This is Paola. Dr. Paola Gemme. We met when she walked in the door of Witherspoon 108 to teach Immigrant Literature, a class I was in for my master’s. I thought she was fascinating with her impeccable style–she wore these amazing Italian clothes–and fascination soon morphed into adoration. She became, simultaneously, one of the smartest and kindest people I know. Sitting in her class was like having the sun come shine on your soul. Little did I know I’d be lucky enough to have that sun keep lighting up my life all these years later, as friends, and now colleagues.
Paola taught me a number of things. She introduced me to PIetro di Donato, a writer who broke my heart; and Carlos Bulosan, Jacob Riis, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. She was able to talk about the ills of America while still loving America–in fact, I think, out of love for it. Like James Baldwin. And she modeled something else. The idea that learning is an exchange–a teacher has her part and students have theirs. She had the grace to let her intellect explode in all of its glory–offering her vast knowledge and experience–while remaining humble and open to what she might learn from us. She respected us. It’s something I try to do every day now in my own classes, and it’s something you can’t fake. Students smell a fake from miles away. You have to expect that everyone has a valuable contribution and try to draw it out. You have to mean it when you ask what your students think. Click To Tweet Paola meant it. And so do I.
This requires a certain vulnerability. The semester after I was in Paola’s class she adopted a baby from Guatemala. She knew I had two babies and she asked my advice about some things. We’d meet for coffee and talk about sleeping schedules, language acquisition, and love. How to build trust. How to balance life. How to survive in an academic environment that sometimes scorns motherhood as a lesser occupation. How to listen to your heart as well as your mind.
In Liberal Arts, the kind of classes I now teach under Paola, the central question is “What does it mean to be human?” Dr. Gemme taught me this through great texts. But perhaps even more she taught me this by being human. It’s her superpower.
Ps. Photo creds go to one of my students, who brought me this cape. I need to see about procuring a stylish Italian version of it for Paola.