I adjust myself in my chair as she shines that light into my eyes. Her hand adjusts the magnifying glass to get a better look at the damage I’ve done to the inside of my mouth.
“Can you open a little wider?”
“No - it really hurts,” I say but I doubt she can make out the tortured muffled sound. Whatever she interpreted, it doesn’t seem to phase her at all - she just continues to pick away at my tooth with that sharp metal object.
I push her away,” It’s really hurting me.”
She looks puzzled. “Doesn’t your chin and cheek feel numb?”
“It does, but it still hurts me.”
She shakes her head in disbelief. I mean, she does believe me, but she’s just amazed at how bad my situation is. She reaches behind her in a fluid motion and grabs a syringe and loads it up with some more drugs.
At this point, it’s been six days since Long Island University locked out the faculty at its Brooklyn Campus. The Long Island University Faculty Federation (LIUFF), our faculty union, had been negotiating with the university all summer. The LIUFF wanted to begin early, but the university administration dragged its feet. On September 2, I received a FedEx parcel with a document detailing the “generous” concessions that LIU was offering. It also said that I’d be locked out of campus as of 12:01 AM September 3, 2016.
What that meant was that I wouldn't be allowed on campus and not allowed to teach my graduate students. I wouldn’t have access to my email or other university accounts. I’d be assessed a per diem fee for not working. My health insurance policy for my wife, my daughter and myself would be cancelled.
I felt my jaw clench. I re-read the letter on the couch next to my wife. After a while, the words just became random disconnected letters on a page and couldn’t really focus on them.
“Hey babe, you’re grinding your teeth again.” My wife was on the couch reading her book, oblivious to what I was about to tell her.
Access to my email was terminated as of 12:02 on September 3. At 12:03, I began to apply for unemployment.
Initially, a lot of people assured me that this was just a bluff; this is how business is done - empty threats to distract people from the real issues. In the past, when the LIUFF had negotiated with LIU, there were always threats on both sides. But this time, the university elevated this issue to a personal level.
By cancelling my health care coverage, the University president, the vice-president of Academic Affairs, and the Board of Trustees have targeted my family. I did this for 11 years and this is how I am treated?
I developed programs, attended “Shared Governance” meetings, and served in positions even when it was not safe for me to do so (read: “untenured”). I presented at state, national and international conferences and showcased my awesome LIU PowerPoint template on each slide. I talked up the place like it was a heaven on earth.
There’s a pit in my stomach when I think of the students and alums that I’ve worked with, and how my collusion might affect their future. How I may have convinced or swayed them to attend LIU.
I broke bread at their homes. I visited them in the hospital when they gave birth. I worried about them when they were deployed to Iraq. When they found out their partners had cheated on them, when they doubted their career plans and goals, when the stress from balancing their family and schooling was too much, I was there for them.
LIU made me out to be a tool.
The dentist finishes my second injection and she opens my mouth again. This time, it’s not so bad. “There’s a sore here, near your jaw that’s almost as big as a dime.”
“And I don’t even understand how you’ve chewed up your gum by your back molar and wisdom tooth.”
If she doesn’t know then who the hell does?
She’s quiet for a while and the noise is deafening. In the corner, CNN is on mute and the closed captioning is analyzing the hair styles of the two presidential candidates. But nothing about our situation.
My dentist grabs yet another tool and pokes around at my jaw. Despite the second injection, her motions still hurt, but it does have a slight minty taste.
Her eyebrows pop up for a second, and she takes her gloves off only to replace them with another latex set. “You’ve got a pretty bad infection going on there - by my estimates, it’s probably because you bit down into your cheek and gum. I’m gonna guess that it’s about 4 - 5 days old.”
I ran to the bathroom in the cafe across the street from LIU and vomited. It’s Day 5 of the Lockout, the first day that the LIUFF is protesting, the first day of classes. I had been outside, marching and shouting as loudly as I could, in solidarity with my union colleagues.
But then, I saw her.
The girl must have been no older than 18, and it was clear that she was excitedly anticipating the start of her academic career. She was dressed smartly, with a wonderful yellow faded leather bag on her right shoulder. Her afro-puff hairstyle was as beautiful and layered as the dandelions that I remembered blowing on with my daughter earlier in the summer, those same dandelions that we made wishes on.
She stopped a few feet from the university front entrance, looked around, and processed the scene. This innocent froze, and I saw, from at least 50 yards away a tear fall down her brown cheek.
Someone from the union handed her a flyer and began speaking to her calmly. But with each word, the girl’s innocence about academia faded away. The university is just like the rest of the world, she must have thought, they care very little about the black and the brown.
That sight made my jaw stiffen. I become painfully aware of the grinding noise of my teeth and my stomach turned sour. I wished that she didn’t have to go through this, but there was nothing that I could do. I ran across the street.
After I exited the stall, one of the workers who smelled of delicious cheesecake looked at my union signs and me. He nodded at me, met my eyes and nodded at me again. “Fight the good fight, brother,” clenched my hand and hugged me like he was a brother.
I could just resign and this wouldn’t be an issue for me. But I don’t want to leave my students. Teaching isn’t a profession. It’s a calling. By my count, I’ve seen about 200 graduate students finish our program, each of which works with a caseload of 400 - 1,000 children. In an indirect way, I’ve played a role in helping anywhere between 8,000 to 200,000 children. I took a significant pay cut because I believed that I could do much more good in this world by teaching graduate students. My alums will still make more money in their first year than I do in my 11th. My union isn’t asking for anywhere near their salaries - just enough to make sure that we can afford to live.
The dentist calls in a dental hygienist who proceeds to clean out the infection in my teeth and my cheek. For about half an hour, I deal with the pain. She asks if I want a third numbing injection. How much would that cost? I tell her “No”, and she continues scraping as I clench the armrest of my chair.
Later, my dentist writes out the prescription for antibiotics and for a muscle relaxant. At this point, I’m wondering how I’m going to pay for medications. My thoughts run to my daughter and wife - how would I pay for anything if they got sick?
“You should get some rest. Take the day off from work tomorrow.”
I don’t want to get into my whole work situation. I feel embarrassed and ashamed, and angry, and, well, every other negative emotion I can think of.
“Sure. Sounds good.”
She stops and looks at me. What does she see? It feels like its forever. What does she see?” She cocks her head gently to the right and asks, as if it is the first time she’s thought of it, “Are you under a lot of stress?”
I didn’t want to have to write this piece. In fact, I hated writing every minute of it - doing so reminded me of how repulsive this situation is. I’m indignant that the university has done this to me; how they’ve made it personal by going after my family; how they’ve made me out to be a stooge for convincing these students to attend this institution.
Right now, I should be preparing to hold class. I should be researching better ways for my students to help children and adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder; how they can apply the principles and procedures of behavior analysis in better and broader ways; how they can become better advocates for the children that they work with as school psychologists.
I’ve decided that I will be present at a cafe near the university during the times that my classes typically meet. I’ve sent out an open invitation to my students and asked them to forward it along. When they come, we will discuss what I went into this line of business to do, and not this nonsense.
My teaching is a calling. No man-made union-busting tactics are going to stand in my way. I look forward to meeting with my students next week.