By Paulette Parker
Pictures and poems wallpaper the gray, metal office door. Across the threshold, inside the small, dim room, picture frames showcase smiling faces. Projects of students past have found refuge in the corners.
Visiting the office of English instructor Max Gibson offers a glimpse into what she cherishes. A conversation with Gibson gives a glimpse at her humility. With nervous laughter, she abashedly tells her story, preferring to highlight those she feels have helped her become who she is.
Gibson came to Washtenaw Community College as a part-time instructor in 1980 after teaching English and art to junior high and high school students. She became a full-time instructor in 1990. The oldest of seven siblings, she was thrust into the role of helping them with their homework, she said, which was the beginning of her path to teaching. After taking philosophy class, she arrived at writing’s door.
“I didn’t have really good experiences in high school. I felt like I didn’t know what the purpose was; I finally learned the purpose when I took philosophy and I realized that writing was problem-solving,” Gibson said. “The better you can describe the world, the better you can analyze it.” The ability to problem solve is what she strives to pass on to her students, helping them have more control over their lives.
“Teaching is like helping people to have choices, helping people to be free, helping them to be happy and helping them to problem solve,” she said.
Fun, intelligent, interesting, wise – just a few of the words within reach that Gibson uses to describe her students. The glow in her eyes, light in her voice and the loosening of her posture when she dotes on them tells that they are so much more to her.
“I’m privy to my student’s unfoldings,” Gibson said. “I feel very privileged to hear their stories.” And it’s these varied stories, challenges and experiences that inspire Gibson in her own life.
“It’s like, oh my gosh, you’re my heroes,” she said. “If you can do that, I shouldn’t be complaining about not having time or resources because you’re doing it with so much less.”
WCC screenwriting major, Arianna Gelderloos, 19, of Ann Arbor says that it is Gibson who has inspired her.
“I think that my writing has always been for me, and Max made it so that my writing could be for other people,” Gelderloos said. Gibson helped her gain the ability to share her writing with less fear of judgment, she said. She has also been a friend.
“She’s really good at validating your feelings,” Gelderloos said. “Like if I’m upset about anything she always says what I need to hear.”
In her classroom, she sits atop a table at the front of the class, her black-slack-clad legs dangling, crossed at the ankles. She leans forward, hands in her pockets, relaxed; her curly hair brushes her shoulders. She listens intently as each student speaks, and they return the courtesy. It is a safe zone of self-expression.
“We spend a lot of time talking about how to really listen to each other with an ear to understand rather than judge,” Gibson said.
“Max does a really good job of getting people to talk because a lot of times people are too shy to do so,” Gelderloos said. “She has a really open and sweet thing that makes it hard to be nervous around her.”
“I don’t want them to write like me; I want them to find their own voices,” Gibson said. A task she feels cannot be accomplished with judgment.
“She has such a wonderful eye for what is good about us; and she is very good at not paying particularly close attention to what is not great about us,” said WCC English instructor Hava Levitt-Phillips. “She is the kind of teacher that teaches teachers just by being near her.”
With plans to retire in a year, Gibson said that what she will miss most is her students.
“That’s the only part I feel sad about; to leave their energy and their creativity,” she said. She hopes to have instilled in each of them the desire to be lifelong learners.
“I want them to be good human beings, I want them to be respectful and I want them to be open-minded and have a sense of social responsibility,” she said, “that if you’re privileged enough to have a good education, a roof over your head and all these cool things, maybe you need to think about how you’re going to give back and make sure that everyone has an equal chance for success in this world.”
Gibson hesitantly speaks of herself but readily and proudly shares stories of her students’ successes. For her, it is less about her as an instructor and more about the amazing students she encounters.
“She is without ego,” Levitt-Phillips said. “You can’t persuade her that she is as lovely as she is. That is Max. That’s what makes her so tremendous.”