Discover more from Hugo Schwyzer
Who Deserves a Farewell Party?
In six weeks, my son will graduate elementary school, and my daughter will leave junior high. David is off to middle school, and Heloise into high school. We will have promotion rituals for each, and an end-of-the-year celebration.
We are heading to graduation, and with it, a wave of parties and celebrations honoring the end of a season of a young person’s life. For people who live on academic calendars, as both my parents did, as my brother does, and as I did until I was 46, we are also approaching retirement party season. I was there for the 2002 celebration when daddy retired after 37 years at UC Santa Barbara, and for the dinner gala a year later, when mama stepped down at Monterey Peninsula College. When I was hired at Pasadena City College in 1993, I was the youngest person in the department. By the time I was unceremoniously forced out 20 years later, I had attended the retirement parties of dozens of those senior to me. I gave many farewell speeches.
The adverb “unceremoniously” stings. I gave two decades of my life to an institution, and instead of getting a farewell party, I got a restraining order forbidding me from setting foot on the campus again. This week marks ten years since I gave my last lectures at Pasadena City College, and I had no plans for a party; I figured at the time I was only halfway through a long and happy career. Ten years ago, I told countless students and virtually all my colleagues that I’d see them in the fall. I was wrong. “The thing about the last time is you don't know that it's the last time 'til it is,” sings the great Tenile Townes, but once you know it was the last time, it lingers.
I promise this is not entirely an exercise in morose self-pity. I want to tell another goodbye story.
As you can almost certainly imagine, I was not the first professor at PCC to get into considerable trouble for sexual misconduct. I was unique in that I was my only accuser, and I lost my job entirely based on my own confession, but others had taken their students to bed before me, and others would do so long after the college threw (unceremoniously, again) the contents of my office into a dumpster.
I had a colleague at PCC I’ll call James. James was a bit more than a decade older than I was, hired a few years before me. He taught East Asian History as well as courses on Asian-American and Middle East history. A skilled musician, he advised the campus jazz ensemble and played the sax. (I’ve changed enough details to not get sued here.) James had a reputation as a good scholar, as an adequate if uninspiring lecturer, and in time, as a sexual harasser. The complaints did not begin to pile up until after he’d received tenure, but in time, they grew more urgent and disturbing. James did not proposition students, or assault them, but he leered and suggested and made unprofessional remarks. It was a different era, and the Title IX coordinator on campus was unenthusiastic in her work, so this was tolerated in a way it would not be now.
I confronted James once, after a student of mine had complained to me that he had made repeated comments about her legs, asking her to wear a short skirt and sit in the front row. When I told James, in my best casual voice, that he might want to knock it off, his eyes widened – and then narrowed. He knew my reputation, and what was then, my past. “You of all people, Hugo… you shouldn’t lecture me.”
I explained that anything I had ever done with students had been consensual, and I did not comment on the appearance of the women in my classes. To me, that was an important distinction at the time, and I still think it so. To James, it was rank hypocrisy. He thought I was bragging that I was more attractive than he was. He told me exactly where I could go.
And then, finally, James went too far. In 2008, the aggregate weight of the complaints had grown too great. There was a new and more aggressive Title IX officer. James had also turned 55, eligible for early retirement. The college made him an offer: take a buyout, get early retirement with a few extra years’ service tacked into the calculation, and enjoy a part-time position in the library, archiving Asian-American historical records. If he didn’t take the offer, they’d begin the termination process, which was difficult with a tenured faculty member, but not impossible given the history of his transgressions. James was not a fool. He took the deal.
In April 2008, the department announced that James was retiring. Everyone knew the details of what had led to this moment, though it was supposed to be a secret, and there were many quiet expressions of relief.
There was also the question of a party. Traditionally, the discipline in which a professor taught was responsible for organizing the farewell do. James was an historian, so the historians would be expected to put on a little something with punch, cupcakes, a proclamation, toasts, and a goodbye gift. Several of my colleagues were adamant that James should have no party. The college could call it a retirement, but it was clear he was being forced out for cause. He didn’t deserve the same party the non-harassers received.
Others of us felt differently. I had another five years to go before my own career would end far more abruptly, but I was adamant that James deserved a party. “He’s not just the sum of his mistakes,” I pleaded, an argument that carried the day with some colleagues but not others. I remember being surprised that my department, with equal numbers of male and female historians, did not split on gender lines on the subject. There were as many women who agreed James should have his party as women who were vehemently opposed.
We had the party. Perhaps ten of us – five historians, an economist, a sociologist, a music professor, a department secretary and James himself — gathered in a little classroom at lunch time. We had the speeches, the cupcakes, and the singing of “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” safe in the certainty that those who would (perhaps rightly) deny it were absent. We gave James a framed poster of an old photograph of him with Miles Davis. It had run in the student newspaper years earlier.
Another historian had retired the previous year, and that had been an absolute gala with nearly 100 people. The contrast with what we arranged for James was obvious and painful. James kept a brave face, but when he saw the poster, he wept. I am proud of only a few things in my career, but I am glad to be able to say that I stepped forward, hugged him hard, and whispered in his ear that we would miss him.
I meant what I said. I was glad James was going. Every single one of us at that party was relieved that this embarrassment was leaving us. Every single one of us had complained to the administration or confronted James to his face about his behavior. None of us thought he belonged in teaching. Ten of us, though, knew James still deserved a party. Celebrations aren’t only for the virtuous; goodbye parties are not just for those whose departure merits real regret. People who do bad things, and James had done objectively bad things, do not cease to be people. We can condemn the behavior and honor the human. A warm and affectionate goodbye party for a man we all knew had to go taught me that those things can and must be balanced.
It goes without saying that I grieve the party I never had. It merits saying that if this is one of the great disappointments of my life, I’ve been luckier than most. It also merits saying that in this harsh and peevish age, when we devote so much of our time to getting the people we hate fired or otherwise humiliated, we need rituals that acknowledge even overdue and necessary goodbyes.
We are not children; we can hold more than one idea in our minds at once. We can say, “This person must be let go, as they are a disaster” and say, “This person deserves a decent farewell, and our best wishes.” I do not mean to obligate the genuinely wounded; I would never expect one of James’ victims to come to the party. But we can show love for the Jameses of the world without betraying our solidarity with those he hurt. We can deliver accountability and kindness simultaneously; we can hug a man hard after we’ve worked tirelessly to take away his career.
That’s not madness. It’s at the heart of what it means to live in community.
One of these days, I’ll throw my own party.