Teaching Beyond the Classroom

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Alexandra Barron—Alex, for short—is arguably one of St. Edward’s best kept secrets. Many students scramble to get into her courses during their time at the school. Her down-to-earth attitude and humility draw you in, but her interesting worldview—shaped by her experiences as a lesbian working at a Catholic school in central Texas—gives her a perspective that brings a unique vibrancy to the campus.

Her office is dark, homey and sparsely decorated, save for towering bookshelves and some framed pictures. Alex sat curled up in her big chair for the entirety of the interview, legs crossed, giving her the aura of a tiny, wavy-haired Buddha. Since coming to St. Edward’s, Alex has filled two important roles: heading up the Freshman Studies program and being faculty advisor for PRIDE.

As Director of Freshman Studies, Alex puts a book into the hands of every single freshman. Last year, students read a graphic novel about Hurricane Katrina; this year, they read World War Z, a book about the zombie apocalypse. Alex’s love of literature grew in college, where she studied Women’s Studies and Literature. Time working in independent bookstores and attending graduate school showed her how literature can change a person’s worldview.

“I loved getting people a book that would totally change their life,” she said. “I just have to be earnest about that: I do think books change peoples’ lives. In graduate school, I had so much more ability to expose students to literature that changed my way of thinking. That’s what I love about teaching.”

But why St. Edward’s? The school is obviously Catholic, and though it is fondly referred to as ‘the closet on the hill’ by its student body, the school adheres to Catholic doctrine. Fortunately for Alex, while the school is outwardly Catholic, the people on campus tend to be liberal.

“I don’t have any problems with being out on campus,” she reassured me. “I’ve kind of learned a lot about Catholic social justice traditions, which make total sense when thinking about fighting for LGBT rights. The institution is not super supportive of LGBT staff, but people in it are.”

The school has made a lot of noise tiptoeing around LGBT issues, though, and Alex has witnessed institutional discrimination as both a professor and the faculty advisor for PRIDE.

Losing Love

Two years ago, Alex lost her partner, Camile, to lymphoma. Alex and Camile had planned a life together, had a home and hopes and dreams for the future. The couple met at a bookstore where Alex was working, and though Alex was seeing someone at the time, Camile was always in her peripheral.

“Literally two days after me and my girlfriend broke up, I gave her a call,” Alex said, laughing. And it stuck. They were together for eleven years, while Camile was sick for two and a half of those years. Alex spent the majority of that time driving back and forth between her life in Austin and taking care of Camile, who was being treated at the M.D. Anderson Center in Houston. Despite a long, hard-fought battle, Camile passed away. Alex was devastated.

“It’s been a very strange two years. That said, even right after she died, I was still able to feel really happy sometimes, which I find really odd,” Alex said. “It turns out that grief is not at all like what I expected. It’s awful and it feels way worse than what I imagined, but it also has moments of joy and happiness.”

Camile’s sickness tested Alex’s agency at St. Edward’s. Because Alex and Camile were not legally married, Alex was technically not allowed to take an unpaid leave of absence. She initially attempted to teach part-time and commute on her off days, but decided that her partner was more important than her job. Her fellow faculty helped out in the interim as best they could.

“Everyone in my department bent over backwards to help me, from teaching classes to making food for me.  They were doing things that they probably weren’t even supposed to do. But a lot of time, I worked here part time and commuted to Houston to be with Camile.”

After Camile’s death, Barron came back to St. Edward’s. She does think that St. Edward’s still struggles with growing pains when it comes to the LGBT community.

“I’d like to see the school do better, and I am talking about faculty and staff, but I also think for students. I feel like there are these moments where they feel so disheartened, so unheard and unrepresented … sometimes people at this school can be a little risk-averse, people are afraid to defy what they see as Holy Cross orders.”

Helping PRIDE Thrive 

St. Edward’s has taken heat for making it harder for PRIDE to operate, often citing fears about what the Bishop will think; however, since Alex stepped in as faculty advisor, PRIDE has grown to be a stronger, more active force on campus.

Members and leadership alike feel that the club is looked at with more scrutiny by Student Life, the governing body that oversees student organizations. The club famously attempted to march in the Austin Pride Parade, and faced roadblocks every step of the way. Andrew Guerrero was president of PRIDE for two years and worked closely with Alex.

“Being the leader of PRIDE is not for the faint of heart,” Andrew said. “Anything that can be deemed ‘advocacy’ is strictly off-limits. It’s aggravating to have to qualify things we do that, to us, seem completely non-controversial.”

“Advocacy” can be anything from marching in a parade to simply handing out Human Rights Campaign literature at a club meeting. Alex has helped the club through it all, providing advice where needed and encouraging members to push to get their needs met.

“There are moments when this really, really just makes me so sad. We’re helping students develop as leaders, right? That’s what St. Ed’s is really good at. And then there are moments where—institutionally—we are squashing them underfoot,” Alex said.

After an initial outright rejection and weeks of appeals, PRIDE eventually did get permission to march in the Austin Pride Parade, but on one condition: none of the club’s materials, from their shirts to their banner, could have the words “St. Edward’s” on it. At all. This made members feel split in two: one part St. Edward’s student, one half queer person. Despite it all, Alex still has high hopes for the club and its persistence to become as recognized and respected as other clubs on campus.

None of it could have been done without her guidance, her support and her caring nature. Maybe it was inherent in her, something from her childhood that made her as cool and collected, as she seemed to be during our interview; maybe she learned to find peace after the loss of her life partner. Either way, Alex has managed to successfully carve out a lasting niche for herself at St. Edward’s as an educator, a mentor and a friend to her students, and she has fought to change the campus for the better.

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