In Memory of Maxine Hairston

In the last seven months, the community of scholars in rhetoric and composition studies has lost three highly respected and admired members: Candace Spigelman, John Lovas, and now Maxine Hairston (see tributes by Rebecca Moore Howard and various others at The Blogora. I couldn't find a general site for Hairston, so for her name I linked to her "Ideas for Grading," which seems to capture appropriately, in her own words, her passion for helping students learn. I never got to meet her myself, unfortunately, but Michael Keene, my advisor from my master's program and a former student of Hairston's, has asked me to post this essay, derived from his essay in Against the Grain. I'm happy to do it:

TAKING RISKS: A Tribute to Maxine Hairston*

Michael Keene

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Maxine Cousins Hairston, born April 9, 1922, to Louise Hennessy Cousins and Richard Clyde Cousins in Ironwood, Michigan, died July 22, 2005.

Probably one of the most remarkable things about Maxine—to me, anyway, a man who is by his own admission a slave to habit—was her willingness to take risks. To go back to graduate school after her kids were not quite grown, to take on being freshman director at Texas when she knew the folks who gave her the job were giving her what they saw as a glorified secretarial position, to build a major national career on that basis, to first embrace and then become a primary advocate of process pedagogy, to become a strong critic of the literary establishment (“mandarins,” she called them [and worse in the earliest version of “Breaking Our Bonds,” which I got her to tone down]), to be a leader in the separation of the rhetoric and writing program at Texas from the literature program, to take on people she thought were making a grave mistake in introducing politically one-sided approaches into freshman composition, and then to walk away at the top of her career, throw herself into tutoring disadvantaged kids, fighting for the Democratic Party in Texas, and supporting Planned Parenthood, to earn yet another college degree and keep doing her books—what a great risk taker she was! She passed on a little bit of that to me. Here’s a story about one way that worked. This would have been in about 1985, when she was 63 or so.

It’s a beautiful Great Smokies day, and Maxine and I are sitting on a bluff overlooking the Nantahala River near Bryson City, North Carolina on day three of “basic whitewater canoeing,” run by Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). We’ve done pretty well, her in the bow of the canoe, me in the stern. Now the group has beached their canoes, walked a ways downstream, and we’re watching canoeists, kayakers, and rafters going over Nantahala Falls, a “double drop” and the end of our course: the river drops down a few feet (3 or 4) into the upper pool, then down a few more (maybe 6 or so) into light whitewater below the falls, then runs through a little bit of scattered white water ripples, and you’re at NOC headquarters and done. Did I say that this day the river’s running pretty high and hard? So there’s also a crowd of people, called “vultures,” sitting on the rocks below the Falls and watching the spectacle.

Running the falls is optional, the instructor says, but “pretty safe.” True, the upper pool is a “hydraulic”—if you get into the middle of it, as the instructor says, it could “suck your canoe right on down.” And it might be hard to get back to the surface if that happens—you have to swim “out not up.” But “there’s not really enough water for the hydraulic to be working today.” Uh-huh. Tell that to the guy whose solo canoe just disappeared in the upper pool. He and his canoe came out okay, but separately. It’s sobering, though, to watch a canoe sink right underneath a guy who’s busily paddling as hard as he can and going nowhere but down.

The trick, the instructor says, is to go into the falls hard to the left, paddle hard diagonally across the upper pool, go down the second drop hard to the right, give two quick strokes at the bottom to escape the whitewater there, beach your boat, and listen for the applause.

Initially we’re inclined not to run the falls. Maxine takes good care of her body and isn’t inclined to risk it, and I’m an overweight out of shape Okie, landlocked by birth. Maxine uses the phrase “some kind of macho BS” a lot as we talk about whether to canoe the falls or walk around.

Then Maxine says, “But you know, we’ve had excellent instruction, and we’ve done pretty well, and our instructor will be down below the falls with a safety line. If I’m ever going to take this kind of risk, this is the time and place. What do you say?” Over the years Maxine has gotten me into lots of things, all good (such as giving up literature for composition in the first place, going to C’s, writing textbooks), so I allow as how if she is game, I am too.

We review the situation, walking back to our canoe: There’s an S-curve above the falls, and our canoe is beached at the top (upstream end) of the curve; once we’ve gotten through the curve, we want to be way on the left side so we can “go into the falls hard to the left.” (On the right side just above the falls there’s an enormous boulder with serious whitewater around, behind, and especially under it. We sure don’t want to go there.) Though we have to start out on the right side (where we’re beached), we’ll cross to the left at the middle of the S, and then go for it.

Well, somehow we must have slipped through the first leg of the S-curve while still getting settled in the canoe, or maybe I had my eyes closed, because as soon as I look up, while we’re still way right, and there’s this huge damn boulder squarely in front of us, with serious whitewater around, behind, and under it. Maxine curses and asks me what the blazes to do. I swear and say “paddle like hell straight ahead!” We’ll try to highball through the whole mess—there certainly isn’t time to cross over to the other side, and there’s nowhere to “eddy out” or do any other plain or fancy maneuvers we’ve been taught. (Highballing through the whole mess had not been offered by the instructor as a Plan B—it was just my fear and panic speaking. I don’t think NOC teaches that technique.)

So we fly toward the first drop—we’re on the wrong side, going way too fast, just about out of control. Vultures aim their cameras. But we miss the boulder by an inch, and we keep paddling hard and fast. I can’t swear we even hit the upper pool, much less the lower one. There’s just stroke-drop-Splash!—stroke/stroke-drop-Splash! and we’re at the bottom, in much less time than it takes to read these two lines.

Maybe we will hear applause. But we’ve forgotten that last little part, “two quick strokes at the bottom....” The bow strikes a little rock below the falls, I grab the gunwales (a classic rookie mistake that makes canoes much more prone to tip), and over we go. Vultures rush to rescue the (apparently) poor defenseless white-haired lady who has just highballed over Nantahala Falls. They don’t know Maxine. She stands up in the two-foot deep water and walks out, meanwhile giving them her justifiably famous “And what are you-all so excited about—you have some kind of issue you’d like to take up with me?” look. And the canoe and I go bumping on down through the whitewater, sometimes together, sometimes not, for another hundred feet or so.

*Adapted from an essay in Against the Grain: A Volume in Honor of Maxine Hairston (Hampton Press, 2002).

Cross-posted to Kairosnews.