“Help these boys build a nation their own. Ransack the histories for clues to their past. Plunder the literatures for words they can speak. And should you encounter an ancient tribe whose customs, however dimly, cast light on their hearts, tell them that tale; and you shall name the unspeakable names of your kind, and in that naming, in each such telling, they will falter a step to the light. For only with pride may a man prosper. With pride, all things follow.” ~Jamie O’Neill, At Swim, Two Boys
I started teaching at Lehigh in 2001. I chose to be at Lehigh — meaning: it was consciously and deliberately my choice. I didn’t end up here by default.
I was always an early bloomer, and I was fortunate enough to recognize in myself, very early on, that I had a rare gift (and burden) for teaching privilege to the privileged. I could pass in their world well enough to not totally alienate them, and I felt compelled — driven, really — to teach to them. I wanted to be in a place where I’d teach the historically privileged, where the legacies of structural privilege would be looming large, where I’d be able to get into the heads of the soon-to-be-plentifully-powerful. I went in with my eyes open; I knew it would be challenging. At Lehigh I found them in droves. It was perfect.
However, upon teaching my first year of classes at Lehigh, a surprise came too: I realized a gift I hadn’t known I’d had. In addition to the students I knew I’d teach — the white and wealthy children of the elite — I also found my classes peppered with a contingent of students who soon came to be my heart of hearts: minority students, from all walks of life, struggling to navigate the rocky, rocky, rocky terrain of upward mobility at an elite university. I discovered something surprising — I could teach to them too. Profoundly. With these students I found a powerful connection rooted in their strong craving for someone like me to speak truth, and in my deep desire to disclose insight for maneuvering within an elite institution while experiencing marginality. Word spreads quickly in these worlds, and in no time my classes were split about 50/50 between white privileged students and non-white structurally-disadvantaged students, all trying to figure out their complex lives in a very complex arena.
This, as it turned out, was beyond perfect: it was engrossing and enthralling and incredibly exhausting and beautifully gratifying. It was draining and invigorating. This is what has kept me at Lehigh.
I’m at the end of my fourteenth year of teaching now. I know I can’t sustain it inevitably, because it takes so much out of me. But, for now, it is still what I’m compelled — no, driven — to do. I am someone who finds myself in the amazing position of knowing, for sure, in my heart, that I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, using my gifts just as they are meant to be used, during this particular era of my life. Because this truth is so deeply in the core of my soul, I don’t need confirmation from any external sources to keep me fueled. But, every once in a while, despite not needing it, I receive the most soul-affirming re-fueling to keep on doing what I do. An experience this week was one of those affirmations for me.
Several weeks ago an old student reached out to ask if he could visit and have lunch with me at Lehigh. I was thrilled to plan for his visit. He was coming from California, and despite the fact that I hadn’t seen him in over a decade, I remembered him well and couldn’t wait to see him. On Tuesday, not only did he arrive for our lunch, he surprised me by bringing a classmate of his — another student I hadn’t seen since his graduation, but remembered very well.
Obi and Terrence graduated in 2004, after having taken my Race and Class in America course with me during the spring of 2002. I remember that class so well — it was my first time teaching it. I can still name, from memory, so many of the students in it: Obi, Terrence, Maggie, Erica, Kat, Tres, Teniece, Howard, Ali, Keith, Silk, Tashieka, Justina, Tutu, Valerie, Oscar, Jessica. I’m sure if I looked at my notes from that course I’d remember all the others too. I’m like this with these classes I teach — I remember them. They root into my heart in a deep way.
To be able to sit on Tuesday afternoon, with these 33-year-old-gorgeous-accomplished-brilliant-proud-grown men, ten years after their graduation from Lehigh, and to hear them talk about their lives and their thoughts and their feelings… was a two-hour precious treat for me. Oh, my heart. My heart.
Obi and Terrence. And so many others. These were — and are — my boys, before I had my boys (K & O). These were — and are — my girls before I had Meera. My children are my children, exclusively and uniquely. But these people — my students — these are my people. They are the only ones in this world who truly know what I have done and am doing. Only they know me as the professor that I actually am. Only they know the work I really do. Only they know how deeply my spirit runs through them, and theirs through me. And I know each and every one of them in a very particular, very special, way too.
Once a student of mine, always a student of mine. And there is nothing more awe-inspiring and humbling than to see what they go on to do in their lives, and with their lives.
My boys. My students. My people. My heart.
Obi and Terrence, I am so proud of you, and so proud for you. Thank you for visiting me.
“Teach them the quiet words of kindness, to live beyond themselves. Urge them toward excellence, drive them toward gentleness, pull them deep into yourself, pull them upward toward manhood, but softly like an angel arranging clouds. Let your spirit move through them softly.” ~Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides