I was prepared to be conspicuous when I accepted the teaching position at the College of New Rochelle’s Rosa Parks Campus in Harlem. Despite the recent gentrification, the area remains largely African-American, and I am not. On my first day of class, walking from the subway to the school between the boarded-up windows of the projects and the shiny new Starbucks and Old Navy, a man hanging out on the corner greeted me with a nod of the head. “Hi there, Snowflake.”
What I was not prepared for was the sad state of affairs of the campus itself, located on the fourth and fifth floors of a building on 125th Street, Harlem’s main thoroughfare, just down the street from Bill Clinton’s office. I'd had high hopes when I entered the lobby, a nouveau African-American art gallery that rivaled the Guggenheim’s contemporary styling. I signed in with the security guard and waited ten minutes for the elevator while people milled about the sculptures on the other side of the wall.
Once on the fifth floor, it was clear that the chic design ended in the lobby. Little effort had been made to give the classrooms and common areas a college feeling. There were a few bulletin boards promoting events, most of which took place at the main campus in suburban Westchester County, about 30 miles north of Manhattan. Not appealing for people who rely on public transportation. The students and teachers shared a lounge with a couple of stained couches, an out-of-order pay phone, and a single snack machine. But the library troubled me most.
The library was located in the middle of the main corridor, directly across from the elevators. The windows either did not have blinds or they were never closed, which meant that every time the elevator doors slid open, heads bobbed above the windowsill to see who disembarked. The single room of the library was smaller than most conference rooms in corporate America. One wall was lined with magazines ranging from Consumer Reports to Essence. The other wall was filled with reference materials and literary works. The librarian’s choices were geared toward her constituency. That is, there were books written by and about Frederick Douglass, but not one volume by Shakespeare. And I was charged with teaching advanced literature.
Before each class, I stopped at my mailbox in the campus office to collect the attendance roster, the stack of “for your information” flyers, which I quickly found contained no useful information whatsoever, and class announcements. There were always only two announcements, and they alternately scolded the students for eating in the classroom and leaving the windows open. The strategies of the announcements changed over time. First, the school administrators tried to appeal to the students on the basis of logic: the food drew bugs and the open windows let in rain and snow. Then the missives became vaguely threatening: students found not in compliance would be “dealt with by the administration.” Before long, the security guard was charged with monitoring the classrooms for offenders. A few weeks later, the school had had enough and removed all trash cans and bolted the windows shut, solving the problem for good.
My classroom was on the fourth floor. The other instructors shook their heads in sympathy when I shared the news of my room assignment. The entire floor had a peculiar smell, somewhere between musty like an old basement and putrid like burnt electrical wires. Only three classrooms occupied the floor, and the rest of the space was rented to various businesses: Harold’s Weights and Measures, Trophies R’ Us, and Laetisha’s Candles. The bathrooms were locked. The water fountain was inoperable. It felt like my students and I were awash on a deserted island.
Once on the fourth floor, I signed in at the security desk for the third time, the first two being in the lobby and the fifth floor office. It wasn’t long before it became unnecessary for me to sign in at all as each guard recognized me as the “white teacher lady.” My classroom was like the rest of the campus, drab and uninspiring. The pea green vinyl flooring and matching walls was more reminiscent of a prison or army barrack than an institution of higher learning. The chalkboard was missing chalk and erasers, a weekly source of consternation for me as I scavenged the other rooms to find tack-size bits of the white stuff. The students sat in chair/desk combinations where dozens of previous captive audiences had etched their names into the wood. My chair/desk was positioned at the front, facing the others. Into my desk, “you suck” was etched.
When the students filed into the room on the first day, they were neither surprised nor upset to find a white woman standing in front of them. If they thought that I would be an easy “A,” their faces didn’t show it. More than thirty students stuffed themselves into the class and it was standing room only. I was pleased that my class was a popular choice and terrified when I calculated how many papers I would have to grade. Students trickled in well after the official start time of 6:30 p.m., forcing me to pause with each addition to class. I modified my planned introduction to announce that tardiness would not be tolerated. They smirked. A cell phone rang “Hail to the Chief” and the owner walked out of the room to answer it. I added no cell phones to my list of rules. Two students walked out.
The remaining students were women, save for three men who enjoyed the fact that they were well outnumbered. The Rosa Parks Campus catered to adults attending classes part-time, not the typical on-their-own-for-the-first-time eighteen-year-olds. My students ranged in age from twenty-five to sixty, held full-time jobs, and most were married with children. They had lives and responsibilities outside of class. They were quick to remind me of this when I handed out the syllabus. Murmuring commenced and a spokeswoman was nominated.
“This is crazy. We can’t do all this work.” She fanned the pages. “Like, you want us to read forty pages and write a paper by the next class? No way.” A round of agreement issued from the rest of the students.
“The next class is a week away. You mean to tell me that you can’t complete this assignment in seven days?”
“Look, I’ve got another class, plus a husband, a kid, and a job. I don’t have time for all this…stuff.” At least she chose a nicer word than what she’d probably meant to say.
“And how much reading do you think is appropriate for an advanced literature class?” This was clearly the wrong approach, opening myself up for criticism and mockery, but no student had ever openly challenged me before.
The spokeswoman thought about it. “Ten pages.”
She was serious. When I was in graduate school I had to read two hundred and fifty pages every two days, I wanted to tell her. And it was boring theories and literary critiques and critiques of critiques. My syllabus, on the other hand, was full of interesting short stories and exciting essays. Fearful of sounding like my grandmother, instead I said, “Well, then, you are in the wrong class.”
The students’ heads swiveled tennis-match style for her response. She looked down at the syllabus and clucked a bit. I’d regained control of the class and I felt a little pride at clearing the first hurdle. The second hurdle was the attendance. The older students tended to have names that I could easily pronounce as I called roll: Patricia, James, Ann. The younger students’ names were more challenging: Kayleriah, Seaneia, Lenaretha. With each name I butchered, the students snickered and giggled at their inside joke. They gave me just enough rope to hang myself by letting a few seconds pass after I mispronounced their names to think I had said them correctly before they took ownership.
Seaneia. Must be like Shawn-ya. “Shawn-ya? Is Shawn-ya here?”
“I think you must mean me.” A woman dressed in all black with a gold lame headband tied turban-style raised her hand and rolled her eyes. “It’s See-an-eeah.” I got my revenge a few weeks later when they had to read an excerpt from Walden Pond. Seania announced that she didn’t like this writer “Thor-ow” at all.
On the subway ride home after that first class, I wondered if Spokeswoman had a valid point. These students’ personal lives weren’t filled with dorm room parties and late night beer runs. They were changing diapers and punching time clocks. It must have taken a lot of courage to give college a chance five, ten, even twenty years after high school. Why should I be the one to put roadblocks in front of their goal?
But. But when they left the Rosa Parks Campus, they would have a Bachelor of Arts degree that conferred upon them the same rights and privileges anyone with that degree has. Should they have it without the same basic knowledge and effort? Would they someday be angry with instructors who let them slide, who didn’t challenge them to learn more? I decided I wasn’t the kind of professor who could pass students for simply showing up. In my class they would have to earn it.
The students chose their term paper topics from a list that I provided, and I opened the class to questions. “My topic is self-discovery in In My Father’s House, by Ernest Gaines. Does that mean I have to read the whole book?”
“Do you have a copy of Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail I could borrow?”
“I’m supposed to analyze themes of loneliness, pride, and jealousy. Do I have to write about all three or can I pick just one?”
“I picked ‘Ernest Hemingway’s life and works.’ And I have to ‘discuss the relationship of events and people in his life to the plots and characters in his works.’ Can you tell me some of his works?”
This last one deflated me a bit. She didn’t know Hemingway, my writing God. “Class, can anyone name something, anything written by Ernest Hemingway?”
Silence. I waited. Gave them a moment to think about it. I was sure it was on the tip of someone’s tongue.
A hand went up. “He’s the guy who wrote The Great Gatsby.”
“Your assignment for next week is to list five works written by Ernest Hemingway and five works written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.” I knew they would copy each other’s lists, but I didn’t care.
I varied their reading assignments to give them exposure to an eclectic group of authors. We read Eudora Welty, Shirley Jackson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston. We read Shakespeare and Auden. We read lyrics by Dylan and Springsteen. Even though I guaranteed them that the exams would encompass the entire assignment, some students stopped reading at page ten, the line of demarcation set by Spokeswoman. Most, though they wouldn’t admit it, actually liked some of the stories, and I was surprised by the ones they liked. My students claimed they were too urban to identify with Thoreau, yet they loved Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” We had a thirty minute class discussion on Diana Trilling’s essay about attending a dinner at the Kennedy White House, but no one understood “Hills Like White Elephants” by Hemingway. “If he was talking about abortion, then why didn’t he just say that?” they asked. Zora Neale Hurston received a universal thumbs-down, and Emily Dickenson got nods of approval.
The semester was several weeks old when we came to “The Meaning of a Word,” by Gloria Naylor. I second-guessed my decision to teach this essay about Naylor’s feelings when she heard for the first time the N-word spoken by a white boy. Perhaps this would be better addressed by an African-American professor. During the week, I found myself wondering if any of the students were reading the essay at that moment. Were they feeling cheated or, worse, disrespected to have been assigned this essay by a professor who could never truly understand?
Then there was the issue of actually uttering The Word. Could I have a class discussion about The Word without at any time saying it? The next week, as I stood at the front of the class, I couldn’t have been whiter and they couldn’t have been blacker. Who was I to think that I could teach them anything about this? I thought a deft maneuver to divert the class discussion to the next reading assignment was in order. Then I would look at my watch in surprise and announce that time had run out before we could touch on Naylor’s essay. “Don’t worry about this one for the test,” I would say to their backs as they raced out of the room. But they weren’t going to let me get away with that. They started their own class discussion. Quickly, we moved away from the essay and on to more general topics: the common use of The Word between families and friends, the many different meanings of The Word depending upon inflection of the voice, and most interesting to me, why they could freely use it, but I could not.
“Well, it’s because you’re, uh, you know, white,” a brave soul offered.
“So you’re saying that it’s not okay when someone like Eminem uses it in his songs?”
“No, that’s okay.” The rest of the class nodded.
“He’s white. Why is it okay for him, but not for me?”
“Because he’s accepted,” she said in the most matter-of-fact voice I’d ever heard.
“Am I not accepted?” This was another other word that clearly had alternative meanings.
“Sort of. But you’re up there,” she pointed to the front of the classroom, “not over here.” She gestured to the students’ chair/desks.
“And Eminem? He’s over there?” I pointed to them. They nodded.
“But we don’t want you to be over here. We have stuff to learn from you.”
And what I learned from them was that being “color blind” was not about ignoring our differences, but getting on in spite of them.
After all the promising class discussions, the result of their first assignment was abysmal. Their papers were lacking coherence, structure, and proper punctuation. The differences between “they’re,” “their,” and “there” had escaped most of them. I became tired of circling the missing apostrophes above possessive nouns. To graduate high school without these grammar basics was a shame, but to still lack this knowledge well past the ten-year reunion was pitiful. I was embarrassed for them. When I mentioned this to the dean, she shrugged. “It is what it is,” she said. My internal horror must have shown on my face. “Look, they need these degrees. The community needs these degrees.” The statistics backed her up. In Harlem, the graduation rate from public high school was only 42 percent and less than one in three youths were enrolled in college or worked full-time. “If you want to give them some grammar tips, fine, just don’t put it on the syllabus that you file with me.” Thus began my weekly grammar lesson.
Helen was a student whose grammar skills were adequate, but always seemed to miss the big picture. During lectures, while the others would nod or make comments, Helen remained bewildered throughout, no matter what the topic. She was frazzled all the time – shirts half-tucked, pen marks on her face, notebook in disarray. When the other students bolted for the door after class, Helen stayed behind, often for thirty minutes or more. It became her personal tutoring time, and I would try to recap the day’s lesson so that she could understand. Her literal mind couldn’t grasp symbolism, simile, or satire. She became paralyzed trying to figure out why plural verbs usually didn’t have “s” at the end, but some did. During one after-class session, she confided that her daughter, a woman about my age, was in the hospital with a life-threatening illness—what, she didn’t say. She was determined to finish this, her last semester before graduation.
When I told her that some things were more important than school, I meant it. “School will be here for you when things settle down.”
“You don’t understand. I’m afraid that if I don’t finish now I won’t have the strength to do it after she’s gone.” Tears welled up in her eyes, but she wiped them away and focused on her final term paper comparing imagery in the works of Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. “Now I’ve heard of Maya Angelou. She’s a friend of Oprah. But I can’t find anything on James Baldwin. Whose friend is he?”
One month later the class took the Regents, the exam that tests the minimum basic knowledge a student should have after completing three literature courses. Pass/fail grades were issued and passing was a requirement of graduation. Helen arrived late, looking more frantic than usual. She was the last person to finish by more than an hour. As I watched her and the clock, she wrote so painstakingly slowly, each letter so flawlessly executed, I thought she would have to leave with the exam unfinished.
Fearful of breaking her concentration, I whispered, “The security guard told me that we must leave. He is closing the building.”
“I only have one more page to go. I’m rewriting everything to make sure it’s perfect.” I read over her shoulder. No thesis sentence. No introduction. It wasn’t perfect.
All of our after-class tutoring sessions and innovative teaching techniques brought us to the final exam. I never wanted a student to pass as much as I did Helen. Only with a “C” or better would she earn her degree. I watched her, head bent over her paper mouthing the questions to herself, and attempted to send the answers telepathically, a last ditch effort to help. I tried to shrug off the nagging feeling that, despite hours of extra coaching, I hadn’t actually helped Helen much. I remembered what the dean had said about the power of college degrees for the community. My degree had meant a path to higher salaries and snazzier job titles, but for some of these students, it meant much more than that. A degree equaled a way out of a stagnant cycle that had perpetuated itself for most of their lives, possibly generations.
Margaret Fuller, one of Thoreau’s editors, said that nature provides exceptions to every rule. One point I had told the class to think about while reading Walden was the interconnectedness of all living things in nature. As I watched Helen struggle with the exam, I could visualize the positive effect a college degree would have on her life, and on the lives of others she touched. Through the entwining layers of this neighborhood, the cumulative effect from one class of mostly underprivileged women with degrees could be exponential. Had I been too rigid with my rules, adhering to unrealistic standards that were out of touch with what these students needed? Maybe Helen had earned her degree in a different way. She didn’t remember William Faulkner or Toni Morrison, and she couldn’t write a good expository essay about either of them, but she had given all of herself to this class at a time when she hadn’t much to give.
On that basis maybe Helen was an exception, deserving a degree just as much as any other student who could regurgitate lectures from rote memorization or who came naturally to writing. At the two-hour mark, Helen asked to use the restroom. As I watched her exit at the front of class, I noticed writing on the inside of her palm. I didn’t stop her.
Jacquelin Cangro is the editor of a collection of essays titled, The Subway Chronicles: Scenes from Life in New York (Penguin/Plume). She recently published a collection of her own essays in The Subway Chronicles: More Scenes from Life in New York. She now teaches creative writing online through The Loft Literary Center. Her short fiction has been published in The Macguffin and Pangolin Papers and she's completed her first novel. More of her writing can be found online at jacquelincangro.com.