What’s in a Name? A Lot It Turns Out by Vasundara Varadhan

“Hey, Vasu, do you know anyone in prison? Looks like you got a greeting card from Great Meadow Correctional Facility,” said Greg, my Assistant Director, as I walked in the door. “Must be a mistake. Check the address. Why would I know anyone in prison? What kind of a person do you think I am?” I replied with a laugh as I took the envelope from him.  It was definitely a holiday card, not unusual with Christmas being ten days away. In the left hand corner in neatly written handwriting penned in the style of a young child, was the name and address of the sender:

William RODRIGUEZ #81-A-5937                                                                                  

Great Meadow Box 51                                                                                  

Comstock, N.Y. 12821-0051

In the lower right corner was my name and work address:

Dr. Vasundara Varadhan, Director, Writing Program                                                                                            

Learning Support Services, c/o College of New Rochelle                                                                                          

33 Leland Avenue, New Rochelle, N.Y. 10805

A 25 cent stamp with a white Christmas tree speckled in colorful dots against a red background had been affixed in the right hand corner. Adjacent to it, in bright red were the words, “Great Meadow Correctional Facility,” and a five point red star. An ink seal bore the date, Dec. 15, 1990.

“This is so weird,” I said aloud as I walked into Pat’s office. She had been my secretary since I started working at the College in 1987 and in the past three years had become a close friend and confidante. “Take a look at this, Pat. How on earth did this guy, William, know my full name?” Everyone called me “Vasu” except for the nuns at my school in Madras, India who always addressed me as “Vasundara.” I used my official name only on important documents like my passport, green card and bank accounts but not for anything else. Even at the College of New Rochelle, my title was Dr. Vasu Varadhan, Director of Learning Support Services. They added Director of the Writing Program very recently, a fact this William or whoever he was, could not have possibly known. “Things were getting curiouser and curiouser,” I uttered a la Alice In Wonderland.

Pat pored over the envelope with a trained eye. She was impeccable in her work habits and an excellent proof-reader. She scrutinized all my memos for any typos and freely offered suggestions to re-word a particular sentence if it didn’t sound right. I could always trust her judgement. “This card is definitely meant for you, Vasu, and Greg’s right, it’s from a prisoner.” I could feel my heart race and began to panic. It felt eerie that a prisoner had somehow found my name and work address. “ Do you think I should open it or just throw it away?” I asked. By now, Greg had joined us and was of the firm opinion that I chuck the envelope in the wastepaper basket. “ Who needs this crap in one’s life?” he said in a disgusted tone. I wasn’t really surprised by Greg’s response. In many ways it was typical of him. He was a clean-cut middle class white boy from Rockland County who had led a rather parochial life. Our work relationship was cordial on the surface but there were times when he seemed resentful to answer to me as his boss. I was never sure if it had to do with my being a woman or that I was both Indian and a woman. I suspected he tolerated my ethnicity because I spoke with an American accent and knew that I had spent the first twelve years of my childhood growing up in Queens.

Pat was a bit more measured in her response. “ There’s no harm in opening it and reading what he has to say. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.” Curiosity got the better of me and I sliced open the envelope with one of Pat’s letter openers, trying to keep it as pristine as possible. I was a Law and Order junkie and wanted to preserve the evidence with the least amount of tampering. It was good to be prepared, just in case.

It was a rather plain holiday card, a bit cheap-looking and certainly not one of the more expensive kinds that Hallmark put out this time of year. The paper was thin, almost transparent, with the standard Christmas tree decorated in red and green tinsel and colorful ornaments gracing the front with the usual greeting, “Merry Christmas,” in bold red letters printed inside. Crammed into whatever blank space was available, he wrote in small block letters:

Dear Dr. Vasundara

I saw your name in an ad in the local paper and liked the sound of it. I never heard of this name before and would like to know what it means. I see you are a Director of the Writing Program at the College of New Rochelle. I am taking a writing class and want to improve my skills. Will you be willing to help me? I hope you will reply.
Sincerely,
William

The fear and panic I initially felt began to ebb though I was puzzled by his reference to the ad in the local paper. No one in the Public Relations Office had contacted me about advertising our tutoring services and I was annoyed not to have been consulted. I made a mental note to track down who was responsible. I read his card a second time. The tone of the letter seemed respectful enough and I was moved by his motivation to learn. His request for help appeared genuine and harmless. My immediate reaction was to write him back. Perhaps it was the teacher in me that felt an urge to educate him in some way, to broaden his horizons beyond those prison walls. Explaining the origins of my name would on its own serve as a mini introduction to certain aspects of Indian culture, a novel experience that I was sure he would find exciting and completely unexpected. He may have been a prisoner but at that moment I saw him as a student, curious and willing to learn. What more could a teacher ask for? Besides, for the better part of my teaching career, my students were mostly from low socio-economic backgrounds who faced incredible odds in their quest for an undergraduate degree.

My very first teaching job as an adjunct instructor began at Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn, back in 1980. I had just completed my Masters Degree at NYU in Media Studies and had been eager to test my abilities in the classroom. I recalled the Chairman of the Department telling me that the students in the course were, to quote him directly, “the dregs of society.” For further clarification, he added “ Some of them have drug problems. A few are unwed mothers and most likely, many of them will drop out before the semester is over. The fact that you speak impeccable English will be an education in and of itself. Good luck!.” It was not the kind of interview I had anticipated. I always wore a sari and thought for sure that this would invite some questions about my background such as how I came to this country and how I came to pursue my degree at NYU. I came prepared to discuss my Master’s thesis and my future research interests in the PhD program into which I had been recently accepted. I never thought my command of the English language would be the sole criterion for the job. I was hired on the spot.

I refused to see my Kingsborough students as “dregs of society.” The fact that most of the dozen or so of them showed up for a 8:00 am class that ended at 10:30 was proof positive of their determination to learn. I did smell liquor on a couple of them and one student, in particular, Louis P., had a habit of nodding off in the front row. One day, during our ten-minute break, he apologized profusely for his behavior. “You see, Prof., I work at Dangerfield’s in uptown Manhattan and don’t get off until 4:00 am. I gotta drink a lot on the job. It’s part of the scene, you know. Then I gotta go to Brooklyn and catch some sleep before I make it here.” He swore he was keeping up with the reading. Louis was quite the charmer. He had a look of innocence and a sheepish smile and acted genuinely contrite that I was more amused than angry. However, I did advise him to cut down on his alcohol intake on the days he had school. Another young girl, visibly pregnant, dropped out mid-term. Without warning, her father had refused to pay her tuition. She sobbed uncontrollably in front of me and wanted me to know how keen she was to complete her college education and provide a good life for her unborn child. It was heart- breaking to witness her plight and at the same time realize that there was little I could do to ameliorate her circumstances. I lost a few more during the term for reasons unknown and towards the end about eight students managed to complete the course, including Louis. He was so grateful that he invited my husband and me for a night at Dangerfield’s. We accepted and I was flushed with pride when Louis took the stage briefly and pointed me out to the audience as a teacher he would never forget. He kept his promise and in the years to come never failed to call me every New Year’s eve to wish me and my family well. I attended his wedding at St. Patrick’s no less and was sad to hear a couple of years later that his wife had run away with another man and filed for divorce. There would be other students much like him when I taught working class students at Hunter College. They were men and women in 9-5 jobs with families who trudged to the campus for an evening course on the History of Media. Surprisingly, their energy level was high for that time of day and I was impressed by their commitment to get an education. I felt a measure of success in my early years as a teacher, not so much for myself but more for my students who persevered despite the many vicissitudes life had thrown in their paths. William, the prisoner, would be a challenge of a different sort. Somehow, it felt immoral to let him down. Yet, I wasn’t sure if I could summon enough temerity to commit to him wholly.

“ This business about the ad is so weird,” I said to Pat and Greg. “Do either of you know who placed it and where?”
Pat and Greg were as confused as I was. The center, staffed by the three of us, offered tutoring services in writing, math and the physical sciences. Our unit, when I joined the College had been known as the Tutoring Center. My boss, newly appointed as the Vice-President of Academic Affairs, felt the word, ‘tutoring’ was in some way synonymous with remediation and that students would be reticent to seek help for fear of being stigmatized. Learning Support Services, our new name, had, according to her, a more positive connotation, a warmer and more hospitable environment where students of different levels could receive the appropriate kind of tutoring. Unlike the other administrative offices nestled among various buildings on campus, we had a quaint three-story house all to ourselves. A small pathway, off the main road led to the backdoor which opened to a small kitchen. Pat’s office was on the ground floor and at the top of the stairway, a quick left led to my office, a quick right to Greg’s. Scattered among the three stories were rooms for tutoring and during peak hours tutors often used the closed in verandah downstairs where several chairs and tables had been set up. The exterior was shabby-looking, the drab gray paint chipped and peeling. The screened door in the front squeaked every time it was opened. Compared to the well-manicured lawns and graceful homes on Leland Avenue, the house was an eye-sore. Except for a small board that spelled out Learning Support Services, there was nothing inviting about the place. But once you stepped inside, there was a hub of activity with a whole lot of tutoring going on.

The College of New Rochelle prided itself on being the first women’s Catholic college founded in New York in 1904 by the Ursuline Order. Apart from that, it did not have a distinctive reputation and most people, including friends of mine who lived in New Rochelle had never heard of it. Nearby, Iona College was better known. Given its obscurity, especially in its own neighborhood, it made sense to advertise the College but why single out Learning Support Services to announce our tutoring services in the local paper? It made no sense since our clientele consisted solely of students at the college, not outsiders. To use my name without informing me came across as being high-handed and downright improper. Someone in the PR office needed to be notified but right now my attention was focused on William and what steps, if any, I should take regarding his request for help.

“Should I reply? What do you guys think?” I asked Pat and Greg.
“I wouldn’t if I were you. It’s asking for trouble,” said Greg adamantly.
“ Maybe you should ask Raghu,” said Pat referring to my husband. She continued by saying, “ He’s a mathematician and smart and could probably come up with a logical solution.”  I bristled at the notion that I might not be as smart or logical as Raghu and was sorely tempted to not tell him about William and handle the matter myself.

“I feel sorry for the guy. It must be awful to be behind bars and having nothing to look forward to. At least, he’s doing something productive by taking a writing class. That’s a good sign,” I replied, directing my comments more towards Greg. I knew him to be quite disparaging of the minority students who came for tutoring and tell me in private that it was a futile endeavor to think they would improve. It turned out to be equally futile to disabuse him of his pre-conceived notions.

“Think about it but don’t do anything rash,” Pat warned me.

“ You already know how I feel. Throw the damn card away and good riddance,” said Greg with an air of finality and turned to go upstairs to his office.

The forty-minute commute on Metro-North to Grand Central Station gave me time to think. I had no idea what crime William had committed to land himself in prison. Was it for something petty or something too awful to consider like rape or murder? Was he genuinely trying to improve himself or for lack of anything better to do, had he picked my name at random and on a lark, thought it might be fun to write me and see what would happen? I re-read his card to see if I missed something, some clue perhaps to his motives. I found nothing. His handwriting was like that of a child who had just learned to write down whole words in block letters. I imagined him struggling through every sentence making sure of his syntax and spelling. Then there was the part of wanting to improve his writing skills and his request for help. After all, Learning Support Services had featured prominently in the ad, and he was looking for support and my services. I had often been accused of being a born sucker for a sob story by my family. “You’re so gullible, Mom,” my older son told me on many an occasion. I’ll prove them wrong, I said to myself, and began to look at my options more logically. What would be the harm in sending William a nice holiday card with a brief explanation of my name? I would keep the tone formal and polite and urge him to stay in the writing program, encourage him to write, while being extra cautious not to write anything that might be construed as an offer of help on my part. It might put an end to any further correspondence and the matter would be resolved. I figured that this way, I would not be dismissing him outright, neither would I be giving him false hope. Altogether, it looked like a win-win situation.

Later that evening, I did show Raghu the card and rather than seek his advice told him I intended to reply. He glanced at it quickly and I could tell by the look on his face that he was displeased with my decision. “Are you sure you want to do this? What if this guy’s a killer? Why get involved?” He sounded so much like my assistant, Greg, which irked me even more. He and Greg had nothing in common except that they were both men. Maybe it was some macho thing which made them feel morally obliged to protect the weaker sex from predatory men since they couldn’t fend for themselves. I really didn’t care. My mind was made up.

I bought one of those large-sized Hallmark cards, nicely embossed with little snowflakes. Cooped up in prison during one of the most festive times of the year could not have been pleasant to say the least. A fancy card was my small gesture of bringing William a bit of holiday cheer. I mulled over my thoughts before putting pen to paper. Every sentence had to be meticulously crafted with no room for ambiguity. If there was ever a time to be acutely aware of one’s audience, it was certainly now. I slowly began to write:

Dear William,

Thank you for your nice card though I am sorry you are in prison. You asked about my name. It means, “beautiful earth” in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. You see, I’m from India. We have a naming ceremony ten days after a child is born and it was my maternal grandfather who named me.

I’m glad you are in a writing class. I encourage you to continue. I wish you all the best for the New Year!

Sincerely,

Vasundara

I saw no reason to share my card to William with Pat or Greg. I was confident that it was innocuous enough with no need for further scrutiny and ready to be mailed out. I dropped it off in a mailbox in New Rochelle so there would be no postmark indicating it was sent from New York. It was best to be extra vigilant in case he was released and tried to track me down in the city. I took out the white pages and looked up the number of people whose surname was Varadhan and, as I suspected, we were the only ones. He obviously knew my work address, thanks to the ad, and could just as easily accost me there but I assured myself that it was safer to be on campus. Firstly, there were a few guards who were on regular patrol and secondly, there was never a dearth of tutors bustling about our little house and the chances of my being alone were virtually nil.

It was about a week into the new year when a second envelope arrived from William. His letter dated, January 8, 1991 ran to nearly three pages on legal size yellow ruled paper. It caught me off guard as I had not expected to hear from him and, as far as I could tell, had written nothing in my card to encourage a response. Pat and Greg hadn’t come in as yet so in the privacy of my office I began to wade through the narrative arc of William’s life.

He began by writing, “I’m just a normal person. I like to know people and be close to people.” He wanted to “learn positive things from me and emphasized that “ I don’t want your money or any gift.” He was 31 years old and had been in prison for nearly ten years and in and out of jail when he was younger. He had tried to kill himself twice because as he put it, “ I reached out to people for help but they turn their back on me. So I said to myself they don’t care Hey I don’t care.” He seemed particularly angry at those who had turned their backs on him and went so far as to blame them for setting him on his criminal path. “He claimed he wanted to stop being a criminal but “found it hard because people only respected me as a criminal so that what I felt I had to be in order for respect.” He was trying to turn his life around and discovered he had a talent for writing songs fostered in large part by his fellow-prisoners. He wanted to pursue writing a play on prison life which was why the ad had caught his attention. “ I need your help cause my sister tell me I could write and I should write. The only things is I don’t know how to do it. I want to show people the real deal, the pain from the heart that is stronger than a physical pain can cast.” He begged me not see him as a hopeless cause. He would be facing the Parole Board in March, two months away, and if things went well, he would be released in May. I had a sudden pit in my stomach at the thought of him being freed. He must have committed some ghastly crime to be locked up for ten years and I wished he had told me what it was.

The last part of his letter veered off into more salacious content. There were some “sisters” as he put it who were really not his sisters who wrote him frank sexual letters. If he didn’t respond with equal candor, they stopped writing so he kept up the correspondence just to receive mail. He became more explicit by describing how some of these “sisters” tongue kissed him and wanted to be “felt up” when they visited him in prison. He, however, “ only let two of my sisters kiss me on my lips (only a snack) not in my mouth. I’m telling you this because I want you to know I will respect you.”

As if out of remorse, he apologized for possibly scaring me. He desperately needed “special people” to keep his dream alive but would understand if I didn’t want to be bothered. He reiterated how people had turned their backs on him before. He closed by mentioning a “sister” who was profiled in the December issues of Ebony and Essence magazines for her role as a dancer with the Alvin Ailey troupe. He signed off, “Love and care, your friend and brother, William. Smile, be happy.”

There was precious little in what I had just read to put me in a happy mood let alone induce a smile. What I actually felt was fear, fear of William being released and finding his way to the doorstep of 33 Leland Avenue and ultimately finding me, God forbid, all alone. Despite his insistence on becoming a better person, maybe even a budding song writer or playwright, his words rang hollow in my ears. He had been cagey about the nature of his crime and too quick to condemn others for the wrong turns in his life. I neither appreciated nor cared about his sexual exploits and thought him too audacious in sharing such information with me, a person he claimed to respect and see as a mentor. In an attempt to reciprocate any kindness I might show him, he wrote, “Who knows? You could be in a crash and lose your legs, mess up your face and your friends turn their back on you and one day you might need a friend like me. I might touch your life in the years to come.” Above all else, it was a simmering rage underlying the words he penned that threw me off-kilter. I sensed a veiled threat and could imagine him saying, “You better help me or else.” I had to admit that my husband and Greg were right. I had indeed invited trouble and should have never responded in the first place. Now, I knew better. I wanted William out of my life and prayed to every god in the Hindu pantheon that he be denied parole.

I showed the letter to Greg and Pat and much as I had expected, Greg inveighed against the value of prisoner rehabilitation. He vehemently pointed out that William was a hardened criminal, and a horny one at that, and that I was a fool to think otherwise. “ Don’t you dare reply this time,” he admonished me. I was tempted to put Greg in his place and act more like his boss than his underling but decided not to. His condescending attitude towards minorities was too deeply ingrained and earned nothing but my disrespect. I found it easy to dismiss him as easily as he dismissed William. It never occurred to any of us to contact the Correctional Facility to report the letter. Perhaps we were afflicted with a false sense of bravado and thought we could handle William on our own.

Pat was a bit more circumspect in her comments. The first thing that caught her eye was William’s poor grammar and syntax and the simple structure of his sentences. “He’s barely literate,” she said, “No wonder he wants your help in writing.” She couldn’t help but laugh as she neared the end of the letter. “All this stuff about kissing and feeling women up is really creepy, Vasu. He calls himself your brother so are you supposed to be one of these sisters who visited him in prison? I can’t tell who’s a real sister and who isn’t.” The one thing we agreed on unanimously was that I stop communicating with William.

I deliberately kept secret William’s letter from my husband knowing full well he would react in a manner similar to Greg. I did not need to hear another “I told you so” comment. When it came to the underprivileged and the marginalized, Raghu and I were on opposite ends of the political spectrum. I was more liberal and believed in the helping hand approach while Raghu was more inclined to believe in the pull yourself up by the bootstraps approach. If William was in prison, he would have said it was his own fault. I, on the other hand, would have pointed out the socio-economic factors such as poverty and weak family structure as contributing causes. William, from what I gathered in his letter, absolved himself of all blame by choosing to ascribe his disastrous venture into a life of crime to those he called “turncoats” and by omitting any mention of his family or economic background. He repeatedly stressed that he was a “normal person,” a “do-gooder,” who wrote young people to stay away from drugs and stay in school. I was reminded of Louis P. and his association with Dangerfield’s. Just like Rodney, William too was looking for a little respect.

It was the second week in February, a few days before Valentine’s day, when I received another letter from William. This time it was written on pink stationery with an upside down bird hanging off a branch looking at a right side up rabbit dangling from the same branch and a caption below with the words, “What’s up?” He again addressed me as “Vasundara” and began by asking if I was alright and not sick since I didn’t reply to his earlier letter. He mentioned his imminent Parole Board hearing in March and that it made him think of me. He mistakenly assumed that I would be there to help him with his writing once he got out and if I was too scared to do so because of his prison record, then he would seek out someone else. “I will not be mad if you don’t want to help me or be my friend. All I can ask you is to give me a chance.” Instead of blaming others, he now blamed himself and he wanted to know if he could come and see me if he got released. He repeated his desire to write a book or a play and the need for my assistance and again promised not to hurt or disrespect me. He wanted to know if I was married or “had a man,” and added that he was single but “did not throw myself on no one.” He further qualified that he was “attracted to older lady anyway so you don’t have to worry.” There was nothing flattering in his assumption I was young. He swore he never raped or sexually abused any female or children and immodestly claimed he turned the heads of both young girls and older women who found him handsome. He assured me he was not “sex crazy.” He strongly believed God would bless him with a special wife and he was willing to wait. There was disappointment mixed with frustration in the last few lines:

So Vasundara, if you don’t want to help me or be bother for any reason, please let me know so I can stop wasting my time. Be woman enough to let me know!!! Just write on a piece of paper I can’t help and I will stop writing you. There will be no hard feelings. I been told NO before. Please don’t be afraid.

Take care and stay strong, Your friend,
William

By now, William was beginning to grate on my nerves. All his mea culpas and denials about being sex obsessed while writing in detail about his sexual proclivities only made me more afraid. He seemed optimistic about his Parole Board hearing and his plans for the future and I had to confront the real possibility that he might decide to meet me in person. I had started teaching an Honors Seminar that met twice a week in the late evenings long after tutoring hours ended. I often went to my office after class to gather up my things before heading home and the only one to be found in that three-storeyed house, far away from the main entrance to the College. To boot, it was winter and pitch dark outside.

Greg had come in early and I was hard pressed to hide my anxiety and fear if William were to make parole. I was in a quandary and looking for a pragmatic solution. Greg’s no- nonsense attitude which I normally disapproved, might serve a greater purpose in this situation and prove beneficial, and it was. He said he would write a short note to William and tell him that I had left the United States to live in India, and, as a result, no longer working at the College of New Rochelle. This would get William off my back permanently and it worked. I never heard from William again.

                                                                                                     ***
I buried William’s letters among a stack of old birthday cards and newspaper clippings tucked away in a filing cabinet. In a bout of nostalgia, I would go through my pile of mementos and for an hour or so recapture moments both happy and sad in my life. There were a few times when I scanned William’s letters, too impatient to read line by line, put off as I was by his bad English and atrocious grammar. His letters did make for an interesting story to share with friends and despite their urging that I write about my encounter with him, it has taken me twenty-six years to do so. In re-reading William’s letters, I was able to reflect on who I was back in 1990 and understand more fully who I had become today.

If William had sent me samples of his writing, instead of those god-awful letters, I would have responded much the way I did as a writing teacher with drafts of my own student essays. It would have been evidence of his commitment to the enterprise of writing and allowed me to be the teacher/mentor he wanted me to be. His digressions into sexual content characterized him as more of a predator than a student and his incessant promises not to scare me or disrespect me only served to convince me that he would. As someone who had graded countless student essays and trained tutors to assess the various components of what made for good writing, I had been totally remiss in reading between the lines. William was a serial-writer. He had mentioned the youth to whom he had written warning them about the perils of drug use along with the exchange of letters with his “sisters” that were purely sexual in content. He obviously targeted certain people by perusing various publications and in my case, it was the ad in the local paper. More than my title as Director of the Writing Program, it was my name he found exotic and sufficiently intriguing that prompted him to write me. It’s clear to me now that he had free access to reading materials and that his letters, both sent and received were not censored.

Today, a Google search of Great Meadow Correctional Facility reveals that it had been and continues to be a maximum security prison for adult males only since its founding in 1911 and, that initially, plans had been made to erect an institution for the mentally insane on the grounds. It offers several academic programs for its inmates including GED classes, Bilingual classes and Adult Basic Education for inmates, I suspect like William, who lacked basic reading and writing skills. It also lists various counseling services for drug and alcohol abuse, and for sex offenders. There is an inmate mailing address that identifies the prisoner by name and an ID number which was exactly the one used by William. There was no mention of letters being monitored for content.

In hindsight, there were actions I could have and probably should have taken such as alerting a prison official about William’s letters. I wonder now if subconsciously I didn’t because he had been incarcerated for ten years which seemed punishment enough. For better or for worse, Greg’s solution had rid me of William and I could finally rest easy. What I still regret and am still angry with myself about is my failure to notify the College of the threat I perceived from William and the liability they faced by advertising my name and office location in a local publication without my expressed consent. I have only myself to blame in this regard. This was my first full time job after years of being a student and homemaker and part-time adjunct where I rarely interacted with anyone on an institutional level. I was eager to impress and not rattle anyone’s cages. I had an uneasy relationship with my boss who took every opportunity to be intimidating and put me in my place. She was stingy in her praise for a job well done and eschewed any kind of conversation that made reference to the personal. I could not see myself turning to her to register my complaint and indignation about the ad. To contact the Public Relations Office behind her back would have been courting trouble and I dreaded the possibility of being fired. I was ignorant not only of my rights and the rights of the institution but also of the very concept of rights and what it entailed. It was the 1990s and I had been on job interviews where my wearing a sari had been called into question with remarks like, “ Do students look at you differently when you walk into the classroom and how do you handle it?” At another interview, I had been asked if I wanted the job in order to compete with my husband who was a famous mathematician. I turned down both positions before they had a chance to turn me down. I knew of no other recourse at the time. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation would happen a few months later in 1991 and the term sexual harassment would soon become part of the national discourse. I began to learn a new vocabulary and how to navigate my place as a woman in the workforce. I left the College of New Rochelle in 1996 to start a new job as an academic administrator at NYU. All my colleagues thanked me for my services to the college community and held a grand farewell dinner where I was feted by the President, Sister Dorothy Ann Kelly. The one sour note was my boss whispering in my ear as I said goodbye, “You are quite the traitor, leaving us for another position.” No longer cowed into submission, I looked her squarely in the eye and said “You should have treated me better.”

Ironically, it was William who wound up teaching me a thing or two. I tempered my idealism and realized that every student could not be saved. There were enough success stories like Louis P. and many others to boost my confidence as a teacher. I was extra cautious when approached for an interview and insisted on checking the article before it was published. I learned to speak my mind in professional settings without fear of reprisal.

Finally, over the years, I donated tons of books, many of them on the art of writing, to various Prison Writing Programs in the Tri-state area. I thought of it as a teacher’s gift, a dedication to my profession and undoubtedly one that would keep me out of trouble.

*************

Vasu Varadhan is a professor of Media Studies at NYU.  She is the author of the memoir, “On My Own Terms: A Journey Between Two Worlds;” featured subject of the documentary, “Knowing Her Place,” which describes her struggles and conflicts as an Indian American woman in her roles as daughter, wife and mother.

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