. . . just your average Caribbean American New Englander

The Wednesday Crew [an open letter to my students]

Posted on Dec 18, 2017 |

 

Dear Darling Students of Mine,
The end of the semester is upon us and with it comes the requisite meetings with students, as you are quite eager to discuss your final research papers. After meeting with Kayla during the last week of the semester, we talked about our final class.  Kayla asked if I baked anything for the final class. I told her that I didn’t and her eyes narrowed as she gently chastised me for talking about baking all semester. Sorry, I offered.
For a minute I considered baking something—anything! But I just don’t have it in me. Instead, I can offer you this letter.
You are my Wednesday Crew. I know you didn’t know you had a name, but I’ve been calling you that all semester. There’s been something about this class that’s different than others I’ve taught in a while. Maybe it’s the hybrid nature of the class, the relief from meeting only once a week in person. But I think it’s more than that.
There’s an energy that you bring to this class, a willingness to learn, to listen, to be wrong, to disagree.
I could count on Katherine to relate what happened in other classes to our class. Mitchell—who always said I have a question—never asked just one question. Bless his heart; he’ll be a great therapist one day. Sharon, a future nurse, asked questions, too, but with a little good-natured side-eye if she didn’t appreciate the answer. Roshan and Caleb were mostly quiet but their smiling eyes told me they were listening to their peers and to me. David nodded his head and Jacob took copious notes. Elliott was opposed to notetaking but damned if he didn’t have amazing recall. And Natasha, well, her rich laughter spoke of agreement and comfort and broke the heavy spell that so often enters a room of college students who are preparing to write a research paper.
There is respect in this room and you, my Wednesday Crew, did that all on your own.
I’d say that setting the foundation for respect is up to me as your professor but I can only do so much. On the first day of our class, I set the tone for my expectations. It’s what I’ve done for the many, many years I’ve taught composition. Yet, what you did not know, was how nervous I was about the book I chose for our class.
The work of Jesmyn Ward is outstanding. Ward’s acclaimed anthology, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, contains essays from writers I admire, including Ward herself. How great would it be if I could use this anthology as a basis for the research writing that is central to Composition II. I thought of the idea then dismissed as too hard. But I needed a foundation text for Comp II and it could be any text. Was I brave enough, crazy enough to choose a book about race? What if you thought I was going to convert the class to liberals and make you sing We Shall Overcome? What would I do if one of you came to class wearing a t-shirt with a Confederate flag? What if you were too scared, angry, tired, or ambivalent to analyze essays about race? And how loud would you complain when you found out your research papers had to be about race and identity in the United States?
The choice of a text does not and did not have to be this complicated. I could have chosen a book about technology or reality shows or food. I was this close to selecting a composition anthology with a chapter on my least favorite word: diversity. But I’m not one for safe or vague topics. Our book had to be The Fire This Time.
Anyone can teach the essays in The Fire This Time, but I am keenly aware that the person I am—a black woman—adds another layer to the discussions we have and the papers you write about race. I’ve spent the past year talking and thinking about race in ways I haven’t my entire life. In a department meeting last December, when so many colleagues were reeling from the results of the 2016 presidential election, I sat back and said nothing. You see, I am the only black woman—the only person of color—in my department of 12 faculty members. They groaned and complained and sighed. How terrible! What are we going to do?!  I understood their disbelief, felt their anguish and lack of power to change the outcome.  I didn’t want to say anything, as I am not the authority on black folks. I desperately wanted to sit this one out but figured I better say what I what my body language was communicating.  When I broke my silence, I had one thing to say about the boy-man elected president:
“I’ll tell you what my sister said about the election: for black folks it was just another Tuesday. We been dealing with shock and turmoil all our lives.  Y’all can fix this one without us.”
And the room went silent.
I share this with you because that moment factored into my decision about The Fire This Time. How do I talk with my colleagues and friends about difficult topics? How do we prepare college students to do the same? One easy way is that you make it necessary for students to do so. I honestly feel that teaching the analysis of challenging subjects through writing and discussion is one way to guide your development into being better citizens of the world.
Heady topics like racism weren’t handled so well when I was in college. Race was an historical fact, something relegated to sociology and history courses that included forays into social justice movements and slavery. My university had a minor in African-American Studies in a department chaired by a well-versed but white Swedish sociologist.  I’d like to say that the topic of race was pedagogically misplaced at my university but, honestly, it was just not that important to the powers that be.
As an English professor, I am in charge of my class and I’m always seeking ways to abide by the course guidelines without bringing too much of me into the classroom. Yet, that’s impossible, isn’t it? Like the Swedish sociologist who apologized for overseeing the African-American Studies minor, it is equally absurd that I think my background can stay out of the classroom.
I bring a lot of folks with me into the classroom. Remember when we watched clips of James Baldwin in the first weeks of the semester? I couldn’t help but think about my mother’s family, mostly New Englanders who were only two generations removed from slavery.  I wondered if they felt misplaced in the United States as Baldwin did, as I often do. It was hard for me to talk after we watched those film clips, which is why I moved the conversation to other matters, so you wouldn’t notice my unease.
During our conversations about the essays we read in The Fire This Time, I thought of other family members I never met but who have had an incredible impact on me.
I thought of my great-great grandmother, Eliza Burrell Williams, born a slave, married to slave, and the mother of a slave. She long outlived that terrible institution and stayed married for 60 years, had 8 more children, and was a midwife and landowner in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
I thought of another great-great grandparent, John Wesley Snead, who also outlived slavery. In fact, he lived to be about 103. John Wesley—who was born only two years after Thomas Jefferson died—lived most of his life within a day’s journey of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantations. John Wesley could not read or write but saw freedom and told his story to a newspaper, an article I read frequently to hear his voice, to feel closer to him.
That I am a black woman, the great-great granddaughter of property, is not something I keep cradled quietly on a shelf. It is a fact of my life that I come from survivors, from people whose lives were not their own. My life has to be in honor of theirs, if their living meant anything to me. And it means so very much to me in the context of my professional life.
Teaching is not easy and was not my first choice of a career. I have days when I wonder why in the world I didn’t stay in the nonprofit world or even open my own bakery. Yet when I walk into this classroom and look into the faces of you, my Wednesday Crew, I am reminded of this humble walk called teaching.
Your questions make me smile. Your inquisitiveness is infectious. You show up in all the ways possible. You tolerated me and supported me, your mercurial professor. I could not be more thankful for this and for you.
I hope that I’ve done this class justice. There is always a list of things I wish I had done better, more thoroughly with more forethought. Alas, I guess that’s what comes with teaching: we cannot do everything.
Keep writing, my Wednesday Crew. Keep asking tough questions and remind yourselves to listen. Above all, be good to your beautiful selves. We need you, Wednesday Crew, to make this world better.

All my best,
Prof. B.
December 2017