A Letter to Mizzou

MizzouEvery semester I spend at least one class session on a wide range of introductions. I introduce course goals, the syllabus and all its accompanying rules, assigned texts, and, of course, assessment tools. There will be so many exams or papers or quizzes, I explain. So much percentage will be awarded here or there.

Then I tell a story. About Debbie.

It was my very first semester. I was a teaching assistant for a large lecture course. I met with the students each week, went over their assignments, graded their quizzes and essay exams, ran study sessions, and the like. The professor lectured; I did the grunt work.

The campus was dominated by white students, though some foreign nationals attended various graduate programs. One hundred and twenty four of my students that fall were Caucasian. One was black: Debbie.

Debbie was an extroverted, verbal student. In the first few classes, she distinguished herself with perceptive commentary and a bubbly enthusiasm.

Within the first two weeks, I gave a first quiz – a short answer question. I wanted to assess writing skills right off the bat.

Debbie failed that quiz.

But she was so clearly able to verbalize, so obviously enthusiastic. I wrote up my comments, noted that it was clear from class discussion that she was doing well, and asked her to come see me so we could talk.

In those days, there was no established writing lab or center for students like Debbie; I would have to help her learn to write, if she would let me. Only three years older than Debbie, I was barely 21 at the time. I was also enormously idealistic, and certain I could help. I was also white, obviously from a middle class background, and in a position of power.

But Debbie did come to see me. Over the semester, she willingly wrote me an essay each and every week for no credit at all. She was learning how to write, and I was learning how to teach.

Inwardly, I thought every session about the courage it must have taken her to be at that college at all. She was the first member of her family to attend university, she told me. Her family was hardly middle class or well-educated.

She could have avoided me; she could have decided not to try and trust my good intentions. She would have had every reason to do so given the heritage bequeathed to us both.

Each and every week as I looked up to the students entering the lecture hall – a stream of European descendants, a wave of white faces – I’d think about Debbie taking a seat among the privileged. She was a member of a people still oppressed, still unfree.

She worked hard all semester. By the middle of the semester she was getting a C or two on her work for the class. By the final essay exam, she was able to write a full-fledged, well-organized essay. Each sentence was complete, clear, and articulate. I was so excited I was jotting down little more than exclamation points as I read and the word “yes” every few lines. With more exclamation points.

Debbie’s final grade averaged out to a C. But she had ended up proving that she was an A student. I gave her an A in the course.

So many of my students enter UNC Charlotte, where I teach now, unprepared and unready for the demands I will make on them. Like Debbie, they come from difficult backgrounds. This semester, I have a student working third shift – often her hours are longer than the official shift, and she has to work from 11 p.m. until 8 or 9 a.m. the next morning. She sleeps a few hours, then starts preparing for class, and then attends class. Like Debbie, she is a first-generation college student. Also, like Debbie, she is African American.

Debbie must be in her early fifties now. In my mind, Debbie’s story and her struggles should be a relic of my past and hers. It’s not.

More than three decades ago, Debbie was the single black student among 124 students at the University of Missouri-Columbia.