Monday Notes: The Black People in Front of You 👽

kg_FSUI began a tenure-track position at a Research I university August 2013, a month after Trayvon Martin’s murderer was acquitted. Our academic year began in one of the university’s ballrooms with announcements of new faculty, food, and light banter. I was the only black face at our round table. I’d grown used to being the only, but this felt different. I remember chit-chatting about inconsequential topics so minor that I cannot recall the slightest detail.

I remember wondering if I should ask any of these white faces what they thought about Martin’s death or his killer’s acquittal. After all, we were scholars. I remember wondering if this incident mattered to them at all, not in a Black Lives Matter way, but in a we live in the state of Florida and this just happened in Florida type of way.

Instead, I remained silent, returned to my office, and prepared my syllabi for the semester.

***

That August, I taught a class that was at an integral phase for my students who were studying to be teachers. The class was right before their internship semester. Strict guidelines had been passed down from the previous professor. Students could only miss two classes. The consequence? They’d fail and have to wait an entire year to re-take the course. Rigidity was important because they’d be student teaching the following semester and had to learn the importance of punctuality and attendance. They were two semesters away from being professionals after all.

Long story very short, there was a student who missed more than two classes, and because I wanted to follow the rules I was given, I failed her. The day she realized I wouldn’t budge on my decision, she stood in the hallway demanding to be seen even though my office hours had ended. She stood, with her face inches away from mine and yelled. She’d made such a commotion that the office secretary came out and asked if I was okay.

“Yes,” I replied, my voice no louder than a whisper.

The girl left. I gathered my belongings and left to teach class. I wondered if any white, tenure-track professors had ever been yelled at, in the middle of the hallway, in front of their offices at this Research I university.

I never asked. Instead, I taught, wrote my grant, and prepared to conduct my study, in addition to having to participate in several conversations that reached the dean’s office about why I should change my mind about this student’s grade.

***

Other bothersome events occurred at this university, like the girl who placed an online order and had a Jimmy John’s sandwich delivered to class…while I was teaching.

img_4048There was the time the same girl screenshot an email she’d sent to me to prove she’d completed an assignment. I noticed the emoji she associated with my name – an alien. According to her, she’d used that alien emoji for “all her professors.”

There was the time I was supposed to have a mentor. I asked for a black woman, someone with whom I could identify and navigate this particular university’s world. My assigned mentor was black and female, but she was not tenured. At the time, they didn’t have any black, female tenured professors in our college. She confessed that she had little to offer me by way of advice; she was just trying to keep her own head above water.

There was the time my white colleague asked me to speak to a black student about her use of Black English. I was tasked with placing her on probation if she didn’t learn to use “standard” English. How is she going to be an English teacher? my colleague asked.

There was the story of my incompetent, white, male counterpart, who initially made $12k more than I did, but who needed my help understanding how to create and teach his classes.

And, there’s the story of how I got this specific job in the first place. Spoiler alert: it was tied to Affirmative Action.

***

Since we’re all having moments of introspection and authentic conversations centered on race, I figured I’d share this partial list of how systemic racism manifested for me in three short years at a place I’d least expected it, the highest rated university in our educational system.

This post may be my last about race for a while, so I want to be clear.

Some black people will not encounter police brutality, but we will encounter white people in other spaces that weren’t initially created for us.

Subsequently, it’s important for two things to happen: 1) black people should speak up and be explicit about what we need, and 2) white people should understand systemic racism and determine how to engage in anti-racist ways.

For the latter, I think a great place to begin is with paying attention to the black people in front of you.

22 Years and Counting

apple2Today I begin my twenty-second year as somebody’s teacher/professor.

Twenty-two years of convincing someone that what he or she is doing is just temporary and that anything can be done short term in order to achieve a long-term goal

Twenty-two years of being at least one student’s first African-American teacher/professor…still

Twenty-two years of helping people shift their thinking as they step out of the boxes in which others have placed them and sometimes shed or re-shape the boxes they’ve created for themselves

Twenty-two years of building and re-building the delicate teacher-student relationship because each student is unique, no matter the institution

Twenty-two years of counseling someone through the process of what it means to gain more knowledge because they didn’t realize critical thinking was an integral part of the experience

Twenty-two years of reminding students that they really can do it because sometimes we all need a nudge and reminder of our strengths

Today I begin my 22nd year in a profession that I pursued on purpose. Today I’ll influence someone’s future life…on purpose.

Reflections of a Commuter

img_508946,080. That’s how many miles I commuted from Orange Park to Gainesville, where I completed graduate studies at the University of Florida. These miles accumulated over a six-year period.

The drive was do-able back then because it was a little under three hours round trip; I was 31; and I knew it would end. You see, I’ve always believed that you can do anything…temporarily. So, in my mind driving back and forth to complete a degree was definitely a short-term situation. Eventually, I’d graduate.

August 7, 2010, I walked across the stage, and the very next day the girls and I moved to middle-Georgia. I’d obtained a job at a liberal arts college, which was located in Milledgeville. My classes were at a regional center in Macon. However, we lived in Houston County. This county was the best of the surrounding areas. The others were full of failing schools and lacked diversity. My children already had to adjust to a new type of southern culture. I wasn’t about to sacrifice their education as well. But, this meant another two years’ commute.

I-75-interstate-75-highway6,720. That’s how many miles I drove to and from Houston County to the Macon Center and occasionally round trip to Milledgeville for department and program meetings. Because Dwight lived in Jacksonville, there was the bi-weekly commute back there to visit. For my part, that added an extra 9,800 miles.

As ridiculous as this sounds, commuting in this way continued to be manageable because it was my first full-time academic job, so excitement floated me up and down I-75. I was just happy to be making money doing something I’d trained for and loved.

But living away from my husband wasn’t sustainable. So, I attained a job in Florida. Only this time, the commute was 360 miles round trip, door-to-door. I figured my family could stay put, while I drove up and down I-10.

57,600. That’s how many miles I commuted to and from Jacksonville to Tallahassee for three years. This time it was do-able because I was working in my niche with likeminded colleagues. But the physical and mental stress of getting there wasn’t worth it. When the Spring 2015 semester ended, I knew I was done. My soul spoke to me and made it quite clear that day in May was the last drive I’d make to campus.

A June offer at another institution in Gainesville confirmed my intuition. I figured I could do it because the commute was familiar and included fewer miles, 180 compared to 360. Plus, for the first two years, I taught at regional centers, which weren’t very far, and on top of that, the majority of my course load was online. But course loads are unpredictable, and if necessary, I have to be prepared to commute to main campus in Gainesville. That’s what happened this academic year, thus prompting my motivation to finally reflect.

12,160. That’s how many miles I’ve commuted in two and a half years to teach classes. I haven’t added additional miles required for attending bi-weekly and monthly meetings held on three separate days.

My thirteenth year as a commuter feels less enjoyable and more like a hamster wheel. I’m tired y’all. I’m tired of leaving two hours early just so I can arrive on time. I’m tired of buying new tires every 6-8 months because of wear and tear. I’m tired of the additional gas money. Plus, the older I get, the more driving up and down the highway for hours to work seems like a colossal waste of time.

img_5101Sometimes change begins with reflection. That’s what this is. I don’t have an answer right now, but I do know that I won’t be spending my remaining career on the road. Life’s too short and time is fleeting*.

Do you or have you had to commute? What was it like?

*Had to borrow from Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.”

Confessions of an Overachiever (II)

Part I and Part III

It was 2009. I was conducting a study, analyzing data and giving job talks in a few states. The interview process itself was an unexpected stress. One interview lasted three full days. After talking with search committees in five states, I secured a position at a liberal arts college in Georgia. It seemed perfectly aligned with my vow to avoid stress.

There were a few challenges, though.

The institution promised to support my husband in finding a job. They never did. We still had our Florida house to sell. The girls lived with me; Dwight stayed in Florida. It was a three and a half hour drive. So while my job wasn’t stressful, the weekend commutes to have some semblance of normalcy was. For me, this meant packing up the kids and dog, and then trekking up and down I-75 every other weekend. We did this for two years. The cycle was relentless and taxing. I went back on the professor market.

To say I was desperate to move back to Florida is an understatement. My pre-teen daughters were well-behaved, but with the absence of a father, they had gotten a little lippy. We were also sustaining two households. But I didn’t feel as stressed as I had before. I mean there was no chair of a doctoral committee determining the balance of my life. As a matter of fact, I had lost weight and felt more energetic. Still, the situation wasn’t ideal and we needed to move back together, under one roof.

When the next prestigious university called me in 2012 and offered me a visiting professor line, I was overjoyed. However, I had no intentions of moving to Tallahassee. The point was for our family to reunite. I chose to commute.

“Tallahassee is a long way,” Dwight warned.

“I know. I can do it,” I said.

As I type these words, it feels arrogant. I know. I can do it. I can drive 320 miles twice a week. To be fair, droves of people I knew and didn’t know called me crazy. The truth is I really did think I could do it. It’s an innate part of my personality. I truly believe I can do anything I set my mind to. Or am I just an overachiever? The line is fine and sometimes the two collide to blur my judgment. Either way, I did it.

too_much
Royalty Free
The job was supposed to last only one year. It was visiting. Instead, they were soooooo impressed with me that they found a way to offer a tenure-track line. One year turned into three. Teaching classes, mentoring graduate students, advising a couple of doc students, serving on two committees, running into unexpected microagressions, conducting research, presenting at national conferences, writing, getting published in the “wrong” place, seeking grant funding, and getting rejected publications from the “right” place made for a stressful job. The out of town commute twice a week was just bonus stress. Some days I would cry all the way to the university’s parking lot. Other days I would pray all the way home for answers. In between, I looked for jobs. Nothing surfaced.

It was six years of doctoral work all over again. There was no chalazion or sleep paralysis. But I was ignoring other signs. Although I worked out whenever I wasn’t on the road, it didn’t matter.

“You run with your fists clenched,” a trainer observed. “Are you angry about something? You have to calm down and then work out. Open your fists.”

I hadn’t noticed it before. But now things made more sense. I had run a 5k, consistently practiced yoga and maintained a restricted diet, but gained 20 pounds in three years.

I made time for my family and me: movies, vacations, cookie baking, you name it. Life looked balanced, but it wasn’t. Not really. This was the most imbalanced life I’d ever lived.

But I ignored it.

Only thing about disregarding things is that they don’t really go away. My body had had enough. It was overstressed.