Heehee, Otis farted,” my son said during a Monday morning online meet with his fifth-grade class. I wondered out loud what Otis’ problem was. “Otis is my teacher’s baby, Mom.” Well, I’m a jerk. I went over to wave at baby Otis, who was blithely sitting on his mom’s lap as he apparently does most school days, and sat nearby listening to his mama lead class through the trials and tribulations of another online school day.
Gone are the old days of wondering if our teachers lived in the elementary school and slept in their classrooms. Social media had already torn holes in our facades, but 2020 tore them to the ground along with monuments and statues, baseball team mascots, libraries and police stations.
This month I lost a monument of my own – my mentor and teacher, Joseph Epstein – who declined to wait for the rope and took down his own statue by writing a Wall Street Journal op-ed (Dec. 11) in which he referred to Dr. Jill Biden as “kiddo” (she is 69) and suggested she “might drop the ‘Dr.’ ” title. “ ‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic,” he wrote, as her doctorate is not in obstetrics but in education.
Ostensibly, Epstein is bemoaning the practice of universities awarding doctorates rather too freely in subjects other than medicine, although history tells us this was the norm for centuries; however, his tone implies there is more at issue: “Forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden.”
Epstein was my adviser and closest writing mentor at Northwestern University in the late 1990s. When I saw the byline under the Wall Street Journal op-ed, I waited a day before confirming that this Joseph Epstein was, indeed, the teacher I had adored. Since then I’ve struggled to reconcile my memories of him with the misogynist tone of his writing in the WSJ.
Epstein was a tough but supportive professor in my small creative writing cohort, and a kind adult presence in my life as I balanced the demands of two degrees. He worked with me during the writing process for my junior year novella and attended my senior recital a year later. He was often in the audience for my concerts at the School of Music. We kept in touch for a while after I graduated and went on for my Master of Music degree and doctorate. But since it’s been a while since we spoke, I thought I might catch him up here.
Mr. Epstein, my doctoral degree was pretty rigorous, actually, even without taking into account the outside challenges posed by my gender, with which Dr. Biden is certainly familiar. I defended my dissertation with an infant in a car seat next to me, and walked for my doctorate with a 9-month-old waiting at home. Did I tell you the story of when I flew to an interview for a tenure-track position at 33 weeks pregnant? I’ll never forget the look on the committee member’s face when I came down the elevator to meet him in baggage claim. No, you’re right, I didn’t get that job. I have been pretty successful as a musician, though — did I ever write you about the concerts I’ve played with a crying infant in the wings, or the rehearsals with a baby on a knee? Oh, and here’s my favorite accomplishment: I delivered my two babies drug-free and stone-cold sober. Not bad for a kiddo like me!
Truth be told, I can’t remember how Epstein treated me. I like to believe he guided the young me with the same respect and belief in my potential as he would my male counterparts. I have no idea if I was condescended to and patronized by the same man who wrote the op-ed, or if this Joseph Epstein is an embittered product of the white male tantrum that our country has been throwing for the past few years. The Mr. Epstein of the cloistered University Hall office in 1997 chose to show us a staid and steady intellectual in cardigans and tortoiseshell glasses. Now he chose to show us a different side, and I’m left to reconcile the two, hamstrung by 20-plus years of confused memories.
2020 left precious few heroes on the pedestal, and life teaches you that it’s unfair to put them up there in the first place. But consider Baby Otis and his Mama, who have no choice but to reveal their humanity to us, baby farts and all. If all monuments must fall, I’m glad they’re still standing.
Dr. Rena Kraut is a classical clarinetist and the executive director of the Cuban American Youth Orchestra.
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