“I hate it when people try to pigeonhole me,” Pam Whitfield said to me when I met her in Rochester last week.
By “pigeonhole,” she means focusing on the fact that she appears to be one of the finest college professors Minnesota has to offer.
She’s right; there’s much more to Dr. Whitfield, which is why Trey Mork of Dexter submitted her name in NewsCut’s The Person You Should Meet series. “When you talk about Pam, most everything has to be capitalized,” Mork says. “She actually is the person who’s done it all.”
She taught English in China (“on a dare,” she says), studied with Ezra Pound’s family in Italy, studied Spanish in Mexico, received her doctorate at the University of North Carolina (she put herself through grad school by teaching horse riding and freelancing for magazines), is the only young person ever to win high individual titles at both the Quarter Horse Congress and Eastern National 4-H judging contests, is a writer, poet and champion of Rochester’s cultural scene, and a mother of two children to whom she wants to provide as many experiences as she can (“My father says, ‘the only reason to spend money is to make memories,'” she says).
But it’s hard not to focus on her career teaching English, Women’s Perspectives, and Equine Science at Rochester Community and Technical College, if only for her ability to inspire her students, some of whom are — in her words — “wounded.” Talk about almost any other aspect of her life, and the native North Carolinian eventually connects it to her students and her passion for teaching.
“You’re not doing them a service if you can’t connect to their larger lives,” she says. Their “larger lives” might include people who’ve told the students they won’t amount to much, and it often includes students who lack “basic success skills.” Organizational skills in particular, she says, “are at all-time low.” It bothers her that people have a difficult time writing a complete sentence.
There’s a reason for each of the challenges a student presents to a teacher, so Whitfield gets to know them as people first. “I want to teach them they’re not alone,” she says.
She uses tough love as a verb and a tool, assigning more group work in her English classes because “if you let them choose who they’ll work with, they get really honest with each other” about their approach to the class assignment. “I become more of a cheerleader; they take over,” she adds.
Apparently, it works. Whitfield is not at a loss to count her success stories by name — the athlete who told her “you’re the only teacher that I couldn’t sweet talk, sneak by, or smart mouth,” for example. She requires her women’s perspective class to work with non-profit women’s groups “to do something that helps women and children,” and help her students understand a larger world “where women are systematically abused.”
One of her 2007 students in that class, Tara Kline, said Whitfield “restored my faith and my passion in learning.”
When Dr. Whitfield won the Minnesota State Colleges and University System’ “Board of Trustees Educator of the Year” award last year, Ms. Kline, now a University of Minnesota graduate who does women’s advocacy work in the Twin Cities, introduced her.
“To have a student go on and change women’s lives, it doesn’t get any better as a teacher,” Whitfield said in that presentation, not long before taking then-governor Tim Pawlenty to task. “Education is not a business; education is a mission,” she said. “Education is how we change the world, one person at a time. Education is how we pull children out of poverty; it’s how we right the race, gender, and class imbalances of our society.”
Whitfield did not become a Minnesotan “willingly.” She moved here the day after Christmas almost 10 years ago when her then-husband got a job with IBM in Rochester. She was pregnant, didn’t have a job, it was winter, and she didn’t know anybody except her apparent best friend — her horse, Casper, “the Pegasus to my middle age,” she says.
“I do my best thinking on the back of a horse. I’ve drafted lesson plans and created poems while riding through cornfields or along the Root River.”
“I have one thing in my life that’s not competitive,” she says. “I don’t have to look to him for validation. I could sit on a therapist’s couch or I could ride a horse.”
It’s something she knows more about than most people. She holds five judging cards for horse competition, and is working on a 6th (pinto), teaches horse judging at RCTC, and coached Minnesota 4-H judging teams that have won national titles.
“I’m good at multitasking,” she says, which explains why she finds the time to boost Rochester’s cultural scene, too. “People always say there’s nothing to do in Rochester, but you have to come out and try.”
She’s helped form a musical group — Midnight Cowgirl — which consists of her and fellow English professors (“I sass it up,” she says). And she writes poetry, including a series of poems and essays “about women saying goodbye to bad relationships. Women just keep telling me their stories, and the way they say things sticks with me. The words and feelings beg for a forum.”
She wrote this poem — “Departure” — during the 2007 Northwoods Writer’s Conference.
I have always done
what is expected of me:
clear the supper dishes
bathe the children
send birthday cards.
When I awake at three a.m.
a dark angel
straddling my chest,
I know it for what it is:
my thought of leaving you.
It rises like yeast
in the room warmed
by our fights,
of our relationship.
I have lived with this thought
I welcome it
as an old friend,
or a game of cards.
I dress it up and parade it
around the room.
I admire the cut of its suit
how it might look
In my room,
three meals a day
bedtime at nine.
The world does not spin
off its axis.
The children do not asphyxiate.
The heart does not harden
In the morning
my sternum is not pinned
to the bedsprings.
Rather I hover
on new-grown wings.
“I’m not tired of teaching, and I’m not burned out,” she says when asked “what’s next?” Though she came to Minnesota mostly with just “a horse and two saddles,” this is home. “I love Minnesota. I’m staying. People are nice to me here,” she says. “It’s been a great state for education,” although she seems to struggle to avoid the past tense when saying so.
“Because I’m from North Carolina, I talk really, really, fast and my friends remind me I need to slow down,” she told me at the start of our conversation, in which she talked really, really fast and didn’t slow down, almost as if she was trying to keep up with Pam Whitfield.
Photos courtesy of Page McCarthy
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