Saturday, April 16, 2011

Non-Fiction: Two Weeks

In all honesty I keep going over this piece and have been changing it throughout the evening, but I'm finally posting it as is...

Two Weeks

Two weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon I had an odd thought as I walked into Target. The thought that struck me was in relation to Professor Bari Watkins, and that thought was that I hadn't seen her in a while, but occasionally in the past I had run into her at Target.

On a particular Saturday several years ago I was questing for a gift to bring to a wedding when I saw her in the housewares area at Target--I believe I was looking at something frivolous like a pitcher or simple serving platter because what else would you buy someone as a wedding gift when you've waited until the last minute and everything except for a pricey vacuum cleaner has been purchased from their gift registry? Anyway... we talked about the items at Target usually being rather nice and a good value. At that time I was enrolled in the section of History 201 that she taught.
My daughter Mina was with me on this shopping excursion and Professor Watkins told her to "grow up to be really smart, just like your mommy." This is one of the greatest compliments, but something I had been silently questioning at that moment when it came to my daughter because she is Autistic, and at her first evaluations was shown to be a year behind cognitively. It is nice to set goals, but when your child has such a diagnosis things can be really shaky, and it's tough to remain optimistic when the tests don't look that wonderful. Professor Watkins knew of the diagnosis, too. (I'm pleased to say that my daughter is now eight years-old and has excelled cognitively and academically, but remains a little behind socially unless you really like talking about princesses or video games--in some circles that's quite enough points of interest though)
Upon this meeting at Target I had only taken her section of History 200, and was as mentioned enrolled in History 201, and had done very well previously. I had the habit of not doing so well on quizzes, but remained flawless when exams came up. I just knew what points that she wanted to see on the essays and the whole issue had become a joke between us. Her approach to U.S. History gave a wider breadth of information than what was taught in High School. It was an approach that brought the people back into History. When you study History it's easy to get into a habit of names, numbers, battlefields, etc., especially if you're not really invested in the study itself, but she made History personal and was able to show how History affects us now. She often brought Social History and Environmental History into the mix as well. I also appreciated her comments that in the U.S. we get to overthrow our government every four years. When we studied the Great Depression she brought in a slide show of Dorthea Lange's photography.
When I took History 201 with her in Fall of 2008 I maintained a nearly perfect grade for the entire class despite two brief hospitalizations (one of which fell on election night of 2008, and was an amusing place to watch history being made), and my final had to be rescheduled as I was to give birth to my son on the day of the final exam. I sent her an e-mail asking if it was okay for me to miss class that day, and was given an extension on that test.

Days after Tristan was born I sent out an online birth announcement with a picture of him and received some comments, and this was her personal message:

"James Tristan,
Welcome! We need to make this a better world for you to grow up in, and I promise to do my part. May you always be happy and healthy.
Bari Watkins"

The note surprised and moved me beyond words, and I committed it to memory to tell my son when he is older, but I am glad to have found the word-for-word note in the depths of my e-mail account today. I think it says a lot about her character, and as I knew her she was always involved with the world and doing her part to make a difference in everything that she did. That may sound like an empty generalization that so many people say about others, but I swear to whatever higher power there is out there that I hope to be half as involved, driven and fantastic as Bari Watkins.

So, when I walked across the parking lot at Target I had a pang of reflection on U.S. History and the professor who taught those courses. I made a mental note that I really need to keep in contact with people.
As it turns out I will never see Bari Watkins again because on that particular Saturday, April 2nd 2011, she passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Article from Lancaster Eagle Gazette
Obituary from the Lancaster Eagle Gazette
Obituary that Ohio University Posted
Lustgarten Foundation


  1. This post has moved me to tears. I only spoke to her a couple of times, about absolutely trivial things. I will always regret not knowing her better or taking any of her classes. I think my stubborn hatred of US History caused me to miss out on knowing one of those people that everyone should know in their lives.

  2. Very poignant Jen. I'm not anonymous, just your mother.

  3. Jen,

    Bari was my wife, partner, guide, lover, and best pal.

    Thanks for the kind words. It moved me to tears as well.