As a university professor, I sat through my institution's recent commencement address feeling this was also my graduation. In a sense, it was.
In his remarks, the intrepid "Mac Arthur Genius" Bryan Stevenson asked the graduates to commit to the work of justice and change the world. He outlined four necessary steps 1) getting proximate to the places where there's suffering, abuse, and neglect 2) change the narrative on race 3) have hope, and 4) get ready to be uncomfortable. I made a mental list, this past year, I actually did all four.
A once self-proclaimed accidental academic who has always had one foot in and one foot out of where I work, I accepted the president's call to join his Task Force and committed to seriously working at the institutional level in the aftermath of the students' uprisings in 2015. Indeed, we are in an historical moment and changes are imminent. Institutions wedded to an academe of the neo mad men era that choose to eschew this reality by refusing to finally join the 21st century will simply replicate mediocrity. It is time to go back to the drawing board. What motivated me to jump in with both feet were my former students.
During events this past weekend, I met so many parents of grads as well as alums. I shared my admiration. I have had the privilege to not just teach them over the years, but to watch them grow. Over and over again, I heard myself repeat what has become something of a mantra: I cannot ask students to learn, and stay static. How far will they go? How far will we go? It is a symbiotic relationship. I take my vocation seriously, as I harbor a deep sense of responsibility. Central to my teaching philosophy is this Haitian saying I grew up with, se ale m'prale e vini w'ap vini, sassy translation: I'm on my way out and you are the newbies. My personal growth is just as essential, otherwise, I would be standing in the way of their progress. This conviction also comes from several mentors who have and continue to nurtured me in the same way.
The last couple of years, I have noticed my new tendency to tell students I am getting older. I do not need to be perceived as 'hip' or 'down.' So the first day of classes, I tell them, "I'm old, I mean, really old comparatively, and I am old school, 'I am not an app, I cannot be downloaded'." I say this to mark the distance between us, and also to demand their presence, because truthfully, all I aspire to is to pass on the little bit I know about the world, and inspire enough awareness and curiosity to nurture a humility, a recognition that there is even more to learn. When they take on this life thing, I hope they remain open to evolving.
This winter, towards the end of a meeting with trustees of color concerning matters of diversity one member, UM sociologist, Alford Young said, "I'm curious. We know there are problems at every institution, so why do you stay here? Why do you take on this work?"
While there wasn't enough time for that conversation, I have been pondering my answer. I cherish teaching undergraduates precisely because they are wild cards. As a parent reminded me, quoting Forrest Gump, "they are like a box of chocolates you never know what you are going to get." The truth is over the years, I have taught authors, filmmakers, financial traders, grassroots organizers, homemakers, journalists, lawyers, medical doctors, philanthropists, professors, social workers, teachers, therapists, visual artists, and wanderers, among other pursuits. Their paths were not always evident when they were here. They left with what intellectual knowledge we imparted and will spend the rest of their lives figuring out their way.
I have been on this life journey for almost a half a century. I am finally sitting in the foundation of my being. An artist-academic-activist, a Black woman who speaks her mind, I have been through hell and back and managed to individuate within an historically white institution. I am happy, and becoming quite fearless, determined to work with others to address and redress impeding structural issues that are long overdue. It won't be easy, but there is enough will. Despite the non-ending issues that comes with teaching these days, my inspiration remains students whom I have taught who, in turn, have contributed to my transformation. For them, all I have is gratitude.