially so in Arkansas, a place in which one of the first questions I was asked when interviewing for a job was what sort of animal I killed for recreation.  That shook my soul.  But I took the job anyway.

My choices are what led me to the place I was at the time challenging events happened.  I did not expect that people would be accepting and supportive at first.  What I did not expect, however, was that people pursing education as a lifelong endeavor would turn their backs on learning what I had to teach.  And I did not expect that people would take that approach so far that they would turn against those who tried to help me do that teaching, eliminating one by one the few friends I had among the faculty.

If not for that, I probably would have remained at UCA.

I remember your name, T______.  If I saw your face, I’m sure I would have memories of you.  I’m sad to say that I don’t.  I guess that’s part of what happens when one nears the end of a teaching career which has already lasted for 31 years.

If you passed my classes, it is because you deserved to do so.  You learned.  That has been my goal in this life: to help people learn.

I would hope that you could purge that shame you feel.  We do what we have to do to survive.  That’s what I was doing.  Perhaps you were doing what you needed to do at the time as well.  You were young.  In that atmosphere, there was no doubt safety in silence.

Indeed, to me the very fact that you feel ashamed now is why you need not.  The people who didn’t then question their behavior and still haven’t are perhaps a different story.  There, perhaps, is the conundrum…or maybe the paradox.

Silence is understandable.  Silence is sometimes golden.  And sometimes silence is deadly.

Sometimes silence can be an act of kindness.  I mostly chose not to listen to what most people had to say about me.  When people came and told me what was being said…or, more rarely, but not rare enough, said what they had to say to my face, I often wondered why they did so.  I wondered what they expected out of me.  Meanwhile I was expecting people to learn.  As a teacher yourself, you know that can be an expectation filled with disappointment.

Finally, I hope you know that it really isn’t, in the grand scheme of things, important that I forgive you for what you perceive as your shortcomings.  What is important is whether or not you can forgive yourself.  

From my perspective, apologies are never necessary.  What I prefer is that there be some evidence that learning has happened.  You have certainly displayed that.

You have learned.  Be proud of that.  

And if I may, I would like to share in that pride.

May you and your family have a joyous yuletide season,



After writing that, I wrote a new poem to go with an old piece of art which had not earned yet had something to be paired with.

Splitting the Binary

Can you learn?

They asked me

if I hunted or fished

choose one

What did I kill

for fun?

I gave my answer

eight years later

I killed their comfort

in dead seriousness

Can you learn?

To often

the answer

was disappointing

There was danger

in proving

that human life

could exist

could endure

could survive

could even thrive

in between

There probably still is

Can you learn?

It is not too late

Can you learn?

It is never too late

Can you learn?

–Robyn Elaine Serven

–December 14, 2007


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    • Robyn on December 15, 2007 at 12:01 am
  1. You are really amazing. And you’re an excellent teacher. Your reply to the student is really an beautiful, honest response to a heartfelt, hard to write letter.

    Thank you for posting this essay.  I feel richer having read it.

    • pfiore8 on December 15, 2007 at 12:20 am

    and what a tribute, Robyn.

    • plf515 on December 15, 2007 at 12:26 am

    if, when they asked what creature you killed for fun, you said “humans” ? 🙂

    I thought that letter from your student was quite poignant.  I think it probably represents the tip of the iceberg – that there are many others who feel similarly, but don’t write.

    (and BTW, there seems to be a typo in your diary where you say you  transitioned from 1994-1994)

    • Robyn on December 15, 2007 at 12:46 am

    The usual Art Link does not exist since I haven’t created a web page for the other end of that link.

    The image is now full-size.

    • RiaD on December 15, 2007 at 12:51 am

    what a very beautiful soul you have. thank you for giving me glimpses

  2. insightful and centered teachers like you when I was doing my undergraduate degree. I can think of a couple who really encouraged me, one of whom I am still friends with. I pretty much felt like a number in university, I wasn’t dumb enough to be considered a problem and not bright enough to really stand out. Ironically enough, the least responsive and engaged professors I had were in graduate school. I changed concentrations ( made my major my minor)  because of an overtly sexist professor and had to study for comp exams in one area on my own and all my adviser said to me was,”You’re gonna fail.” I didn’t.

    • Alma on December 15, 2007 at 1:20 am

    I’ve felt the same for not being louder in support, and not letting a teacher here know what support she had from me when she was going through her transition.

    I’ve always been shy, and at the time I figured I was one less person she would have to deal with (We never really got along when my son had her).  Not thinking at the time that having someone physically standing beside her might have eased her soul at least a little bit, even, maybe especially, if it was someone there had been disagreements with.

    I did talk to other parents about how there was nothing wrong with it, and changed a few minds, but I’ve always regretted not letting her know that I was with her.

    • Robyn on December 15, 2007 at 1:37 am

    …at Daily Kos.

    • frosti on December 15, 2007 at 3:06 am

    I had as a Freshman because he had written an article about my husband’s great uncle, who negotiated the release of 15,000 women and children from a concentration camp.  He travelled to bombed out Berlin to meet the Nazi’s.  As a Jew, to accomplish this, was tremendous.  The history professor wanted me to take Swedish because of my background, but I just didn’t have time. I regret it now.  He never answered my letter, but he is now a big wig, who runs the Huntington library in California.

    • RiaD on December 15, 2007 at 4:41 am

    I posted a video in buhdy’s funkalicious essay titled ‘neil’. i cannot see any comments after that, but i see in recent comments ppl are commenting… did i break the page?

    o & i dumped temp int files.

    & rebooted.

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