Now in my 70s, I find myself reflecting on my career as a university professor. From 1968-1998, I taught in programs designed to retain students who traditionally lacked access to higher education, especially students of color. During the early 1990s, I kept a journal recording details of student interactions that held special significance for me. I wrote in it when I was challenged to invent more authentic ways of reaching out to students. As I reread accounts of my interaction with Helene, an African American student, I realize how much I learned from her, how she helped me renew my courage to teach.
Sitting at my desk on a busy Friday morning, I glance down at my appointment book and notice that Helene is coming to see me in 15 minutes. I am in the midst of preparing to teach a new sociology text about African American women and their survival skills next semester. A white woman, I have been worried that I would not do it justice in a class with culturally diverse students. I think, So much can go wrong—from my own misreading given my whiteness to difficult dialogues between students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds. What am I doing? Yet I love this book. Can I teach it? Will the author’s descriptions seem salient and real to my students?
And now Helene. I forgot that she made this appointment and it’s right before a faculty meeting.
Helene failed my sociology class two years ago. When she called for this appointment, she said, “I’ve gotten my life together and would like to talk with you. You’re a psychologist.”
But so is my colleague Dr. Garcia, who also teaches the class that you need to retake.
“I’m happy to meet with you. When do you want to come in?” I asked.
Opening her student file, I imagine her animated face earlier this semester in the hallway down from my classroom. She left the multicultural scholarship program I teach in after the semester she took my class. Yet there she stood down the hall, laughing and talking with other students. She must have come back to the university on her own.
Looking at her records, I see, with some irritation, that she was Dr. Garcia’s advisee two years ago. Why didn’t she call him? She was frequently absent from my class, sat in the back with another African American student, and never participated. I wrote notes on her papers to come to see me and even called her but to no avail. She disappeared toward the end of the semester without an explanation.
At what point do you admit that you have failed as a teacher? When does the attention you give underperforming students take away from what you give to those performing or trying to perform well?
She knocks softly on my partly opened door. I invite her to sit across from me, catching the spicy scent of her perfume. She has beautiful braids, intricately woven. Smiling, she says, “I want to change majors and maybe go to graduate school in Social Work.”
I look at her folder, at her grades, and doubt fills my mind. The Program Director has a note that says she no longer qualifies financially for the program, so admission to any previous scholarship classes will need the Dean’s approval, in addition to an instructor’s.
Perhaps catching my skepticism, she says confidently, “I’m a different person now with different goals. I don’t want to stay in the Business College.”
“OK,” I say hesitantly. “All these Ds on your transcript … you’re going to have to replace these with higher grades. A 2.3 GPA won’t get you into most majors these days, let alone graduate school.” My throat tightens. It will be hard to make this case with my Dean.
“Your program records haven’t been updated,” she replies. “I’ve retaken almost all of those courses and done quite well. Only yours is left.” She looks me in the eye as she sits up straighter in her chair.
I close the folder. She glances down, then turns her eyes back to me and takes a deep breath as she tells me about how hard my course had been for her. “The issues were so real, right up close in my life. I was afraid I wouldn’t make it my sophomore year. Those bad grades weren’t the only thing that damaged my life. I had personal challenges—physically and emotionally. I know you tried to reach out to me …” I see her fingers pressing into her arms.
“Did you think about coming to talk to me or your advisor about those difficulties?” I ask, as my throat relaxes. “The program has resources. We could have helped you figure something out.”
Struggling for words, she puts her hands together, twisting her fingers around each other. “I knew that the program was there for me. You see, the woman who lived with me was really abusive. She was a cousin who had mental problems—‘agoraphobic,’ her social worker said—and I felt trapped, responsible for her. I’m out of that now though for over a year…married…happily.”
“You were really challenged. Is there anything I could have done differently?“
She turns her head toward the window as if trying to pull in something that lies outside her ability to formulate into words, maybe to make it clearer to herself more than to me. She leans into the space between us.
“It’s probably ‘the Black woman thing.’” Looking directly at me, she relaxes and chuckles. “I grew up believing that I had to handle everything myself, and by and large I did. At ten, I was putting my brothers to bed and doing laundry for my family. At thirteen, I cooked dinners and made school lunches. My mom was single and uneducated; she worked many jobs. I handled my brothers and sisters. But I couldn’t handle my cousin. I had no idea how to ask for help, especially from a white woman like you or a man like Dr. Garcia. I just didn’t know how.”
Something shifts in me as I listen and become her teacher again.
“Interesting, Helene,” I say, “because in the class you want to retake next semester, we are going to read Kesho Scott’s The Habit of Surviving. She interviews African-American women who, like you, feel that reaching out for help is a sign of weakness or a cry that won’t be heard. They think they have to survive on their own.”
I pick up the book from my desk and hand it to her.
“Really? A sign of weakness?” She gazes at the five African American women’s portraits on the cover.
“Yes. Scott describes how many African American women in your mother’s generation had to be strong to survive. Most did so with pride and dignity. But she argues that in doing so many gave up the joy that comes from being playful.”
Sitting back in her chair, Helene says. “Wow. It sounds like she interviewed my mother and maybe me.”
Another shift. Helene is teaching me.
We sit in silence as she looks through the book. I glance at my watch.
Taking the cue, she gets up from her chair. At the door she turns and says, “I’ll be in the front row of your class. I’ll be participating this time. Thank you, Dr. Gillespie.”
“You’re welcome, Helene. I look forward to hearing your ideas.”
After she leaves my office, I write a note to the Dean and place it inside her folder: “Helene has made changes in her life that will allow her not only to survive academically but to flourish. She has permission to enroll in my class next semester. I highly recommend that you approve her request.”
But what I don’t write is that she has given me permission too, to teach a book about African American women survivors, including one who will be sitting in the front seat in my class.