Some years ago, I wrote an essay about Salem State, the university where I have taught for over a decade, suggesting that students get just as good an education, albeit a different one, than students at more prestigious universities. While they weren’t getting luxury facilities and high-achieving classmates, they were getting small classes and valuable exposure to a variety of people, from working single mothers to custodians. The essay suggested that we put too much emphasis on status when selecting a college, and not enough on what actually happens there.
The article went viral, and I got several emails, including one from a man in Oregon who suggested that if college was all about status, not learning, why go to college? Why not step away from the rat race and forge one’s own life and education?
It’s a romantic notion. It might work for a few people, but given what I have seen in my time at Salem State, it’s hard to say that higher education is not improving students’ lives. I am not speaking about the job opportunities that it ends up offering, either, but the opening of the eyes and mind that happens, at least a little bit, to even the most uninspired college student.
I have audited several dance classes at Salem State. In one of those classes, there was a tall young man who seemed out of place. He was the only other male in the class, and he looked like one of those guys who hung out in the gym playing pick-up basketball. This would be a tough class for him, some sort of requirement.
This story doesn’t have a surprise ending—he didn’t pass with flying colors and impress everyone with his final performance. He only lasted half the semester. I never learned his name, and I don’t know if he even stayed in school. He wasn’t a particularly good dancer, though he did try to learn the steps. I seem to remember him wincing through the stretches (or was that just me?).
So, was this simply a failure? A man came to class and tried something he had never tried before. He got better at it, and he learned a little about his body, about form, about focus. I got a kick watching him in the mirror trying to hold a leg up, or skipping and spinning across the glossy wooden floor. I am certain that he learned something.
It isn’t just that students like the one above take something intangible from a class, but that I, and the other students, take something valuable from them. Teaching at Salem State, I hear a lot of stories: the mother who lost her husband early and was trying to stay enrolled, but at last couldn’t afford it; the woman who lived in a shelter with her infant; the man who had grown up in the projects. At thirty-six, he had suffered a serious motorcycle accident, then decided to come to college. “I just wish I had done this a lot earlier,” he said to me.
For years I’ve believed that my students bring a certain wisdom to the class, a wisdom that doesn’t score on the SAT or other standardized tests. The old teaching cliché—I learn from my students—feels true, but it is hard to explain. I’m not particularly naïve. I know that life can be difficult. So it is not that my students initiate me into the world of sorrow. It is that they often bring their sorrows, and their struggles, to the material, and when they do, it makes life and literature seem so entwined as to be inseparable. Like Tina.
Tina, an African American student from a rough neighborhood, was one of the students in my African American literature class who read the books. She loved certain characters: Zora Neale Hurston’s fun-loving Tea Cake and Toni Morrison’s defiant, mysterious Sula; I remember, too, that she was torn between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She even visited me in my office once or twice to seek advice about problems with a roommate, or a professor.
Once, late in the semester, Tina came to my office because she had missed class and wanted to turn in her paper. My African American Literature class had just finished Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son. It is a brutal book, whose protagonist, a poor young black man, Bigger Thomas, murders two women, and shows very little regret. Readers, to this day, are not sure what to make of Bigger. Is he to be pitied? Is he a warning? A symbol? A product of American racism? Is he too much a stereotype?
The class had read essays by African American writers James Baldwin and David Bradley criticizing Native Son, and had been asked to evaluate them. Baldwin, Tina tells me, was hard, “but he was such a good writer.” Did she agree with Baldwin, I ask. Was Bigger denied humanity by Wright? How does she feel toward him?
“I think he needs help,” she says, “but I felt sorry for him. I wanted him to be able to understand his life—” I cut in, offering some teacherish observation about how Bigger shows glimmers of understanding in the last part of the book, but her mind is far ahead of me, just waiting for me to stop. I do.
“The book reminded me of the guy who killed my uncle. You probably saw it—the trial was all over the t.v. last week.” I shake my head.
The man and an accomplice had murdered her uncle, a Dorchester storeowner, three years ago, and the previous week had been sentenced to life without parole. The two had been friends of the uncle’s family, had played pool with the uncle the night before, planning to rob and kill him the next day.
“When I saw him sitting there, with his head down, looking all sad, I don’t know, I felt sorry for him. I wanted to give him a copy of Native Son. I wanted to walk up to him and put it in his lap. It might help him to understand his life.”
She looks at me, her light brown face just a few shades darker than mine. She’s nineteen. Her hair is pinned back, but some strands float loose. Her eyes are wide as half dollars, as if she’s asking me something. Without thinking, I nod slowly, trying to hold her gaze. On the shelves surrounding us are the papers and books of my profession, that giant horde of words that will pursue me until I die.
“My family wants him to suffer—hard. But I want to talk to him. Do you think that’s bad? I want to know why he did it, what happened. I wonder how he’d react if he saw me—what he’d do if I gave him the book.”
I imagined Native Son in the man’s lap. The glossy purple, green, and black cover bright against the courtroom’s muted wood, the man’s trousers. His hand, smooth with youth, holds its spine. His thumb blots out part of the eerie full-lipped face on the front. As the words of the court fall about him, the book rises and falls ever so slightly, as if breathing.
When I wrote the first draft of that scene, I was still in the middle of teaching that African American literature class. It struck me then, and it still strikes me now, as a strong argument for the value of what happens in college. Although one colleague found Tina’s wish to give the book to the young man absurd (I remember her laughing when I read it aloud), to me the episode spoke of the way a book and the class dialogue about it can allow one to re-envision a life, or the world. Although Tina probably never gave him the book, the fact that she desired to do so, and that her desire triggered in my head the image of the man holding the book in the courtroom, seems important. Student and teacher both develop empathy, imagination, and maybe even a little wisdom. Can we ask much more from our work as educators?
By the time I wrote the final draft of the essay, the semester was over, and there was some new information that I considered including, but eventually cut. Tina, good student though she was, had not finished the semester. Personal and financial difficulties led her to leave school, and she never did make up the incomplete that I gave her. I saw her once on campus that summer—“Hey, Scrimgeour,” she called out to me as I was playing tennis with my sons. She told me that she had plans to return to a college nearer her family eventually. Life being what it is, I had my doubts she would ever get a degree.
Though I didn’t include these details about Tina’s future in the original essay, they seemed important to me later, rising up from the past to challenge my assumptions about the value of the moment the essay describes. What did that moment mean? It didn’t get her through that semester, that class. It may not have changed her relationship with her uncle’s killer, and if it did, it may not have changed it for the better. Who is to say that Tina even remembers that conversation now? I did give her a copy of the essay, but these things get lost, misplaced, recycled, tossed.
In a sense, the moment seemed too easy a triumph. And too small: a speck of water in a desert, evaporating before this sentence is finished, nothing substantial enough to be nourishing. Given that I didn’t know whether Tina would ever finish college, whether she would ever find rewarding employment, or happiness, how much value can I really ascribe to that conversation in my office? Sure, for me it was moving (and I got an essay out of it!), but what about for her? Was I deluding myself? Should I insist on something different, or something more, from teaching?
Maybe it’s not about her, or about me. Maybe it’s about the words I wrote, the words I write, the act of making something of the details of our lives. The world moves so quickly and arbitrarily, but the scene on the paper remains, illuminating something, not necessarily for Tina, or for me, but for some anonymous reader, a young teacher, maybe, who wonders about the value of what she does, wonders whether, in the flood of incompletes we live with, it’s worth it to keep teaching.
Tina ended up in my class because of a recommendation from a friend of hers, LaTeisha, a student who had been in a previous African American literature class. For the first month of that class, LaTeisha was one of my most frustrating students. It wasn’t because of anything that she said. She rarely spoke. But she spent most of the class with a pout on her dark brown face. She seemed to talk with the other students before and after class, and so I began to blame her surliness for the class’s general malaise. I wondered if she was one of those African American students who resented a white professor teaching African American literature.
Things began to change when she came up after class to ask me something about Frederick Douglass. I don’t recall the question now, but it was a smart one, and suddenly I knew that she had been paying attention. Soon, she was talking in class. She was especially good at asking simple, real questions. Once, I had laid out a set of ways to think about a book, and she raised her hand and asked, “What do you think?” I still love that: how she recognized that I didn’t have the only answer, and also how she honestly was curious what I thought.
Salem State has a program, “Take Your Professor To Lunch,” in which students are encouraged to go to lunch with a professor on the university’s dime. The hope is that by bringing students and faculty together informally, students will feel more connected to the university and academics. It will help them stay in school and get more out of it. Hardly anyone took advantage of this program, but I did. I would announce it in my classes and wave my datebook around. Every semester at least two or three students would take me up on it. LaTeisha was always one of those students.
At those lunches, I began to learn more about LaTeisha. When she was seven, LaTeisha and her three sisters—all whose names began with “La” (LaToya, etc.)—
had been removed from their house because their mother was addicted to drugs. She was eventually adopted and moved from California to Lowell, Massachusetts, where she attended Lowell High School. She was religious. Once, when it came up that I was an atheist and had been raised in a non-religious household, she said, “I can’t imagine what that would be like.” She had gotten into Salem State through a special program designed for students who didn’t necessarily have the test scores to be admitted unreservedly. I discovered, too, that the pout that had so irked me was simply the face she made when she was thinking hard. We laughed about that, and I discovered, too, that she had a brilliant smile.
LaTeisha came to mind when I collaborated with Caitlin Corbett, a professor of dance, on a semester-long teaching project. We wanted to get a group of students who would combine memoir and movement into an interdisciplinary piece. We didn’t necessarily want all the students to have experience in both writing and dance. LaTeisha had experience in neither. I asked her to be part of it anyway. It was asking a lot of a criminal justice major with almost no artistic experience, someone who had gotten into Salem State through a special program, but LaTeisha tried it.
The project was very challenging for Caitlin and me, and also for the seven students. We had a hard time motivating them; it was tough simply getting them to show up to our weekly meetings. Somehow, though, they took charge of the piece, and the final product, which they performed in front of an audience of some 50 students and faculty, was curious and curiously moving: snippets of words about all of their lives recited along with movements—together and apart. For the piece, LaTeisha wrote a little about her forehead:
It begins shortly after my hairline and ends right above my eyebrows. It is bigger than most. That used to be a bad thing. I used to hate it and hide it from the kids at school who couldn’t appreciate its uniqueness.
We feel connected because we’ve been through a lot together. Today, she goes where I go. Usually she gets there first, and let’s me know what’s going on. She’s a star, and she likes to shine. She is a gift from my father, the sole identifier of the LaLa girls, my sisters.
I have not asked LaTeisha about it, but I bet she remembers those words. She had to memorize them, and this is what she wrote about being in the production afterwards:
I learned that I had grown into my skin. Being able to read the piece about my forehead aloud gave me confidence in a body part I used to feel so insecure about. I have recited my writing to a few friends who could not attend the performance, and their reactions have been, “you actually read that out loud?” I say “Yup,” and then we laugh together.
LaTeisha finished up her degree and graduated, and that summer I saw her around campus. She was working at Salem State, in the testing services area, scheduling student competency tests. As a senior, she had applied to Suffolk Law School, but she didn’t get in. “That’s too bad,” I said, “but you can always try again.”
When I ran into her that summer, I proposed that we meet every week or so during the fall, just to check in. “I’d like to do that,” she said, so we did. In our early conversations, we discussed her career plans, especially the idea of going to law school or taking some courses to get a job as a paralegal. She really didn’t know what she wanted to do, though, and I could tell that the idea of law school intimidated her.
I tried to convince her not to write off law school. Too many Salem State students don’t believe they’re good enough, and I had confidence in LaTeisha. I had seen her think about issues in my literature classes, I had seen her participation in that semester-long project.
Still, getting into law school would be a challenge. I thought that she wrote well enough and was sharp enough that once she was in, she’d get by, but she had to put in the work to get in, and if she wasn’t that interested, she’d have a hard time putting in the work. When we would meet, she would tell me about new ideas she had—a friend of hers had mentioned hairdressing, or modeling, or…. Meanwhile, we started studying for the LSATS. Each week we’d both try some problems on our own, then discuss them together. As someone for whom the math and logic questions come fairly easy, I found this a fun challenge. LaTeisha didn’t, but she was game, and she’d get some questions right. She was quite good with the reading comprehension. She could follow the drift of an idea well, had a feel for the significance a transition. We planned, tentatively, that she would take an LSAT prep course in the spring.
As the semester wore on, though, she seemed to lose focus, and toward the end of it she said that she wasn’t really that interested in law school, that she wondered if maybe other people were more interested in her going to law school than she was. “I understand completely,” I said, shrugging. “Just don’t do it.”
She was looking down, and now she lifted her head and faced me. “I want to tell you something,” she said, “It’s something I haven’t told anyone.”
Although I tried not to show it, inwardly I cringed. What problem had come up? I thought of all the things that derail my students’ dreams—pregnancies, abusive boyfriends, the sudden loss of a job. What was it? Would she be able to handle it? I could tell that, whatever it was, it was important to her, something that had been gnawing at her. What?
I looked right back at her. “Sure you can tell me. What is it?”
“I didn’t apply to law school,” she said. “Back when I was a senior, people kept asking me, so I said that I had.”
At that moment, I was only relieved. I had feared something else, and so I brushed off this confession. It wasn’t a big deal, I told her, and I believed that. Looking back, though, I see that it was a big deal for her. She had lied to her teachers, mentors, and peers. She had created an image of herself as someone who played by the rules and lost, when in fact, she hadn’t entered the game.
LaTeisha’s decision not to apply was surprisingly familiar. Every year, on national surveys, our students rank notably low on self-confidence, much lower than their actual abilities should merit. In a state with a strong private school network, public education is the poor stepsister, a fact that our students have internalized. Too often, our students assume that they aren’t good enough; the state tells them they don’t deserve decent funding; the best graduate schools won’t even consider their applications. LaTeisha’s confession made me wanted to tell her—See, you can do it. You just need to apply!
But she wasn’t telling me because she needed someone to nudge her back onto the track toward law school. She had considered law school, had checked out the LSATS, and she had decided no. Perhaps our meetings all year weren’t about getting her into law school, but about her getting to that point where she could be honest about herself with another person, where she could share a secret. There are many kinds of success.
In the depths of my computer, I have one other LaTeisha line from that memoir and movement project. We had asked students to make a list of places they had been. Here’s what LaTeisha recited:
I’ve been to a pond, “the church,“ North Carolina, and downtown Salem on Halloween.
That’s a good start, I think—a good start to a good life.
“I’m thinking of buying a house,” Kol tells me, her shy smile framed by her straight black hair. “I’ve been approved for 300,000.” I’m stunned. That’s more than I could be approved for on my professor’s salary, a modest 64,000.
She’s standing in the doorway to my office. She just stopped by to say hello, was too busy to sit in the chair I cleared off for her.
“Wow. You must be making good money.”
“I made 70,000 dollars last year. I work three jobs. I’m working eighty hours a week.”
Kol, like LaTeisha, had been in my African American Literature classes a few years ago. She was a good student. She understood that I wanted to hear and read her opinions, and her participation and papers reflected that understanding. Her writing was workmanlike, and she missed a few classes, but she tried to do the reading, and she was generally engaged—I remember how, in a discussion of slavery, she seemed especially aware of how it severed families. The second semester that I had her, she missed more classes. Her brother was having mysterious medical problems, fainting and vertigo, and she said she was busy trying to get him help. “We don’t have insurance,” she told me, “and we don’t know what’s wrong.” When she did come to class, her head often drooped to the desktop.
That year, she wasn’t working nearly so much as she is now. She lived in the dorms and received financial aid. Until her brother got sick, she seemed to be enjoying herself, enjoying school. Now, Kol, 22, works at the hospital, the mall, and at a doctor’s office. Eighty hours. At the doctor’s office, she works as a translator for Thai Americans. “Nobody was coming to the office when I was away,” she tells me.
She was away for a month this summer. “I went to Thailand,” she says in a voice that suggests she is still amazed at the fact. It had been her first time there. “I went with my family. I wasn’t born there. I was born in Cambodia … because of the war.”
She tells me how different it is, how they use car batteries for electricity and have to charge them daily. How the adults are gone all day, working, leaving the kids alone.
“I have 200 cousins over there. They treated me like a princess. I didn’t like that. The little ones would follow me around. They would always try to hold my hand.
“They called me ‘stupid’ because I didn’t know how to wash my own clothes. All the kids there, they’re much smarter than they are in America. The two and three year olds can do all this work, wash the clothes, wash the dishes.”
Since Kol makes so much now, she’s not eligible for financial aid. “I try to tell them I’m on my own. I don’t get any help from my family, but I have to report their income.”
After the semester her brother was sick, Kol moved back into the house her family rented to save money. But that was too crowded. Her sister was sleeping on a sofa in the basement, so Kol gave up her room and moved into a house with four guys, “all partiers.” It’s hard for her to do her schoolwork there. It would be better, she tells me, if she had her own house. “My family could move in with me.” Of the two houses she was looking at, one “needed a lot of work,” and one was in a neighborhood with “a lot of gangs.”
School isn’t what it was when her perky comments brightened my class; it’s something to get through as efficiently as possible: “I talk in class to stay awake,” she says.
The swarm of contradictions. She makes more than I do, yet lives in a crummy place. She took a month vacation this summer, to Thailand, but she’s working eighty hours a week. She’s thinking of buying her own house, has been adult enough to live on her own and support herself, yet she’s called “stupid” by three-year-old Thai children because she doesn’t know how to wash her own clothes without a washing machine. She’s curious and motivated, yet college has become a chore for her, more drudgery.
Her life, like many of my students’ lives, resists classification: working class, middle-class, bilingual, non-traditional student, oppressed, exploited, success story, first-time homebuyer, second generation immigrant, first generation college student, Gen Y, $50,001-$100,000?
Kol doesn’t have health insurance. As a student, she can buy it through the college, but, she tells me, it doesn’t cover anything. It’s not worth 160-some dollars a month. And her health is precarious, always has been. Born in a refugee camp, she was not supposed to live. The camp doctor told her mother, who was so malnourished that her skin was becoming transparent, that her daughter had no chance to survive. This difficult beginning may be responsible for Kol’s many health problems. In my class, she didn’t miss too often, but she has endured ailments, bizarre and mundane, that have regularly filled her life with pain. When I mentioned Kol to a faculty that works with ESL and International students, she confirmed Kol’s medical problems, and she mentioned something else: Kol has visions.
When she comes to see me a few weeks later, on her right wrist—the hand she writes with—she has a wrap, like the one our department secretary wears when her carpal tunnel flares up. She tells me that she has developed a very painful cyst. “I was crying when I was taking my exam,” she said. “I need an operation to have it drained, but it costs 5000 dollars.” She knows it costs 5000 dollars because she has already had the operation three times. They tell me there’s a 50% chance it will come back,” she says. And it has come back, and come back again. She has spent 15 thousand dollars removing this cyst; so she can continue school, so she can go to work, so she can write, so she won’t be in pain.
The reason she is resisting the operation now isn’t that it costs 5000 dollars, but that it costs much more. Having the operation, and getting a cast, would mean not working for six weeks, and it would make school very difficult. “I can’t miss that time,” she says.
How valuable is she? How much is her life worth? She wants to go into international business.
I think of the traders on Wall Street, pushing money around to get more money, of the educational bureaucrats dictating what we must teach, what we will be tested on; I think of all those minds that are certain they are winning, that they know more than others. I hold their lives in my palm and examine them—their brittle glitter, the way they insist on their own importance. And then I imagine Kol’s life in my other palm: too much work, too many worries. Her life is a muscle—is it the heart?—taut and sinewy and sore.
The cyst. It grows back. You can have it removed, usually at your own expense. You can have it removed four, five, ten times. Fifty percent of the time, it grows back. And it makes you wonder, even though you want to cry it hurts so bad, even though you can barely write through the pain, whether to pay that money to have it removed again because then you’re out 5000 bucks, and you lose your jobs—all three of them—you fail your classes, and, for six weeks at least, even though the pain is gone, you won’t be able to write at all.
Fifty percent of the time, it grows back.
Kol says goodbye. Her friend is waiting at the elevator. She’s off to class. I lean back in my chair and take a deep breath, then bring my hands together, my fingers locking. My palms don’t quite touch, and in the hidden sheaf of air between them, I sense a ghostly heat.
Thanks, Bonnie. I’m about to talk to some high school students about this essay, and, rereading it, I discovered your comment, which made me even more eager to meet them. JD
JD, I just read this and it confirms for me what a great teacher you are. I experienced it in our recent course together and suspected you are one of the ones who goes far beyond the necessary with your students. This is a wonderful essay and reminds me of my work in Somerville at the alternative high school there. Atheist that you are, you are a blessing to your students and the world around you. Peace and joy be with you for the holidays. Bonnie