What My Valentine’s Day Birthday Has Taught Me About Love in the Classroom
Views and statements from the author do not necessarily reflect official positions of the University of Denver.
When my students or colleagues learn that my birthday is on February 14th, one of their first responses is, “Do you like having a Valentine’s Day birthday?” My stock answer typically includes details about how my feelings about my birthday have changed over the years. I really liked it when I was younger: hellooo school Valentine’s Day parties complete with a card exchange, Conversation Hearts candy, and iced sugar cookies. As a teenager and young adult, I often found my Valentine’s Day birthday annoying; I did not want to have to share my day with couples having dinner in overpacked restaurants. But now, as a middle-aged person with young kids and as an empathy and compassion researcher, I revel in the magic of Valentine’s Day and the way it allows me to pause to give and receive love with intention, admiration, and gratitude. What better way could there be to spend a birthday?
My stock response to the question around whether I like my birthday is just a tiny glimpse into the real answer, however. The more genuine reply is often far too complicated for a friendly exchange with students before class or with colleagues while standing in line to get coffee. Truthfully, painful life events have collided with my birthday over the years, and these instances are forever in competition with the joy I feel about making another trip around the sun. For example, on the day my sister and I were to go to our dad’s house to celebrate my 12th birthday, he was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Instead of opening the Nintendo Entertainment System I had a hunch he would be gifting me, my sister and I sat next to our jaundiced dad in the emergency room. His liver was failing due to years of struggling with alcohol addiction. Although I was on to playing Donkey Kong Jr. a few days later, our dad died in the hospital two weeks after my birthday.
In addition to the loss of my dad, for several years I struggled with infertility, and so each passing birthday felt like I was in a time warp waiting for “this” to be the year a pregnancy would finally stick. I did finally get and stay pregnant, and my twins Matilda and Milo were born on February 8th, 2013. But at just three-hours-old, Milo took his last breath from his underdeveloped lungs. We buried him a week later, the day after my birthday.
Because of these experiences, no matter how much time goes by, my feelings around my birthday are complex. There have been years where I have been so relieved that Matilda and Milo’s birthday has not fallen on a teaching day. I have thanked God that Valentine’s Day parties are not the norm in the college classroom. However, despite my desire at times to avoid having my birthday recognized given the pain of the memories of losing my dad and Milo, I simultaneously have longed to feel recognized and honored on my Valentine’s Day birthday.
I certainly am not the only one in academic spaces who straddles the line between longing to celebrate and silence their birthday. After all, our feelings around birthdays are colored by cultural messages that paint aging as something to be feared, avoided, and mourned. Some of our students and colleagues cannot bear to think of celebrating their own special day when family members in war-torn areas are living in terror and may not survive until tomorrow. Others experiencing ecological grief reckon with the fear that with each passing birthday, humans may be one year closer to extinction. Our educational systems teach us that classroom birthday parties are for toddlers and elementary children, not adults or college students. But what if our higher education classrooms were a place, not just for birthday celebrations, but a space that recognizes that birthdays are often rife with complexity for students and the faculty who teach them?
In the winter quarter of 2016, I unexpectedly experienced such a space when teaching the graduate-level course Health Communication. Looking to understand hurtful and compassionate messages, the class was doing a community-engaged research project that included interviewing those who experienced pregnancy loss or the death of a baby. Because of my experiences with infertility, miscarriage, and the death of Milo, I periodically shared my own stories with the students. Because the course occurred in February, one day I shared my struggle surrounding Matilda and Milo’s upcoming third birthday: how would my family celebrate Matilda while also making space to acknowledge Milo this year? Some of the students listened attentively. Others chimed in with ideas based on what they were hearing in their interviews: “Could you light a candle?” “Maybe Matilda could make a birthday card for Milo?” Because of the learning the students had been doing around baby loss for the project and because of the personal reflections they were doing related to their own health challenges, conversations like this were not awkward or untoward. They were, dare I say, “normal” (for us). They were love-filled.
As Valentine’s Day approached, I didn’t mention my birthday to the class. I had already shared my challenges around Matilda and Milo’s birthday with them, and they knew about my family celebrating my son Fyo’s first birthday in January. I was getting self-conscious about not going overboard and sharing “too much,” the threat of being viewed as “unprofessional” in the classroom always lurking (hooks, 1994). The day of my birthday, we spent most of our time talking through themes that were revealing themselves in the students’ interviews, but toward the end of class I noticed the students were getting fidgety and avoiding eye contact. Before I knew it, they presented me with a bouquet of flowers and a card that included words of admiration from each student, and they passed cupcakes around the room. With some of my advisees in the class, I should have known I wouldn’t escape my birthday being acknowledged. I should have guessed that I didn’t need to make any sort of big announcement or disclosure that my birthday is a day filled with both sadness and a desire to be celebrated. I don’t remember what I said in response to this surprise, but I will never forget the awe, humility, and gratitude that came with the feeling of being so deeply known. And loved.
bell hooks’ and Paulo Friere’s foundational work on love in the classroom has long situated “teaching as an act of love” (Freire, 1993; Leistyna, 2004) and “love ethic” (hooks, 1994; 2000) that is liberatory and humanizing, especially for students who are learning about and facing systems of oppression (Arrastia, 2018; Friere 1993; hooks, 2000). Moreover, whereas love includes “a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust,” it also is an act of resistance in the face of that which disconnects us in the classroom (Biana, 2021; hooks 2000, p. 3).
Though I did not plan to be the recipient of a birthday celebration, the groundwork that allowed for its unfolding was laid as the students and I practiced a pedagogy laced with compassionate love aimed at reducing the suffering of those outside and inside the walls of the classroom (Willer, 2019; Willer et al., 2021). Such a praxis of resistance acknowledges that teachers and learners are forever in a state of grieving any number of losses, including those resulting from death, but also those that occur alongside life transitions, illnesses, and failures, for example (Poole et al., 2022; Willer, 2022; Willer et al., 2021). Extending compassionate love meant that our losses as a classroom community had a space to be witnessed and acknowledged (Willer et al., 2021). At the same time, we were attentive to the ways that power and oppression enable and constrain who is allowed to grieve, as well as where, when, and how (long) we grieve (Poole et al., 2022; Willer, 2022; Willer et al., 2021).
Along these lines, some faculty balk at the idea that our job as professors is to care for students’ well-being. After all, most of us are subject experts not trained therapists. However, as Arrastia (2018) notes, “shattering the contemporary education economy … requires that not only the humanity of the students but also the rights, needs, and humanity of the teachers … be acknowledged and regarded” (p. 240). I want to be clear though that I am not calling for faculty to provide their students with therapy in the face of their losses or challenges. I am not advocating for faculty or students to bear the details of their deepest traumas to one another. Indeed, for some—particularly those with marginalized identities—doing so could lead to further suffering. This is not love.
Love is acknowledging not just students’ suffering, but our own points of pain so that we might create more compassionate spaces for teaching and learning. Love is saying to a student, “Wow, what you are going through sounds really difficult. I don’t even know what to say. Let’s walk to the health and counseling center together so that we can connect with someone who does.” Love is saying to a class, “I am having a really hard day today because it is the anniversary of the loss of a special person in my life. I need just one more day to grade your papers.” Love is taking the time to acknowledge that our birthdays can be fragile, and as a result, they impact the way we show up to teach and learn.
For faculty called to love, what can we do to hold birthdays with care and tenderness in our classrooms? Below I provide suggestions, some of which are simple, for those new to practicing love pedagogy or those who have limited class time to spare. For those who long to be love experts, there are also bigger ideas that will take more time to plan and implement. All these suggestions are not only for those whose course content connects in some way to love or birthdays. All of us—from those who teach in the humanities to those who teach the physical sciences—can benefit from creating classrooms of care.
- Ask for student birthdays at the start of the term. Then, include a slide at the beginning of your lecture slide deck that recognizes the birthdays of the week (or month). To acknowledge the celebratory and difficult nature of birthdays, instead of writing “Happy Birthday to Latrice today!” on the slide, type something such as “Sending Latrice happiness and courage on her birthday today!” Birthdays that do not occur during the term can be acknowledged on one of the last days of class (and/or pro tip: send those students an email on their birthday letting them know you are thinking of them).
- Have students fill out a survey at the beginning of the quarter that asks them to provide their name, birthday, what they would ask for if they could have any gift, what they would NOT like to do to celebrate, and what makes their birthday challenging for them. This information will help you weave a birthday recognition into class time. For example, if Camille notes on the survey that her most longed-for gift is a black Tesla, perhaps a question on your statistics exam reads, “Is there a significant difference in savings on gas between Camille’s black Tesla, her blue Prius, and her gray Accord?” If Kai indicates on the survey that the last thing they would want on their birthday is a surprise party, you know not to have the class show up early and yell “happy birthday Kai!” upon their arrival.
- Assign each student a birthday buddy whose job it is to lead a small act of celebration for their classmate. Small acts of celebration could be getting or making a card for all classmates to sign or having each classmate write a reason they are grateful for the person on slips of paper to be given to them at the end of class.
- On your own birthday, bring a sweet to share. Consider asking students about allergens or dietary needs ahead of time or avoid food altogether and bring each student a pencil with hearts printed on it (Draw on your memories of childhood birthday or Valentine’s Day parties when deciding what to bring!).
These suggestions can be adapted to fit course, faculty, and student needs. Acknowledging birthdays takes additional effort on the part of faculty (and students). Indeed, love takes time. But so do other tasks such as emailing students when they are absent or meeting with them in office hours because they were not comfortable asking questions in class. Perhaps if we create birthday-informed classrooms, students will attend and engage more regularly. Perhaps in centering our relationships, humanity, needs, and vulnerability, we—as learners and teachers—celebrate a pedagogy of love (Arrastia, 2018; Friere, 1993; hooks, 1994).
About the Author
Erin Willer is the 4D Director of Faculty Innovation and a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Denver. Her research, teaching, and community work answers the question: how can we cultivate compassion, creativity, community, and well-being in the face of difficult life experiences, such as illness, death, and loss?
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